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Comment: German-Russian relationship

Comment: A turning point in the German-Russian relationship

Published on: 21 March 2022

Professor of European History, Daniel Siemens, comments on how the war in Ukraine is a turning point in the German-Russian relationship.

The Russian attack on Ukraine has not only shocked the German public, it has also caught the political and economic elites by surprise. The war has brutally exposed the shortcomings of Germany’s economic and political politics since the turn of the century.

To understand why the current events are so significant, it is not only important to know that until February 2022 more than 50% of German’s gas imports came from the Russian Federation. It also helps to see the long-term development. I see a continuity that goes back at least to the 1970s and Willy Brandt’s New Eastern Policy. The slogan at the time – Wandel durch Annäherung (Change through rapprochement) – across the Iron Curtain, has defined how German governments have understood the German-Russian relationship until now.

Back in the 1970s, it aimed at establishing mutual trust, lessening tensions between Western and Eastern Europe and improving the situation for people ‘on the ground’. A good relationship with the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation was seen as very important, not least because of the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 and the millions of soldiers and civilians killed by the Nazi regime. One core belief of the political establishment, at least until February 2022, was therefore that European security could only be achieved with Russia, never against it.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification in 1990, there was widespread optimism in Germany that ever closer ties between the former enemies would guarantee stability and peace in Central and Eastern Europe. Germany was also grateful for Russia’s constructive role in the negotiations of 1990 and the quick withdrawal of its troops from the former GDR.

Politicians believed that economic investments in the Russian Federation would not only open new markets for German businesses but would also encourage democratic reform in Russia. Germany saw itself as a mediator between East and West, hoping that increasing economic interdependence in Eastern Europe would prevent conflict and ultimately bring lasting peace – ideally similar to what happened in Western Europe after the Second World War. Warning voices within Germany that pointed to ever more authoritarian developments in the Russia Federation and to a rise of Imperialist ambitions were largely ignored. The gas pipeline projects North Stream 1 and 2 which connect the Russian Federation and Germany through the Baltic Sea, bypassing other Eastern European states, were politically endorsed until very recently, despite the bitter opposition in particular from Polish governments.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has now led to a revolution in German security policy. In a remarkable address to the German Bundestag on 27 February 2022, the new chancellor Olaf Scholz used the word Zeitenwende [a historical turning point] to announce additional German troop deployments to NATO’s eastern flank. He also suggested the creation of a special 100 billion euro fund for the German armed forces and the commitment to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defence every year. How these new priorities will be implemented remains to be seen.

Daniel Siemens is Professor of European History

Read our other commentary on Ukraine:

Ukraine and the USA: a different relationship 

Versions of history obscure Ukraine's rich and vibrant past 

Women are key to the resolution of the Russia-Ukraine war   

The invasion of Ukraine points to a colonial history 


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