Zeit­en­wende: Towards a New German and European Russia Policy

German Chan­cellor Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin during a visit to the Nord Stream hub in Vyborg 2009. Photo IMAGO

Germany’s decades-long policy of political part­ner­ship with Russia is in tatters — instead of a friendly demo­c­ratic country it got an aggres­sive dicta­tor­ship. To avoid future failures, we need strength and resilience, writes ULRICH SPECK.

This paper is part of the project Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s own.

Download the PDF version here — Read this paper in German/​Russian

Germany’s Russia policy of the last decades has failed – it has not only failed to achieve its stated goal of modern­izing the country but ended up at the opposite. Instead of becoming a demo­c­ratic, plural­istic country with a diver­si­fied economy, and a construc­tive inter­na­tional player that seeks “win-win” solutions with others, Russia has turned into an author­i­tarian state that imposes its rule at home by force and that increas­ingly defines itself to the outside world as an empire that relies above all on war as a means of domination.

Portrait von Ulrich Speck

Ulrich Speck is a geopo­lit­ical analyst and a columnist for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He is a former fellow of Carnegie Brussels, the Transat­lantic Academy Wash­ington and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has developed a close rela­tion­ship with Russia. Three chan­cel­lors, Helmut Kohl (1982–1998), Gerhard Schröder (1998–2005) and Angela Merkel (2005–2021) have put their hopes on a political part­ner­ship with Moscow. The political rela­tion­ship was under­pinned by economic ties, namely in the energy sector. And vice versa, Germany was one of Putin’s most important partners for two decades.

In view of this close rela­tion­ship, Germany must now ask itself what part German policy towards Russia played in the country’s devel­op­ment into an author­i­tarian and aggres­sive actor that threatens the European peace order — what mistakes were made and what must be done differ­ently in the future. Only when it is clear what went wrong can there be a real new start.

The old paradigm: between the end of the Cold War and the Zeitenwende

The way the Cold War ended has shaped Germany’s Russia policy for three decades. That Gorbachev, after long hesi­ta­tion, was persuaded by Helmut Kohl and George H.W. Bush to accept German unifi­ca­tion within Nato, that in the following years the remaining Soviet troops were withdrawn from East Germany as promised, all this led to great relief and gratitude in Germany. One must not forget that the risks of the unifi­ca­tion process were enormous, and that a great deal depended on having a partner in Moscow who stuck to his promises.

That Russia proved to be a construc­tive partner in this process was the formative expe­ri­ence of those years, leading quite organ­i­cally to a “Russia-first” policy. In the coming decades Germany focused primarily on Russia and mostly ignored the rest of the post-Soviet space. On the one hand, because the German govern­ment worried that the rela­tion­ship with Russia could fall back to a state of hostility. The gains in security since the end of the Cold War depended on Moscow contin­uing to behave construc­tively. On the other hand, it was also hoped that Russia would become a respon­sible player in a new, peaceful world order, as a close partner of Germany and Europe. And last but not least, Russia’s economic potential, espe­cially in the energy sector, played a consid­er­able role by under­pin­ning the political rela­tion­ship with tangible material gains.

All this prepared the ground for Putin to move the rela­tion­ship to a new level. In his speech in the German Bundestag in September 2001, delivered in German, Putin, who had been stationed in Dresden as a KGB agent from 1985 to 1990, made Germany the offer of a close part­ner­ship. Russia “always has special feelings towards Germany”, he declared. Europe could only become a “powerful and inde­pen­dent centre of world politics” if it united with the “human, terri­to­rial and natural resources” as well as the “economic, cultural and defence potential of Russia”. Although we speak of a part­ner­ship, Putin added, we have “still not learned to trust each other”. But today, “we must declare once and for all: The Cold War is over”.

The offer fell on fertile ground. An espe­cially close rela­tion­ship developed between Putin and the then German Chan­cellor Gerhard Schröder. Putin saw the oppor­tu­nity to build a personal rela­tion­ship, a “friend­ship”, with Schröder when the German chan­cellor fell out with Wash­ington over the Iraq war in 2003. For a moment, Schröder stood quite alone on the inter­na­tional stage – until the Russian President jumped to his side and backed him and from then on, in a series of joint meetings with French President Jacques Chirac.

From that moment on, Schröder was closely asso­ci­ated with the Russian leader. Shortly before the 2005 federal election that led to his ouster, Schröder and Putin signed a memo­randum of under­standing to build a gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea that would directly connect Russia and Germany: Nord Stream 1. After his election defeat, Schröder then became head of the super­vi­sory board of the operating company — a well-paid lobbyist who used his political weight not only for the construc­tion of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, completed in 2011, but also for the second pipeline, Nord Stream 2.

Angela Merkel, who succeeded Schröder in 2005, did not share Schröder’s enthu­siasm for Putin. But despite her critical distance from the Kremlin, she did not question the main prin­ci­ples of Germany’s Russia policy. Her decision to stick to this policy was also encour­aged by Schröder’s former closest collab­o­rator, Frank-Walter Stein­meier, who twice became foreign minister under Merkel (2005–09 and 2013–17) in a “grand coalition” between Merkel’s CDU and SPD. For Stein­meier (SPD), “inter­weaving” (verflechten) Germany with Russia as an instru­ment to modernize Russia was his central foreign policy project. Putin received him as a foreign minister person­ally time and again, and he had regular, trusting exchanges with Sergei Lavrov. Sigmar Gabriel, SPD’s party leader from 2009 to 2017 and Minister of Economics and briefly Foreign Affairs under Merkel, was also one of the leading advocates of a close part­ner­ship with Moscow; Gabriel was very much engaged in favor of the construc­tion of Nord Stream 2 in the crucial years since 2015.

After Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014 – the annex­a­tion of Crimea and covert attack on the Donbas – Merkel was one of the driving forces for Western sanctions against Russia. But she left the paradigm of part­ner­ship with Russia untouched. On the one hand, she was putting her hopes on diplomacy with the Kremlin; in numerous talks with Putin in various formats Merkel tried to convince the Russian president that he was on the wrong track. On the other hand, she was not prepared to abandon the idea of ever closer economic inter­de­pen­dence and agreed to the construc­tion of Nord Stream 2.

At least in retro­spect, it becomes clear how naive Merkel’s hope for a diplo­matic solution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine – the so-called Normandy format – has been. For Putin, the talks were merely an attempt to achieve at lower cost what he was deter­mined to achieve: control over Ukraine, a country that in his view had no right to an inde­pen­dent existence outside the Russian orbit.

While leaders played a crucial role in Germany’s Russia policy, business and the broader popu­la­tion largely went along. Until the open attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Germany’s policy towards Russia, set on track by Schröders and continued by Merkel, was not very contro­ver­sial. The mantra that ended almost every debate was that Russia was a difficult but indis­pens­able partner, without whom there would be no solution to the conflicts in and around Europe. Coop­er­a­tion with the Kremlin was also seen as vital for the fight against climate change. Only among the Greens, who main­tained close contacts with East-Central European reformers and Russian dissi­dents, were there some critical voices.

The instru­ments Berlin used against Moscow consisted almost exclu­sively of “carrots”, almost never of “sticks”, i.e. political or economic pressure. Above all, Berlin was putting its hope on talks with the Kremlin. “Keeping the commu­ni­ca­tion channels open” was another mantra. The more aggres­sive Russia was behaving – the wars against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014 and the military inter­ven­tion in Syria since 2015 — the more important it became, in the eyes of leading politi­cians in Berlin, to talk to Putin. Yet dialogue mostly was a dead end. What appears reason­able in the eyes of a German politi­cian with a social­i­sa­tion in demo­c­ratic politics, based on bargaining and the idea “win-win solutions”, not neces­sarily sounds convincing in the ears of a Russian leader who came to power by ruth­lessly pushing aside his competi­tors and was running the country through brute force at home and aggres­sion towards the outside world.

A tougher course towards Russia, as advocated espe­cially by Poland and the Baltic states, was dismissed in Berlin as coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Instead, the focus remained on “soft” instru­ments and a part­ner­ship with Russia. As foreign minister in 2016, Stein­meier still complained about alleged “sabre rattling” by NATO towards Russia. Also in 2016, after Russia had already bombed civilian targets in Syria, Stein­meier announced in a speech in Yeka­ter­in­burg, Russia, that “espe­cially Germany and Russia should work hand in hand” in the recon­struc­tion of Syria.

Yet it also has to be noted that Merkel’s support for Ukraine since 2014 was sincere and important; she played a crucial role in pushing through economic sanctions against Russia in Europa. And her sympathy for the oppo­si­tion in Belarus and Russia was genuine — she helped, for example, save the life of prominent oppo­si­tion politi­cian Alexei Nawalny by having him brought to a Berlin hospital after his poisoning in Russia in August 2020.

But at the same time, Merkel continued with the Russia policy that had been put on the track by Schröder. Even despite the fact that the gap between the stated goal of Russian modern­iza­tion – towards democracy and market economy – and the reality of Russian politics was growing wider and wider. At least with the Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014/​15, it would have been overdue to establish a new, more robust paradigm for Germany’s Russia policy.

Paradigm lost: Germany’s Russia policy in limbo

The end of Germany’s longtime Russia policy wasn’t the result of a strategic decisions. True, some in the new govern­ment that took office in December 2021 wanted a different, more distanced approach to Russia, namely the Greens. Chan­cellor Scholz and his party SPD, on the other hand, weren’t ready to abandon the long-held prin­ci­ples that were guiding Russia policy since two decades.

It was Putin’s open aggres­sion that made the German Russia policy unsus­tain­able: the Russian troop deploy­ment around Ukraine, followed by written ulti­ma­tums to the US and to NATO to largely withdraw from the sphere of control claimed by Russia – Eastern Europe and East Central Europe – and finally the open attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Until the end, Scholz and Macron had put their hopes on talks with Moscow, directly with Putin, but also in the Normandy format (France, Germany, Ukraine, Russia) – hoping that Russia would be inter­ested in some kind of diplo­matic compro­mise. And even in the first days of the war, Scholz was still hesitant to take a new course; he initially continued to refuse to send weapons to Ukraine. Only when the pressure from outside and inside became truly over­whelming did the Chan­cellor decide to change course.

In a speech in the Bundestag on 27 February, Scholz announced a Zeit­en­wende, the end of the old and the start of a new era. His diagnosis was clear, his language frank: Putin has “cold-bloodedly started a war of aggres­sion” because “the freedom of Ukrainians” is chal­lenging his “own oppres­sive regime”. Putin is “a warmonger” to whom we must “set limits”. The Kremlin ruler wants to “wipe an inde­pen­dent country off the world map” and “shatters the European security order”. Putin “wants to establish a Russian empire”, he wants to “funda­men­tally reorder condi­tions in Europe according to his ideas”. For the “fore­see­able future” Putin is endan­gering security in Europe, which is why Germany must help Ukraine with weapons and seriously invest in its armed forces.

With this speech, the German-Russian part­ner­ship that had been promoted by Putin so eloquently in the German Bundestag in 2001, and which had guided German Russia policy ever since, was official declared dead.

But in the following weeks and months, German actions were not as deter­mined and powerful as the Chancellor’s words in the Zeit­en­wende speech had sounded. The expec­ta­tions Scholz had raised with his speech weren’t fulfilled. Yes, Germany delivered weapons and ammu­ni­tion to Ukraine, and it supported Western sanctions against Russia. A policy that was widely supported – opinion polls showed an over­whelming majority in favor of a confronta­tional course against Russia and massive support for Ukraine, including weapons. Even when it became clear, in late summer, that Russia was trying to weaponize gas deliv­eries against Germany, support for Ukraine remained unchanged. The soli­darity of the German popu­la­tion with the attacked country was and remains great.

Yet when it came to action, the German govern­ment remained quite cautious and hesitant. In terms of weapons and ammu­ni­tion, it was the USA that supplied the lion’s share to Ukraine, followed by Poland and other East-Central European countries as well as Great Britain. When domestic criticism over the chan­cel­lors reluc­tance boiled over, Scholz gave an interview in which he publicly warned about the risk of nuclear war, in order to justify his cautious approach. The tensions between those forces in the govern­ment that preferred more decisive support for Ukraine and the chan­cel­lory that kept defending its hesitancy remained over the summer and the autumn.

Germany was also putting the brakes on some of the Western sanctions. In partic­ular, Berlin blocked attempts at the EU level to exert massive pressure on Russia through energy sanctions. Worried that the popu­la­tion would not be ready to bear the economic costs of energy sanctions, the German govern­ment refrained from using this instru­ment – and thus left it to Putin to use gas as a weapon. However, the fact that this weapon proved blunt when Moscow increas­ingly started to use it in the summer was also due to the fact that the German govern­ment had worked for months to diminish its energy depen­dence on Russia.

Unlike Merkel in 2014/​15, Scholz did not take a lead­er­ship role. Germany was rather on the cautious, slow side, even if it was solidly in the Western main­stream. This rather passive approach was easy for Berlin to take because Wash­ington provided Western lead­er­ship on a very profes­sional, strate­gi­cally sound level. Germany, like other European countries, could easily plug them­selves into a strategy that Wash­ington had conceived, in close consul­ta­tion with America’s key European allies. For Berlin, there was simply no need to make any major strategic decision of its own – only to weigh up which of the proposed measures one wanted to partic­i­pate in and to what extent, and where one preferred to put on the brakes.

At the same time, competent US lead­er­ship made it rela­tively easy for the Europeans to project the appear­ance of unity and unity to the outside world. Existing fault lines were largely covered up. For much of Western Europe, namely France, Russia remains an important player in European and global geopol­i­tics – with whom one must sooner or later cooperate again. French president Macron again and again empha­sises that peace can only be found in nego­ti­a­tions with the Kremlin. By contrast, in East and Central Europe, in Scan­di­navia and Great Britain the view is dominant that we need to prepare for a long period of tension with Russia – only if Russia expe­ri­ences a clear defeat, the country will it give up its imperial ambitions, which funda­men­tally threaten the European security order. Both of these camps are repre­sented in German politics and the public debate – the European fault lines run right through Germany.

The unity and deter­mined reaction of the West to Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine is mainly the product of US lead­er­ship. Yet once the barbaric Russian attacks against Ukraine will be less in the focus, old debates about dealing with Russia might simply return. The old ideas and paradigms are not neces­sarily dead. If the situation changes, the mood could change again.  The old policy has failed, yet a new one does not exist yet.

That is why it is important to build a new Western Russia strategy that takes the Zeit­en­wende seriously and draws the conclu­sions from the expe­ri­ence of Russia’s open, full-scale war against Ukraine. The first step towards a new strategic is to realize the mistakes that have been made in the past.

What went wrong?

The original idea behind Germany’s Russia policy remains worthwile: to try to support Russia’s trans­for­ma­tion into a liberal democracy and market economy. The conflict between Russia and Europe is not primarily driven by power politics, it is driven by a systemic conflict. If Russia were a democracy, its claim to a sphere of influence would not imme­di­ately disappear and conflicts on the level of power politics would not simply vanish. But, as with many other countries that used to be empires, these conflicts could be contained, other interests would move at the forefront.

In its essence, the conflict of Putin’s Russia with the West is systemic, it is driven by the fear of the auto­cratic Russian elite Putin has built to be toppled by revo­lu­tion or demo­c­ratic reform – the fear of so-called “colour revo­lu­tions”, which according to Russian propa­ganda are being under­taken by the West to weaken Russia. This fear very much increases the readiness for conflict with the West.

With a demo­c­ratic Russia, on the other hand, Germany and the West could cooperate construc­tively in many fields; the disap­pear­ance of the systemic antag­o­nism would enable a mutual opening. At the same time, the threat Russia poses to its neigh­bours would be signif­i­cantly reduced, and might even disappear in the longer run. A demo­c­ratic Russia would far more be ready to recognise the borders of the Russian nation state as its terri­to­rial limits and respect the sover­eignty of neigh­bours. In other words: Russia would probably go down the way many empires have gone before it.

The problem with German policy towards Russia in recent decades was thus not the stated goal: to promote Russia’s devel­op­ment towards liberal democracy. The problem was that German policy towards Russia hardly pursued this goal seriously. Instead, Berlin has engaged closely with the Kremlin, turning a blind eye as Russia moved towards autocracy and neo-impe­ri­alism – instead of focussing on political reform. And in the economic sphere, the talk of moderni­sa­tion was little more than a fig leaf to create the space for German busi­nesses to pursue their interests with Russia, espe­cially in the area of energy policy.

In partic­ular, German policy towards Russia in the last two decades has made three major mistakes:

Illusions about Russia. With Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 and the attack on Ukraine in 2014/​15 it should have been clear that Putin was putting the country on a path of renewed imperial aggres­sion, turning Russia into a threat to the European peace order. And at the latest with the “election” of Putin as president in 2012 again, after Medvedev, it should have been clear that Russia was on the road to hard-line autocracy. Yet instead of changing its strategic, Germany largely choose to ignore that Russia was turning away from the modern­iza­tion agenda.

Russia first. For three decades, Germany has focused primarily on Russia and largely ignored Russia’s neigh­bours. A telling example: When the then Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski presented his plans for an “Eastern Part­ner­ship” to German Foreign Minister Stein­meier in 2008 and suggested that this initia­tive to strengthen EU relations with Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azer­baijan should be a shared one, Stein­meier waved it off. “Stein­meier put relations with Russia first and saw the Polish proposal more as a threat to German interests in Russia,” Cornelius Ochmann writes.

Sikorski then pushed ahead with his plans together with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt — while Stein­meier focussed on the “moderni­sa­tion part­ner­ship” with Russia.

What was primarily supported by Germany, but also by the USA, was not the new state system that was emerging in Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union fell apart. Instead, Russia was the priv­i­leged partner while Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the South Caucasus were largely ignored. The west was betting on Russia becoming some sort of regional hegemon and ignored the fact that with the “frozen conflicts”, Russia was weakening the sover­eignty of many of its neighbors.

Energy depen­dence. Berlin’s inability to impose massive energy sanctions against Russia after the Russian attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022 is the conse­quence of a failed policy of economic engage­ment. Instead of constraining Russia, what was supposed to work as inter­de­pen­dence in fact turned out to become a one-sided German depen­dence. In addition to that, the construc­tion of Nord Stream 1 and 2 has led to a massive loss of confi­dence in Central and Eastern Europe.

Towards a new Russia policy

In view of Russia’s full-scale, open attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the first goal of a new Russia policy must be to contain Russian aggres­sion and consol­i­date the European peace order in such a way that Russia is perma­nently deterred from further attacks.

The first, most urgent priority is massive support for Ukraine, mili­tarily, polit­i­cally and econom­i­cally. If Ukraine wins, Russia may abandon the costly neo-impe­ri­alist path; perhaps liberal democracy will get a second chance.

Secondly, the West must focus on strength­ening the sover­eignty of the countries of the region, their resilience and their ability to deter Russia mili­tarily. The way to prevent further wars is to consol­i­date the order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The more the countries of the region — inside and outside NATO — are able to secure their sover­eignty against an aggres­sive Russia, the more stable this order will be.

Third, the West can only success­fully push back against Russian neo-impe­ri­alism if it builds a position of strength. To do this, the Europeans must become inde­pen­dent of Russian energy, invest in their resilience — also by fending off disin­for­ma­tion and propa­ganda — and in their military capabilities.

Fourth, all this can only work together with Wash­ington. The central role of the USA has become visible again. Not only has the US taken the lead and united the West by building a common strategy. It has also become obvious once more that only the US has the strategic and military capa­bil­i­ties, including in the nuclear arena, to manage such a confronta­tion with Russia. To maintain American support for European security, Europeans must bear a far greater share of the burden of the joint defense of the west; also with regard to the fact that the US is increas­ingly engaged in Asia-Pacific.

Fifth, the West should not let its guard down, but should at the same time be prepared for change in Russia and develop a vision of what construc­tive relations with a different Russia could and should look like. The Western interest in seeing Russia transform itself towards liberal democracy and market economy remains strong; an auto­crat­i­cally run Russia will always pose a major problem for the security and stability in Eastern and East-Central Europe. If Russia embarks on such a path of trans­for­ma­tion, the West must offer its support very quickly and deci­sively – without repeating the mistakes of the past decades.



This paper is part of the project Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s own.

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