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Germany in the Crossfire

Guest: Dr. Liana Fix, a Fellow for Europe at the Council of Foreign Relations

Germany is struggling with multiple new realities. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine toppled previously unassailable foreign and domestic policy pillars. How is Europe’s powerhouse managing the minefield?

Germany’s long history of trade and business with Russia has placed it deep into the crossfires of this conflict. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is facing an energy crisis and a difficult governing coalition at home while being criticized by the US and other EU members for not doing enough to help Ukraine. If you have any doubts, just listen to the withering blasts by Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin.  How is Germany’s Chancellor handling these new dynamic threats? How will Russia’s war with Ukraine change Germany? And what’s next for Europe? Our guest Dr. Liana Fix, a German expert and a Fellow for Europe at the Council of Foreign Relations, joins us to break down these themes.

We asked Fix to break down the different tensions facing German leadership. Fix explained the domestic level first. She noted, “Chancellor Scholz is, for the first time in Germany’s history, in a three-party coalition. So, he has two other parties, the Greens and the Liberals. He has to coordinate with [them] for foreign policy and also domestic policy, and that’s not always easy. Germany on the domestic level has a huge energy crisis at the moment because of a self-inflicted dependence on Russian gas in the past decade.”

She moves on to describe the European level and the pressure on Germany. She said, “Europe needs to show solidarity among its members when it comes to energy, but also when it comes to defense. Poland and the Baltic states obviously want Germany and France to invest heavily in the defense capabilities.”

And finally, she addresses the global level. How is Germany’s foreign policy being challenged? Fix explained, “Germany has had for decades a policy of dialogue with Russia and China. Now Russia and China have become the main adversaries of the Western liberal order and Germany has to rethink the entire model of its economic and foreign relations.” Despite this needed shift in German policy, Chancellor Scholz has a trip to China planned. Fix responded, “This trip to Beijing will be a test – whether Germany has learned the lessons from its Russia mistakes. That too much dependence on one country can easily get you into a situation where you can be politically blackmailed or whether Germany tries to sort of cash the gains of its past China policy until it’s not possible anymore.” We’ll be watching closely.

Next, we zoomed in on Germany’s new Chancellor. Olaf Scholz took on Angela Merkel’s enormous shoes of and immediately faced a complicated situation with dangerous crosscurrents. Who is Scholz? Our guest painted us a picture, “The funny thing is many say that Scholz was elected because he resembled Angela Merkel. He himself was making fun of that. […] What they have in common is deep stoicism. They will never be loud politicians. For a long time, he was the mayor of Hamburg, a big northern German city, which is known for being very into trade because of its port and which is known for having habitants who are very calm, and very stoic when it comes to international or even to national crises. This background as a mayor of Hamburg and as a finance minister under Angela Merkel is shaping his approach today.”

There is constant news and accusations around the Ukraine War. Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked, “What do you say to critics who say that Berlin has not committed enough to Kyiv?”  “No one in Germany really expected Russia to take this step [invading Ukraine]. But after the shock settled, Sholtz announced basically a complete turnaround in Germany’s energy policy, Germany’s security policy, and Germany’s Russia policy. It was a huge shift, but the question that you’ve asked – has this been enough? – is still not answered.”

Turning to domestic policy, an article in Politico claimed that Scholz has given several ‘Germany First’ speeches and is looking for solutions for the German people. Does our guest see him shifting inwards? Fix said,” I do see Scholtz as a convinced European. He does have a vision of how to develop the European Union further, but these are times of crisis, and the energy crisis is acute for Germany. Sometimes you’re overtaken by events. And I think Germany’s announcement that it would spend 200 billion Euro to subsidize energy costs, really shocked other European partners because similarly to Germany’s exit from nuclear power a couple of years ago, they felt they’ve been not consulted.”

The Kremlin is putting pressure on Germany, most notably by disrupting gas delivery in the Nordstream 1 Pipeline. Has this changed anything in German’s support for Kyiv? Fix explained, “I would say that the brazenness with which Russia and Putin have attacked Germany and have attacked the European Union really has led to the hardening of resolve in Germany. These aggressive tactics have to be counted because otherwise Germany and Europe will be open to blackmail from Russia at any point. […] The sabotage of the Nordstream Pipeline is such obvious blackmail that Germany would lose so much credibility if they would fall for these Russian attempts. And therefore, I do believe that Germany will get through this winter without making concessions towards Russia.”

In her social justice and youth segment of the show, Téa Ivanovic looks at the close and well-known, cozy ties between Germany’s private sector and Russian businesses. She asked, “How much talk is there now about [these ties] and how it’s affecting Germany’s position? Fix answered, “After the outbreak of the war, there was a lot of finger-pointing and there were a lot of questions [around] who is responsible for this situation. What we don’t see yet is an inquiry like a parliamentary commission, something which would really deal in depth with those issues. But the energy question is [really] a broader question of German politics. There was really no one who opposed Nordstream 2 and [no one] who opposed this dependence on Russian gas. The benefits for the industry were just too big.”

Every day brings news and developments in the Ukraine War. Putin seems to become increasingly desperate. Altamar’s Peter Schechter asked, “How dangerous do you see the coming months? Are you a pessimist or an optimist that we will in the end find a way out of this?” Fix responded, “Now that we see the structural problems that Russia has, I just don’t see how they can win this war in any meaningful way. But of course, not being able to win this war also has its own dangers because it means that Putin might just choose escalation going further. Such as by conducting sabotage acts in Europe to frighten Europe, to intimidate Europe by actions that are difficult to attribute, cyber actions for instance. I think that’s something that Europe has to be prepared for.”

We wrapped up this interesting conversation by asking Fix if she had any advice for Chancellor Scholz – just in case, he finds time to tune into Altamar. Where should he be careful about where this conflict is going? Fix answered, “what concerns me more than the sort of the trajectory of the conflict, and there’s only so much you can influence about that, is what kind of dynamics it unleashes in Europe. We see that Germany’s Eastern neighbors, especially Poland and the Baltic states, are very concerned about their own security and they don’t have the impression that Germany and France, the other most important countries in Europe are really doing everything they could for the support of Ukraine and for Poland and the Baltic states’ defense. […] I think this loss of trust in Europe on the very fundamental question of are you going to stand in for your neighbors and support your neighbors. This is something which I think has to be monitored very closely.”

How will Germany land amidst these new circumstances? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

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Episode 137