Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in early 2022, Germany’s attitude towards Russia has undergone a fundamental change, and the relationship between the two sides has now fallen to a freezing point and has fallen into a dilemma. At present, Germany-Russia relations are in a state of political freezing, security confrontation, energy decoupling, and economic rupture, and will continue to fall into a vicious circle of competition and conflict for some time to come.
The overall manifestation of the deterioration of German-Russian relations
Let me talk about “political cooling” first. Germany has complex historical ties to Russia, such as Germany’s large Russian-German community dating back to the time of Catherine II of Russia. Before the Ukrainian crisis broke out, there were problems with strategic mutual trust between Germany and Russia, and political tensions intensified, but Germany still hoped to maintain cooperative relations with Russia. The ruling coalition agreement of the new German government in 2021 emphasizes that Germany and Russia have a “deep and multifaceted bond” and hopes to have a constructive dialogue with Russia to fully implement the “Minsk Agreement” Under the framework of the “common and coherent Russia policy”. However, after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, the number and scope of contacts between the two sides at the political level decreased sharply, and various forms of political and social dialogue were terminated. German Chancellor Scholz said that Russia’s military actions violated European values. At the end of May 2023, Germany asked Russia to close four of the five consulates it opened in Germany. Earlier, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russia would only allow Germany to keep a maximum of 350 diplomats, cultural institutions and school staff in Russia. At the same time, the German public’s opinion of Russia has also plummeted. In February 2023, the Infratest Dimap poll (Infratest Dimap) showed that only 7% of German respondents considered Russia to be a “reliable partner” of Germany.
Look at “energy decoupling”. For a long time, Germany has been highly dependent on Russian energy. About half of Germany’s natural gas and more than one-third of its oil are imported from Russia. Given that natural gas accounts for about 27% of Germany’s overall energy mix, both the Merkel and Scholz governments see natural gas as an essential transition on the road to renewable energy. For this reason, even in the face of pressure from the United States and other countries, Germany still promotes the construction of the “Beixi-2” natural gas pipeline, which will be completed in September 2021. However, the “Beixi-2” pipeline was sabotaged in September 2022 before it was put into use. At the same time, Germany has to make a break-up and replace all Russian energy imports, especially natural gas, by mid-2024 at the earliest. In February 2023, Germany’s oil and natural gas imports from Russia fell by 99.8% year-on-year, from 2.2 billion euros to 4.2 million euros, and coal imports fell by 92.5%, from 347 million euros to 26 million euros. Scholz said Germany had successfully weaned itself off its energy dependence on Russia at an “unprecedented speed”. Protecting critical infrastructure has also become increasingly important due to the need to switch to other gas and oil suppliers, with Germany having to build new gas import infrastructure and work to diversify its energy sources. Some German scholars believe that Germany’s energy dependence on Russia is the result of wrong assumptions and denial of geopolitical reality in its policy towards Russia.
Then came the “economic rupture”. Germany and Russia have close economic ties. In 2021, trade with Russia will account for 2.3% of Germany’s total foreign trade. Russia is one of Germany’s 15 important trading partners. The trade in goods between Germany and Russia is mainly concentrated on items such as raw materials, automobiles and machinery. There are more than 2,000 Russian holding companies in Germany, creating a turnover of more than 3 billion euros every year. However, stimulated by the Ukraine crisis, Germany imposed as many as 11 rounds of sanctions on Russia under the framework of the European Union, involving senior Russian officials, finance, transportation, defense, energy, raw materials, media, etc. On February 23, 2022, the EU launched the first round of sanctions against Russia, restricting Russian countries and governments from entering the EU capital, financial and service markets. Subsequently, the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia in finance, energy technology, transportation, dual-use product technology, and visas, and excluded major Russian banks from the international funds settlement system (SWIFT). On June 23, 2023, the EU officially adopted the 11th round of sanctions against Russia, aiming to strengthen efforts to crack down on Russia’s evasion of existing EU sanctions. At present, the German and Russian economies are basically in a state of decoupling and disconnection. The German Federal Statistical Office stated that Germany imported goods from Russia worth 300 million euros in February 2023, far lower than the 3.7 billion euros in the same period in 2022, a drop of 91%. Russia’s ranking among importers of Germany fell from 11th to 46th. In terms of export share, Germany exported 800 million euros of goods to Russia in February 2023, far lower than the 2.1 billion euros in the same period last year.
Finally, there is “security opposition”. The Ukraine crisis is the biggest blow to the European security order since the end of World War II, breaking the already fragile geopolitical structure in the European region. The crisis has severely impacted the psychological defense and security perception of the German people. They generally feel the most direct and serious “threat” since the end of the Cold War, not to mention the possibility that the Ukrainian crisis may evolve into a nuclear crisis. In August 2022, German Foreign Minister Berberke said in an interview with Time magazine that Russia is a “threat to the peace and security of the European Union” and there is no turning back in the relationship between the two countries. According to the 2023 Munich Security Report, Germans view Russia as the “number one threat”. Before the Ukraine crisis, Russia ranked 18th out of 32 “potential risks” listed in the annual report. In the first “National Security Strategy” report released in June 2023, Germany called Russia “the biggest threat in Europe.” After an initial cautious stance and indecision, Germany changed its stance of not providing weapons to conflict areas and continued to expand military aid to Ukraine, which fundamentally deviated from its strategic positioning of Russia and its own global security role. Germany is currently the second largest donor to Ukraine after the United States. On March 27, 2023, Germany announced the delivery of 18 “Leopard 2A6” tanks to Ukraine. In May 2023, Scholz reiterated that Germany will continue to support Ukraine as long as necessary. On May 13, 2023, Germany announced that it would provide Ukraine with military aid worth 3 billion U.S. dollars to arm Ukrainian ground and air forces. Germany maintains efficient and comprehensive military support to Ukraine, and hopes to put Ukraine in an advantageous position in negotiations with Russia sooner.
Trigger a major transformation of German foreign policy
Geopolitical threats, energy shortages and economic recession set off a chain reaction that prompted Germany to reverse the direction of its geopolitical interests and enter a period of accelerated change in its foreign policy model. After the end of the Cold War, Germany hoped to guarantee the “peace dividend” through economic and trade ties and the interdependence it brought, and the concepts of “peace through trade” and “trade to promote change” dominated its foreign policy philosophy. The Ukraine crisis has profoundly changed the way Germany formulates national security policy. Germany realized that trade relations and peaceful diplomacy alone could not adequately guarantee its own security. In February 2022, Scholz put forward the concept of “a turning point of the times”, promising a comprehensive reform of Germany’s foreign and defense policy. For this reason, Germany has adjusted its international and European positioning, and seems to be abandoning its diplomatic posture characterized by “restraint”, hoping to play a leading role in the process of revitalizing European integration. Germany is now considering establishing a new European security order “without Russia”, setting up a higher defense budget, reforming decision-making procedures, strengthening the defense industry, promoting the institutionalization of strategic planning, and promulgating the first ” National Security Strategy. However, there is a gap between Germany’s self-cognition as a major European country and its external perception, and its role in shaping the European security order is still limited.
After the Ukraine crisis broke out, anti-Russia seemed to become a kind of “political correctness” in Germany. However, as the war progressed, differences in Germany’s internal positions gradually became apparent. Some people oppose Germany’s rearmament, including the continued supply of weapons to Ukraine, others are unwilling to sacrifice wealth in exchange for a sense of security, and some people are worried or even angry about the policy of cutting off most ties with Russia. In the poll, 58% of German respondents worried about Germany being directly involved in the conflict, and 69% believed that the German economy would deteriorate further. Currently, energy costs in Germany have risen by 12%, with a peak of 35%. At the end of the summer of 2022, most German citizens support sanctions against Russia and are willing to “endure hardship” for maintaining the sanctions. This willingness appears to be waning over time. In May 2023, at least 48% of respondents expressed doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions, and “aid fatigue” and “war fatigue” are spreading in Germany. Rifts within Germany are also affecting party support. According to the June 2023 poll of the European “Politician” website (POLITICO), the support rate of the Alternative for Germany Party rose from 10% in June 2022 to 18%, making it the third largest political force in Germany and the largest opposition coalition party. Support rose to 28%, while all three parties in the coalition faced declines in support – the Social Democrats slipped to 18%, the Greens to 17%, and the Liberal Democrats to just 6%. At the beginning of 2023, the German Forsa poll showed that Scholz’s approval rate dropped by 24 percentage points to 33% within one year of taking office.
Deteriorating relations between Germany and Russia brought about an economic recession. According to data from the Federal Statistical Office in May 2023, Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 0.3% in the first quarter of 2023 from the previous quarter. into a “technical recession”. Compared with other European countries, Germany is more dependent on Russia for energy. The deterioration of relations with Russia has led to soaring energy and commodity prices, high inflation, declining purchasing power of the people, and lower household consumption levels. In the first quarter of 2023, private consumption fell by 1.2%, and government spending fell sharply by 4.9%. As the “leader” of the EU economy, the German economy is losing its growth potential, and manufacturing-related indicators have declined to varying degrees. In May 2023, the German IFO business climate index was 91.7, the first decline after six consecutive rises. This has further exposed the long-standing structural flaws in the German economic model, and it is difficult to solve the problem of over-reliance on external markets in the short term. The backlash effect of Germany’s sanctions against Russia has also caused huge losses to German companies, leading to a decline in industrial output. Given that, once sanctions are imposed, their removal is more costly than their continuation, German economic players have to prepare for long-term sanctions. At the same time, the transformation of the German economy is under enormous pressure, and its main content is to step up the “green transformation” to avoid energy security risks caused by energy shortages and create new competitiveness for the economic development of Germany and Europe. However, this transformation not only bears the continuous impact of the Ukraine crisis, but also encounters the interference of new energy protectionism in the United States.