Germany Can’t Have Its (Navalny) Integrity and Build Its (Nord Stream 2) Pipeline Too
It’s been centuries now and Germany, the supposed leader of the democratic supranational European Union, still can’t seem to figure out and categorically resolve its West vs. Russia dilemma even at a time when a Navalny – Nord Stream 2 (NN2) dichotomy is looming larger than ever in that emblematic nation’s challenges.
It isn’t as though Germany isn’t learning any lessons: for example, from its two attempts to conquer the world, it learned that in order to dominate Europe and “integrate” it with your economy, as it turns out, you don’t need to send millions of eager can-do troops marching up and down the continent in funny pointy iron helmets or baggy pants uniforms.
Then again, Germany is also learning too much of some lessons: once the pendulum has swung back and forth, one should try keeping it in the right central spot where there is no need for perpetual repenting of past crimes to cripple a dignified modern-day standing back by the proper amount of force and political resolve, which can actually do some good in a generally miserable, embattled world.
Nonetheless, in 2021, with the Navalny – Nord Stream 2 dichotomy looming larger than ever in the past decade, Germany’s, or, rather, Berlin’s “Russia dilemma” still seems to be basically as it was under past leaders such as Gerhard Schroeder, Willy Brandt, Adolf Hitler, Wilhelm II, Otto von Bismarck, or, going all the way back to Prussian times, Friedrich II the Great.
The dilemma in question is caused by the persistent, perpetual temptation of a myriad of opportunities in and from the vast space in the East, some very real, others purely fictional, that Berlin / Prussia / Germany can just benefit incredibly from if only it could strike some kind of a perfect deal with Russia and see it stick.
That temptation has been fed by a wide range of independent or complementing or mutually reinforcing factors ranging from Germany’s technological advantages over Modern Era history to its geography in the middle of Europe, with the chance to utilize both a somewhat limited but tangible access to the high seas, and an access to the wide spaces of Eurasia, from the North European Plain all the way to the Sea of Okhotsk.
The “Russian temptation” for the Germans as a persistent geopolitical imperative has taken various forms – besides the Lebensraum / drang nach Osten quests of the two World Wars, those have ranged from the large-scale settlement of German farmers in the Russian Empire in the 18th century under Empress Catherine the Great (the so called “Russian-Germans”); to the 19th century League of the Three Emperors skillfully put together and dangerously balanced by Bismarck; to the post-Versailles Rapallo Treaty with its secret military clauses between Weimar Germany and what still was called Soviet Russia at the time; to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, formally known as the Ribentrop-Molotov Pact; to Brandt’s Ostpolitik; all the way to the modern-day natural gas pipelines era culminating with the direct Russia – Germany link: Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2.
The gigantic problem with Germany’s, or Berlin’s Eastern or Russian temptation is that the “East” in question is its own power center, Moscow (or St. Petersburg in some of the times past), with its own idea of taking great advantage and benefitting tremendously from the relationship with Germany, and with its own grand geopolitical ambitions, oftentimes outpacing those of its German half-foe, half-partner.
Hence the historical formula of Germany’s Russian dilemma – how to manage to benefit from strong and diverse ties with Russia, without getting overwhelmed or even crushed by that huge power in its own right. The latter did happen once, in 1945, albeit largely thanks to Russia’s (the Soviet Union at the time) alliance with the Atlantic West (the “Anglo-Americans”), and was everything nightmarish the Germans had feared it could be, at least for the eastern half of the German lands.
If there’s any historical pattern to be discerned into this constant German – Russian struggle of outsmarting while trying to benefit from the/each other, or German – Russian frenemy-ship or frenimosity, is that its partnership mode could last on mutually beneficial terms for decades at a time but it somehow tends to come to bad ends either for Berlin, or for Moscow. Those bad ends could include a total collapse as testified by 1917-1918 (St. Petersburg/Moscow), 1945 (Berlin), or 1989-1991 (Moscow).
What could theoretically be a perpetual mutualistic symbiosis often turns into one partner preying upon the other for, unlike Mitteleuropa geopolitics, in actual mutualistic relationships in nature, none of the partners is tempted to try to dominate the other.
Those have been the historical formula and patterns of Germany’s Russian dilemma – but new factors have been added to the Berlin – Moscow equation in the post-World War II world. While not abolishing it altogether, these factors have altered Berlin’s dilemma substantially by adding new dimensions to it. These dimensions could provide further justification for a categorical resolving of the dilemma by Berlin to Russia’s detriment but would nonetheless leave Germany with a very bitter aftertaste of those legendary missed opportunities stemming from the east.
That is the reason the German ruling establishment prefers to keep the Russian dilemma unresolved and alive, and to keep trying to benefit from it, with many German politicians and businesspeople alike still appearing to perceive it as a potential “Aladdin’s cave” or “Ali Baba’s Cave” to their east if only they could find the right “Open Sesame” magical phrase.
What is those main new post-1945 dimensions of Germany’s Russian dilemma? Trans-Atlanticism and democratic values. And the existence of the European Union, of course, but it is largely a projection of the other two. There is hardly any doubt that the Germany of today has adopted democratic values and Trans-Atlanticism wholeheartedly, no questions asked.
That is the same Germany that was occupied by the Anglo-Americans in 1945 so it got those from them, besides consumerist capitalism. In fact, it would be more fitting to still think of today’s Germany as “West Germany”, for that what the country that swallowed the miserable former communist DDR.
Against the backdrop of (West) Germany’s sincere and sensible adoption of democratic values and Trans-Atlaticism, not to mention the indisputable worth of the European Union, Russia and its power center Moscow seem to have retained an “old school” cynical realpolitik view of everything – from interstate relations to domestic politics and civic and human rights.
Thus, democratic values, Trans-Atlantism, and the European Union have given Germany a potential key to resolving its Russian dilemma categorically in what could be a very painful break with certain hopes, ambitions, and illusions for Berlin (and would certain be to Russia’s detriment).
At the same time, however, Trans-Atlanticism in particular has actually given Germany’s Russian dilemma a new appeal – getting fed up with playing second fiddle to Washington’s tune, Berlin is tempted once again by the possibility of a strong bilateral relationship with Russia just to know it has options, to potentially benefit from them, and to still have some counterweight anchor in the East to the “Anglo-Americans”.
This line in Berlin’s thinking (back then Bonn’s thinking as Berlin was deep in Soviet-occupied territory) emerged under Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s with his Ostpolitik, a controversial idea even today, including from a moral standpoint, as a means of relative emancipation of West Germany from its Western occupiers and/or liberators in 1945.
Today’s geopolitics, politics and economy of direct bilateral natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany circumventing Mitteleuropa – namely the Nord Stream gas transit pipeline launched in 2011, and the Nord Stream 2 still under construction – go under the same line of thinking on part of the (West) German ruling establishing. (Of course, there are the quite power German business interests with strong lobbying that stand to benefit directly from Nord Stream 2, and their role warrants attention but those lobbyists’ arguments that a 10-billion-euro project is somehow a life-and-death issue for a 3.5-trillion-euro economy can hardly be taken seriously.)
The Russian natural gas pipelines to Central Europe, and in particular to Germany, starting with the ones built in the Soviet period, and going all the way to Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 cannot be a better representation of the benefits and temptations in Germany’s Russian dilemma.
That dilemma’s democratic/Trans-Atlantic/EU dimensions, however, are becoming more and not less pronounced, especially since in 2014 the Russian leadership in Moscow led by President Vladimir Putin began engaging in “harder” measures vis-à-vis the West (from the seizing of the Crimean Peninsula and allegedly the Donbass war in Ukraine to the alleged election meddling in US and other Western countries). Moscow appears to have been acting out of regime change concerns in the wake of the Arab Spring and the Post-Soviet space’s Color Revolutions but that is beside the point.
The fate of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, currently in prison in Russia, who was poisoned in August 2020 and taken in precisely by Germany for treatment and recovery, is a perfect epitome of the growing role of the democratic/Trans-Atlantic/EU dimensions of Germany’s Russian dilemma.
At the same time, however, Germany is still going further with the Nord Stream 2 gas transit pipeline project with Russia, a project heavily targeted by US sanctions with the arguments that it is boosting Moscow’s influence in Europe and filling Moscow’s coffers at the same time, and doing that at a time when the Russian leadership is on a confrontation course with the West. Much of Washington’s argumentation in that regard is not without reason, and that’s not even considering that the US and Germany have both their bilateral alliance and NATO. As in the case of German business interests, American energy interests in LNG are also part of the picture – but still only a part of the picture.
Precisely because of the gist of Berlin’s Russian dilemma, the German leadership, including long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel have stated time and again that Nord Stream 2 is not a political but an economic project. They keep reiterating that as if to convince themselves. It is most clearly both. Perhaps, in a pre-2014, pre-Crimea world the purely economic project part could have been mostly true. Perhaps, the best epithet for Nord Stream 2 would be that it is a geopolitical project.
Germany has reacted with EU sanctions over Russia’s encroachments against Ukraine and has lambasted Moscow over the treatment of Navalny and opposition crackdowns but at the same time keeps talking of dialog, conversations, and diplomacy. In the latest such statement, Germany’s leftist Foreign Minister Maas actually contrasted “further sanctions” with dialog with Russia.
In the 2021 reincarnation of Germany’s Russian dilemma, the leadership in Berlin is certain trying, perhaps more than ever, to have its cake and eat it, too. Germany wants to keep its democratic integrity by condemning Moscow over Navalny and Ukraine, among other matters, and build its Nord Stream 2 pipeline too! (An even more interesting intertwining of the two has been Alexei Navalny’s description of former German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder – whose career in the Russian energy sector has been the epitome of a German leader personally benefitting from the riches that Russia has to offer – as “Putin’s lap dog.”)
For the time being, the German leadership has been refusing adamantly to make a clear-cut, categorical, highly principled choice between the two. Picking condemning Moscow over Navalny and Ukraine would shut the door to the supposed grand Ostpolitik opportunities. Picking Nord Stream 2, that is, embracing wholeheartedly collaboration with Moscow considering precisely issues such as Navalny and Ukraine could call into question its EU/Trans-Atlanticism and democratic integrity.
In spite of massive American sanctions, which actually seem to be coming too late to serve Washington’s goals, it is possible that Russia will be able to complete the building of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline on its.
Thus, Germany will have the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and it will likely continue to criticize Russia on issues such as Navalny’s imprisonment and heath.
The problem with both of these issues as far as Germany is concerned is that it seems to be doing both of those half-heartedly, or that it is seeking to project the image of doing both equally whole-heartedly
So Berlin can continue to muddle through. Unfortunately, however, Germany’s Russian dilemma has once again come to a decisive point at which it just simply cannot have its full (Navalny) integrity and build its (Nord Stream 2) pipeline, too. World events and developments might force it to make a choice, and if it doesn’t, or doesn’t get it right, the repercussions for all of Europe could be huge.