A Few Sanctions and That Was It Merkel's Legacy on Russia Casts a Shadow over Her Party
Angela Merkel had been fully aware of just how brutal Vladimir Putin could be. She even admitted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline had been a "devil's project." But why didn't she do anything to change Germany's energy dependence on Russia – and why is her party so quiet about it now?
Angela Merkel loves Russian. "It’s a beautiful language," she once said. "very soulful, a bit like music." She says she learned Russian mainly by talking to Soviet soldiers stationed near her home in the town of Templin during East German times. In fact, 15-year-old Angela did so well in Russian at a school competition that she was awarded a trip to Moscow. While there, she bought an album by The Beatles. Her favorite Russian word is "терпение," which roughly translates as "tolerance for suffering."
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2022 (March 19th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.
"терпение" could be the headline for her relationship with Vladimir Putin. She had to deal with him throughout her entire 16 years as chancellor, first when he was Russian president, then during his stint as prime minister and then again as president. Apart from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, no other leading foreign politician was present for as long during her four terms in office. Putin was Merkel’s nemesis.
The war is now forcing Germans to ask some tough questions about Merkel’s tenure as chancellor. Why, for example, was Ukraine not closely tied to the West during Merkel’s chancellorship, such that Putin might have shied away from attacking the country? And why did Merkel allow Germany to become so overly dependent on Russian energy imports? It may sound cheap to ask such questions after the fact, when the disaster has already unfolded. Yet they are necessary to understand why the current situation is the way it is.
The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have thus far been the target of most attacks because of the widespread perception that the party has been far too understanding of the Russians over the years. But when it comes to their stance towards Russia, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) don’t cut such a great figure either. Few CDU politicians have dared to openly criticize the former chancellor, but the "tacit general view," says one source, is that plenty of mistakes were made.
Christian von Stetten, member of parliament
Christian von Stetten, a CDU member of parliament with a focus on business and the economy, is one of the few to openly express that position. "I warned 10 years ago that we would become increasingly dependent on Russian gas if we expanded renewables without adequate energy storage facilities and at the same time shut down our nuclear and coal-fired power plants, which produce energy around the clock." He adds reproachfully: "The chancellor and we as a party allowed ourselves to be driven too much by the mainstream."
A source close to the former chancellor even poses the rhetorical question as to whether Germany might be better off now with Olaf Scholz in the Chancellery. Merkel, as a former East German citizen, the source posits, has a more benevolent view of the Soviet Union.
Merkel does, in fact, have a certain affinity for Russia. She loves the great literary figures Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and she had a picture on her desk in the Chancellery of Czarina Catherine the Great, who came from the German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst.
Given her ability to speak Russian and her familiarity with Russians from growing up in East Germany, she had been considered in the circle of Western leaders as an expert on the mentality of both the country and Putin. She quickly became something of the go-to person in Europe for negotiations with the Russian leader.
When Merkel welcomed him for a meeting for the first time on German soil in 2006 in Dresden, the dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya had just been murdered. Upon Putin’s arrival, a man held up a placard reading, "Murderer." From that point on, crime and war became central themes in Merkel’s relationship with Putin. She could have no illusions about his brutal nature .
She sat horrified in front of the TV in August 2008 as she watched Russian tanks rolling through Georgia. That was the point at which Russia began attacking its neighbors. A few months earlier, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Merkel had spoken out against admitting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. She clearly wanted to prevent the Western military alliance from getting drawn into war at some point.
Was that a mistake, looking back with hindsight? It probably was a mistake if it might have prevented Putin from attacking Ukraine. But if it’s likely that Putin would have attacked, anyway, then it wasn’t a mistake, because NATO would be involved in the fighting there today and the world would be trembling at the threat of nuclear war.
Equidistance Between Washington and Moscow?
Merkel’s coalition partner at the time, the SPD, went even further than the chancellor when it came to appeasement. "We need to have equal distance between us and America on one side and us and Russia on the other," said Peter Struck, the head of the SPD’s parliamentary group between 2005 and 2009. Equidistance has long been a German rallying cry, especially on the left.
Merkel didn’t think much of the concept of equidistance, but she also wasn’t prepared to decisively oppose Putin either.
Putin watched suspiciously for years as the European Union negotiated an Association Agreement with Ukraine, issuing threats and making offers. Ultimately, leaders in Kyiv were forced to choose between Europe and Russia., and they kept imposing more conditions on the deal, driving Merkel to exasperation. In one round of negotiation, she blurted: "I feel like I’m at a wedding where the groom is setting new conditions at the last minute."
In 2013, the government in Kyiv ultimately decided against the agreement with the EU, a move that triggered the Euromaidan protests, an uprising of Western-oriented Ukrainians. The country's pro-Russian president fled into exile in Russia while Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in his inaugural speech as foreign minister, allowed that Europe had perhaps underestimated the fact that it could "overwhelm this country if it had to choose between Europe and Russia."
Shortly after the Maidan uprising, Putin seized Crimea and provided financial and military support to separatists in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions. He wasn’t prepared to accept a westernization of Ukraine and it may also have been clear to him that he could get away with it. Merkel called him and told him that the annexation of Crimea was "unacceptable" and a "violation of international law." She imposed a few sanctions, and that was it.
During negotiations in Minsk in early 2015, Merkel and then-French President François Hollande reached a formal cease-fire agreement in eastern Europe, but is was never actually adhered to. In a poll, half of the Germans surveyed said they were in favor of accepting the annexation of Crimea.
Merkel later justified Germany's acceptance of the blatant injustice done in Crimea and eastern Ukraine with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The Americans didn't intervene then either, she said, adding that she doesn't hold it against them. Sometimes, according to her logic, you have to accept present injustices in the hopes of a better future.
Putin Constantly Tested Merkel
In Germany, too, Putin’s Russia tested the chancellor’s tolerance for suffering. In 2015, Russian hackers conducted a cyberattack on the computers of Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, and even managed to access a computer in Merkel’s parliamentary office. Several years later under questioning in the Bundestag, Merkel provided a bit of insight into her state of mind. "If I may be quite honest: It pains me," because "I strive every day for a better relationship with Russia."
But Putin wasn't particularly interested, as the "Lisa case" would demonstrate. In 2016, a girl of German-Russian descent briefly disappeared in Berlin. When the 13-year-old resurfaced, she claimed to have been kidnapped and raped by men with "Mediterranean" appearances.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov jumped into the debate, speaking of "our girl" and accused the German government of "an attempt to whitewash reality with political correctness for domestic political reasons" to avoid discrediting its refugee policies. Germany at the time had just absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. It later turned out that Lisa had actually just been staying at a friend's place.
In 2019, a Russian intelligence agency had an alleged opponent of the regime assassinated in Berlin’s Tiergarten park. Putin, it seemed, had lost any respect he may have had for Germany.
Merkel once said of their encounters with each other: "He tests you all day long. If you don’t stand up to it, you just get smaller and smaller." Never one to shy away from humiliating people, Putin once allowed his dog sniff Merkel during a meeting in Sochi even though, as Merkel later said, he "knew very well that I was not eager to greet his dog."
When the secret service seriously injured Alexei Navalny in a poison attack in 2020, Merkel had the regime opponent flown to Berlin so that doctors could treat him here. "The crime against Alexei Navalny is a crime against the basic values and fundamental rights we stand for," she said at the time.
In light of her experiences with Putin, it must have been perfectly clear to the chancellor that this man couldn’t be trusted with anything. That she didn’t stand up to him more strongly in political-military terms is perhaps still understandable. What remains incomprehensible, though, is why Merkel did nothing to reduce Germany's dependence on energy imports from Russia.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline that her predecessor Gerhard Schröder initiated after leaving office, comes ashore near Greifswald, a college town that is part of Merkel’s former constituency. She once described the endeavor as a "devil’s project," and yet she did nothing to stop its construction. When it came to economic issues, Merkel’s paramount concern was always German prosperity. Most in her party were only too happy to go along.
The CDU and SPD Agreed on Energy Policy
When it comes to energy policy, the Christian Democrats didn’t differ significantly from the SPD in their approach to Russia. They believed that Russia would supply oil, natural gas and coal even in the worst political crisis - as was always the case during the Cold War, as they pointed out.
Moreover, the conservatives pursued liberal economic ideas in their energy policies and felt the gas market should be largely left to the energy companies, without government influence. A dangerous dependency developed as a result. With the completion of Nord Stream 1, Russian natural gas imports to Germany reached a share of around 40 percent, supplied exclusively by the Russian state-owned company Gazprom.
Even more problematic was the fact that the St. Petersburg-based energy giant also bought majority shares in Germany’s natural gas storage facilities. That reality had begun pushing Germany into a corner even before the Russians launched their invasion of Ukraine. Since last summer, the Russians haven’t been filling Germany's storage facilities to their normal levels. In February, they were almost empty.
That runs contrary to the logic of the market economy. Higher gas prices should have led Gazprom to increase its deliveries, resulting in billions in additional profits. But no one in the German Economy Ministry, which was under the leadership of Merkel confidante Peter Altmaier until last December, seemed to take notice.
A problematic intimacy with Russian corporations had already developed within the ministry under Altmaier's SPD predecessor Sigmar Gabriel, but Altmaier did nothing to change things once he took over. As late as October 2021, officials provided the operators of Nord Stream 2 with a certificate they needed to eventually obtain an operating permit. That decision was made on the last day of Altmaier’s and Merkel’s regular term in office - only to finally be reversed by Green Party politician Robert Habeck, Germany's new economy minister in the Scholz administration.
The CDU is simply a business party to its core, with members and supporters who profit from trade with Russia. And Merkel’s policies were in part aimed at helping them. Energy prices also happened to be one of her greatest concerns: She didn’t want to impose higher prices on Germans. That concern ultimately put the brakes on her much ballyhooed embrace of renewable energies and shaped her relationship with Russia.
CDU party leader Friedrich Merz has avoided directly criticizing Angela Merkel.Foto:
Martin Lengemann / WELT / ullstein bild
It’s a challenging legacy for Friedrich Merz, the new head of the CDU and its parliamentary group. He has, though, been careful to avoid open criticism of his predecessor. He is eager to reposition the Christian Democrats as an opposition party, but he also knows that going after Merkel could endanger the broad backing he currently enjoys.
As such, Merz has chosen a more indirect route when addressing the mistakes made during Merkel’s years as chancellor. Speaking on a German political talk show, he recently said: If Ukraine had been accepted into NATO, the Russian invasion probably wouldn’t have happened.
Unlike many of his colleagues, though, Merz bears no responsibility for the policies of recent years. He worked in the private sector from 2009 to 2021 and did not hold public office during that time. For others, as one CDU member of parliament put it, the following applies: "Those who would now criticize Merkel for her energy polices would, of course, be criticizing themselves as well."
One former CDU cabinet member says: "I have always thought that Nord Stream 2 was misguided." He says that every time he visited the United States, he felt that the Americans’ arguments against the new pipeline were correct. "But in the end, I still went along with it."
Criticism is easier for younger members of the the parliamentary group of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). One of them is Christoph Ploss, a member of parliament representing Hamburg. "With the simultaneous phasing out of nuclear power and coal, Germany has deliberately taken a risk in terms of energy policy," he says. "Contrary to all warnings, this was broadly desired by society, but the resulting dependence on Russian gas is now coming back to haunt us in light of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine."
Criticism Easier for Younger Conservatives
CDU parliamentarian Ronja Kemmer, who leads a group of younger members in the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, has a similar view. "We are now seeing that it was a mistake not to have greater supply diversification," says Kemmer, who is also a member of the CDU’s national executive committee. "This is partly due to the fact that we, as a society, have discussed many issues in a way that is too ideological and not open enough to technology," she says of Germany’s gas dependence on Russia. "Of course, from today’s perspective, it would have been better to phase out coal first and then nuclear."
Energy policy was never as controversial in the CDU as Merkel’s refugee policies. When Merkel stepped down as the head of the CDU party in 2018, debate and a revision of her liberal approach toward refugees in Germany immediately followed.
On the issue of energy, pushback within the party was minimal. One of the most vocal critics was foreign policy expert and former German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen. He warned after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 that energy imports from Russia needed to be reduced. He now believes such warnings have been validated.
The CDU’s new course is heading in that direction. Merz has demanded that the Nord Stream 1 pipeline be shut off as quickly as possible in order to hit Putin financially. The parliamentary group of the CDU/CSU is also determined to radically expand renewable energies in order to rapidly move away from Russian natural gas and hard coal. When Merkel was still in charge, members of her party had resisted the expansion of wind energy in the country, as had Bavarian Governor Markus Söder of the CSU.
Market liberals within the conservative parties have long considered wind and solar power to be expensive and harmful to business. But the new energy point men in the parliamentary group, former German Health Minister Jens Spahn and Andreas Jung of Baden-Württemberg, want to set the CDU on a climate-friendly path. "Protecting creation is a deeply Christian issue," Spahn says, playing off the party’s religious name.
That, of course, has always been true. But it took Putin for German conservatives to finally implement a policy shift.