When German chancellor Olaf Scholz met Russian president Vladimir Putin yesterday, the visuals said it all. As he had done with Emmanuel Macron, Putin kept his visitor at arm’s length, or rather at five metres’ length. Sitting at opposite ends of the Kremlin’s infamous long table, the two men were as physically far away from each other as they were on content. But Scholz did not seem intimidated by this. On the contrary. At the press conference that followed, he was assertive, even feisty. Are we seeing the beginnings of a post-Merkel foreign policy shift in Berlin?
When ex-chancellor Angela Merkel last sat at the same table in Moscow in the early 2000s, it was across the narrow side – still a good eight feet away from Putin, but better placed to look him in the eye. She was subjected to power games, too. In 2007 Putin brought his pet Labrador Konni into a meeting with her, knowing full well that Merkel was afraid of dogs. But on the whole, the pair had a trusting relationship. The German chancellor would often pick up the phone and speak directly to her Russian counterpart before involving other parties and multilateral organisations. The fact that Merkel spoke Russian and Putin German meant they could communicate more directly. The fact that both grew up behind the iron curtain often worked as a cultural bridge. Importantly, Merkel was happy to continue on the pro-Russia trajectory of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder who had initiated the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany. It came as no surprise when the German media reported that Scholz had sought advice from his long-serving predecessor before travelling to Moscow.
But reports had also pointed out that Scholz did not want to rely on Merkel’s advice alone to prepare for his inaugural meeting with Putin. He had spent the night before his Moscow visit in Berlin rather than travelling on directly from Ukraine (this would have thrown up too many diplomatic issues such as which country he would choose to sleep in). In the German capital, he meticulously worked through briefings and texts of prior agreements, spoke to Russia experts both virtually and in person and prepared a strategic plan as well as the beginnings of some German red lines.
Somewhere along the way, Scholz had clearly made up his mind that he would need to assert himself more than before. Gone was the man who had been nigh on invisible for the first two months of his chancellorship. Gone was at least some of the verbal ambiguity he had displayed during his visit to Washington last week. In the Moscow press conference, he not only mentioned Nord Stream 2 directly but also issued his clearest warning to Russia yet, telling Putin that ‘further military aggression against Ukraine would entail serious geopolitical, economic and strategic consequences.’ He suggested specific diplomatic routes instead, such as the Minsk accords brokered by Germany and France after the annexation of Crimea. Scholz also reminded Putin that they had inherited a largely peaceful Europe, and so it was their ‘damn duty’ to keep it safe. Strong words from a usually reserved and quietly spoken man.
On China, too, Berlin’s course seems to have hardened somewhat. While Xi Jinping gave Merkel an emotional farewell call and called her a ‘friend of the Chinese people,’ he is unlikely to have such fond feelings for her successor.
The coalition treaty that sets out the principles of Germany’s new government contains lengthy and specific sections on sino-German relations. It spells out many of the contentious issues Merkel had never fully addressed such as ‘human rights abuses, especially in Xinjiang province,’ the participation of ‘democratic Taiwan in international organisations’ and the ‘system rivalry’ with the world’s most populous nation. Neither the chancellor nor the foreign minister are travelling to the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing despite the fact that Germany is currently second in the medal table and up to five million Germans (40 per cent of the market share) are watching on TV – more than watched the summer games in Tokyo.
But being tough on Russia and China will require a whole lot more than strong words and staying away from sports events. It could involve severe economic pain. If Moscow decides to cut off gas and oil deliveries to Europe, for example, Berlin would need to source half of its gas and a third of its oil demands elsewhere. Putin knows he has this ace up his sleeve. Praising Schröder, the architect of much of this dependency, Putin warned yesterday that without Russian gas, German people’s bills would be ‘five times higher’.
It is also notable how cowed German businesses are when it comes to China. In 2018, Lufthansa changed its dropdown menu for flights to Taiwan. Previously listed as a distinct destination, it now appears as ‘Taiwan, China’. The mighty Germany car industry, threatened by emission scandals and the transition away from combustion engines, fears losing lucrative trade with China. Volkswagen sends 42 per cent of its car exports to the country, for Mercedes and BMW it is over a third. China has been Germany’s biggest trading partner for five years in a row, and that trade is vital for the survival of Germany’s traditional industries: cars, car parts, machinery, chemicals and electronics. Unfortunately for Germany’s Green foreign minister, China has also dominated the world market for solar cells for some time. Annalena Baerbock’s public confrontations with Siemens Boss Roland Busch over the issue, especially over labour exploitation, has made it clear what a rift between industry and politics would look like on issues of foreign policy.
It is encouraging to see signs of change in Germany’s approach to Russia and China. In a world where all major powers possess weapon systems that have the potential to destroy our planet, direct military conflict between them is increasingly unthinkable. Political and economic levers must be the backbone of diplomacy. As the world’s fourth largest economy Germany can wield significant soft power if it chooses to do so. But it would take an awful lot of political will and personal bravery to wean the country off its dependency from Russia and China.
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