Short biography of the freedom that never happened.
Volodimir Zelenskiy has publicly complained multiple times about having to persuade Olaf Scholz to step up arms delivery to Ukraine, but more so, Scholz had to be personally convinced that a quick Russian-regime victory is not possible. This doubt in Ukraine’s plight is seen in the behaviour of the opposition as well—on 25th February MEP Sahra Wagenknecht and notable German journalist Alice Schwarzer organised an unbelievable 13,000 people protest in favour of their petition to stop German weapons delivery to Ukraine and begin with peace talks. This prompts the question: why are German politicians and a considerable portion of the public a spike in Ukraine’s wheel?
Sahra Wagenknecht and Alice Schwarzer are not unknown to the German public, in fact, Deutsche Welle has proclaimed both petitioners as icons—the first one, as icon of the Left party (Die Linke), the latter, of feminism, as the founder of Germany’s first contemporary feminist magazine—Emma. They are both with a polarising attitude. Sahra Wagenknecht is currently the protagonist of a trove of sensitive Kremlin documents obtained by an European intelligence agency, made public by the Washington Post. According to them, the Kremlin worked towards getting Wagenknecht to be endorsed by the and ultimately a coalition between Germany’s extreme left and extreme right is to be forged, which would build antiwar sentiment in Germany and end support for Ukraine.
Sahra Wagenknecht, Alice Schwarzer and AfD are currently rallying support among the German opposition and public to introduce a new political perspective towards the Russia-Ukraine war. At first glance it might seem logical—all of the European leaders have said that the war has to end with peace talks, but not before Russia loses. With the prospects of Russia losing the war unforeseeable and complex to conceptualise, and the inflation in Europe much more tangible and the possible recession coming up in the near future, skipping one step and going straight to peace talks seems prudent. However, this positive outlook for the Russian regime could be seen as a combination of two very distinct factors—a historic “behind closed doors” friendship with Russian politicians, and the mindset of the German politicians, which immensely value frugality and effectiveness in their policies. Wagenknecht and Schwarzer, are just the tip of the political and social iceberg that gravitates towards the Russian regime for these exact reasons.
Russian-German Strategic Partnerships
“Germany finances the war against Ukraine” was a popular headline when it was discovered that Russia had been supplying more than half of all the natural gas, one third of all oil and half of total coal imports to Germany. However, Russia and Germany developed so many strategic partnerships over the years, that they were (almost) inseparably interconnected. Russian investments were present in all principal spheres of the German economy, with Bavaria, Saxony and Baden-Württemberg supposedly being the hubs for inflow of both direct and portfolio investments from Russia. It is interesting to note, however, that pinpointing exactly how many companies with Russian capital were operating in Germany is not easy, as the data from different sources varies. For example, according to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, in 2019 there were 164 Russian controlled companies in Germany (with no data about the consecutive years). Whereas Russian media (specifically TASS—one of oldest and largest in Russia) quoting the Head of the Representative Office of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Germany, stated that in 2020 there were around 1,500 and that the number actually “slightly dropped” due to the Coronavirus pandemic. According to the aforementioned Statistical Office those enterprises created a turnover of 32 billion euros in Germany.
The same goes for German investors in Russia. According to Deutsche Bundesbank, 471 enterprises in Russia were controlled by German investors in 2019, yet the New York Times reports on 4,000 German firms investing in Russia by 2020. What criteria both official statistical statistic agencies and the media use for drawing such conclusions is not known. Nonetheless, if the Russian Central Bank is to be believed, Russian direct investments in Germany accounted for 2,046 billion USD in 2020 which dropped to 909 million in 2021 and German direct investments in Russia went up to 3,628 billion USD in 2021. Even though crude oil and natural gas accounted for roughly 59% of all imports Germany obtained from Russia in 2021, the trade balance of goods between the two countries in the same year is not to be neglected—goods in the value of 33.1 billion euros were imported from the Russian Federation, while exports from Germany to Russia were just over 26 billion euros. Furthermore, Russian sources claim that there were Russo-German partnerships created in key areas—state companies and came together with Volkswagen Group, Simens, and Bosch for R&D in digitalisation, Kaspersky Labs combined forces with Doktor Web Deutschland for IT products designed for the German automobile and mechanical engineering industries, in the transport industry Russian Railways (RZD) worked together with Deutsche Bahn and many more collaborations existed in the finance sector, food and agriculture industry, ship building, metallurgy, wood products etc. But of course, the spotlight is on the energy sector. Even though Germany claims to have gotten rid of the Russian resources dependency by now, the media have reported that Nord Stream 1 renewed its insurance by the German companies Allianz and Munich RE and the German government “did not mind”. The pipeline Druzhba apparently no longer delivers Russian oil to Germany, only oil from Kazakhstan, however, according to a Russian expert, this is just a demonstrative step as oil will still go through the Russian pipeline and transit costs will still be paid to Russia, therefore “what prevents Russia from supplying oil to Kazakhstan, and driving its own oil to Europe? The same is being done with gas from Azerbaijan” the expert whose work is featured in the Russian International Affairs Council, notes.
As the New York Times reported, for German firms, ties to Russia are personal, not just financial. This does not entail however that all of the companies have direct contact with the Kremlin, rather that Russian-German partnerships are multidimensional and oftentimes based on mutual sympathies rather than sheer profit. Direct contact with the Kremlin for corporate Germany, was reserved for blue-chip CEOs, such as at the annual gathering in either the Sochi Residence of the president or the Kremlin. When asked about their commitment to the Russian economy, some of these CEOs as well as government officials, explained it as the wish to liberalise the Russian authoritarian society, to ensure peace through trade, as well as a historic obligation. The extent to which this was prudent is debatable, what is immediately measurable is how much these two countries are worse-off economically without each other. From both Russian and German perspective, Germany will be the worst hit of all the European countries in the aftermath of the sanctions. The question for the future is, will that knock down Germany as the powerhouse of the EU and will Germany settle for such a new role?
Ukraine was not a priority
The alarm that an authoritarian country is their important strategic partner has been ringing in Germany ever since 2014. However, the Russian-German strategic partnerships with a sizable Russian-German Chamber of Commerce to vouch for their development was already so comprehensive, that pulling the brakes seemed (almost) impossible. As noted beforehand, the main field of collaboration was the heavily industrialised Germany needing affordable and accessible Russian gas. The green agenda under Merkel was an important strategic goal for Germany, and even the poisoning of Navalny did not change the public’s opinion about the necessity of the Nord Stream 2, with Russian gas seen as an ecologically better option than the American which is obtained through the fracking method, carrying considerable repercussions for the environment. The US government pulled all strings possible to stop Nord Stream 2 from operating. Unfortunately, both Merkel’s Cabinet and the public were disenchanted with America’s Trump era and version of partnership, so they, alongside France, increasingly turned towards Russia for diversifying their partners’ list. At that time, Merkel even changed her political advisor, Christoph Heusgen, traditionally loyal to the North-Atlantic union, to Jan Hecker who, according to German journalist Hubert Seipel, started secret negotiation talks with the Russian regime over the Minsk agreements. Unfortunately for Ukraine, German political figures were more focused on the Syria crisis, taking place parallelly at that time, and as Merkel recently admitted, the political turmoil and disbalance during Poroshenko’s presidency in Ukraine, was more than off-putting for NATO and EU to have more serious talks over Ukrainian security. These factors combined made German politicians colour blind for the red flags around Russian military plans for Ukraine.
However, not only the German but also the general political climate in Europe during the Trump presidency was more than inclined towards building better partnerships with Russia, despite Putin's blatant disregard for democratic principles. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, stated that in spite of Putin, Germany should not consider Russia and Russian people as enemies, for it is a dangerous alienation. The effects of such elaborate bilateral relations are evident today—according to the Economist, as of March 2023 a year after the war, less than 30% of Germans approve more sanctions against Russia. The poll was done using data from The Economist and YouGov, and the demography is undisclosed. However, if we look at another poll done by RTL/n-tv, done on the same questions just five months earlier, it was East Germans (48%) and supporters of the AfD (82%) who were with increased frequency in favour of relaxing or completely lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia. It is noteworthy that the same poll shows 57% of Germans believing that the sanctions imposed by the European Union actually hurt Germany more than they hurt Russia. Whether that number changed in 2023 has not yet been amply researched. Germans undeniably place freedom and democracy high in their public values, yet, being on the European economic top is also a characteristic they are celebrated for. Which national sentiment will prevail and will that be extended to Ukraine, is becoming increasingly unclear according to the results of the confounding opinion polls.
Not so much Pro-Russian as Anti-Western for some German politicians
The historical aspect behind hesitant support for Ukraine in the German public sphere is a well-studied topic in the media, and rightly so, with Kremlin’s agitating information warfare betting on its effect on war-sensitive Germans. Researchers have shown, however, that in the context of the war in Ukraine, it is not as much pro-Russian, as it is anti-Western and anti-NATO sentiment, specifically in East Germany, that is at play. The Left, with its main representatives, such as Gregor Gysi, Sahra Wagenknecht and Sevim Dagdalen, who famously stated that it was NATO which expanded and not Russia, have been continuously losing voters, and are in a desperate need for inner party changes if they want to exit the political margins they are currently in. The Left, having lost its guiding cursors in domestic politics, such as traditional East German values as a successor of the Marxist-Leninist party, is frantically trying to forge new perspectives which can help them to stand out among other German parties, and catching the anti-war momentum, seems to be their attempt at prominence.
For Tino Chrupalla, Bernhard Zimniok and Joachim Kuhs from the radical right-wing (AfD) utilising this anti-Western atmosphere in East Germany, but also the rise of the right-wing populism in Europe, poses a historical chance to bring back the popularity of radical right views in Germany. It is indeed a peculiar observation, considering the anti-immigrant policies of the radical right, that Russian-speakers in Germany, migrants from the former Soviet Union, form a significant voting body for the AfD. Unlike the recent immigrants from Russia, mostly leaving due to Putin’s authoritarian, corrupt and backward looking regime as well as the formidable economic situation in remote places from the economic centres, the older generation diaspora is evidently prone to sentimental and nostalgic pro-Kremlin propaganda. Research has shown that walking “down the memory lane” for the Russian diaspora, is pushing them towards far-right political views, a notion which is Kremlin- approved. Of course, the latest revelations by the Washington Post, showing direct Kremlin contacts with die Linke and AfD members shed a new light on the power dynamic.
Personal connections between Russian and German elite
In 2012, just two years before the Crimea annexation, these two countries celebrated their “1000 year-old friendship” part of the official Russia’s Germany Year greeted by both president Putin and then president Joachim Gauck. Naturally, such perseverance and commitment to each other would produce steadfast links between the governing structures, business elites and the civil society.
Corrective, an online medium in cooperation with Policy Network Analytics (PNA), conveyed an investigation which focused on the wide-ranging lobbying network for Russian natural resources in Germany. It included political figures from both Social Democrats (SDU) and Christian Democrats (CDU), such as Gerhard Schröder, the former SDU chancellor who became Russia’s best-known lobbyist in Germany. The list included (now former) prime ministers of Bavaria, Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the former environment minister Edmund Stoiber. Collective data garnered from this investigation but also other notable publishers uncovers an elaborate catalogue of energy companies, notably VNG, NGOs such as the distinct Climate and Environment Protection Foundation founded by the prime minister of Saxony—Manuela Schwesig and supported by Gazprom, think tankers such as Helga Zepp-LaRouche, academics like Johannes Varwick, and German Moscow-based lawyers advising German companies on working in Russia. When natural resources were not in question, the lobbying revolved around other issues, such as Ukraine. “Russiagate” might be a somewhat forgotten issue by now, but pointed on the intricate connections between the Russian intelligence, Trump’s campaign chief—and an undisclosed group of European politicians, called the Habsburg group, hinting at their Germanic origin, to support a pro-Russian view in managing Ukraine. This investigation was newly picked up by the Kyiv Independent and exposed both German and Austrian politicians who were involved in creating a positive image for Russia and alienating Ukraine from Germany’s (and Austria’s) public. AfD members are dominating the German list of politicians chosen for this lobbying assignment.
Media and the social sphere in Germany—bringing the Russian world closer to Germany
In true democratic spirit, Germany has a diverse media scene, with extreme left and right media freely functioning. Although the government has banned official Russian media and even some German pro-invasion media channels, it still fights a battle with the mixture of propaganda and populist messaging by media whose editors are openly members of AfD or supporters of die Linke, effectively enabling these two parties to always have a platform where they can share their pro-Russian sentiments, without any repercussions for endorsing an aggressor. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, the traditional media elites, such as Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Suddeutche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel etc, have indeed been on Ukraine’s side, even pushing for faster decisions on weapons delivery. Periodically pro-Russian stances slip through them as well, for example the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs noticed that Russian propaganda is even spread through the Russian service of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Yet, as studies prove, these journalistic elites cannot always compete for the audience's attention with the plethora of very active social media accounts which support either anti-Western narratives or are openly pro-Russia. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue in Germany, did a research which found out that German-language Telegram channels have become a central platform for right-wing extremist and conspiracy movements in Germany which share, repost or even repurpose Russian state media posts as their independent content. Medusa, one of the largest oppositional media from Russia (no longer based in Russia due to severe persecution), has reported on interesting findings by a Berlin-based research group. Namely, Russian propaganda doesn’t do all the heavy lifting—German domestic politics sets itself up for failure. According to the findings, Germany feels increasingly dependent on decisions that are not made in Berlin, consequently the national sentiment is that they are one of the hardest hit losers from this war and Washington is the only winning side. Therefore, polls from November 2022, showed 40% of Germans agreeing or partially agreeing with the statement that NATO provoked Russia for so long that they had to go to war (in East Germany this was 59%), 44% of Germans agreed or partially agreed with the idea that Putin is battling a world controlled by the West, and 33% felt certain that there were American laboratories manufacturing biological weapons in Ukraine. Shockingly, 35% agreed that Ukraine cannot have its own territorial claims since it is historically part of Russia.
Media is of course not the sole creator of public perceptions and opinions. Russia and Germany had an elaborate socio-cultural and educational bilateral relations, working not only on regional but also on municipal levels. Many people from both countries were exposed to each other's cultures, languages and education system. According to Russian analytics, Germany is keen on continuing its commitment to these spheres, however in the context of reputational restrictions on contacts with official organisations, Berlin will strengthen dialogue formats with the civil society associated with opposition movements, as well as with its representatives who left Russia after February 2022. Before this date, the German-Russian Forum was a massive platform hosting different formats of interaction. The “Potsdam meetings” brought together high-ranking representatives from the spheres of politics, economics, and culture to further deepen mutual understanding and develop new forms of interaction. The “Schlangenbad Talks” was an exclusive place for Russo-German experts on political and national security, the “Petersburg Dialogue” discussed everything from German-Russian youth, to media, education and ecology, the Kulturportal Russland (Cultural portal of Russia) acquainted Germans with the Russian culture, the association German-Russian Youth Initiative was exclusively designed for bringing young people from the two countries together and the list goes on with many more exchange programs, double degree programs, culture houses, academic visits etc which were a part of this conglomerate of collaborations. Recently, a new NGO was formed which will offer legal guidance to Russians who were victims of russophobia or discrimination in Germany. Russia on the other hand has closed all of the official German NGOs in the country, such as the Forum of Russian-speaking Europeans, German-Russian Exchange, German Research Community and affiliates of the foundations Friedrich Naumann for Freedom, Konrad Adenauer and others, labelling them as foreign agents.
The bilateral relations between Russia and Germany are built on deeply rooted friendships backed by strong economic incentives, which could explain why we are currently witnessing signs of doubt and uncertainty surrounding Germany’s reaction to the Russian regime and the war in Ukraine by the German population. However, as experience has shown, the Kremlin is neither a reliable partner, nor a source of economic prosperity for the Russian people. “Doing business” with corrupt oligarchs who use their colossal wealth to invade and destruct their neighbours while suppressing any democratic spurs at home, will highly likely lead to extortion of one-sided political decisions benefitting the authoritarian few.
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Russia started the war against Ukraine. This war is happening from 2014. It has only intensified on February 24th 2022. Milions of Ukrainians are suffering. The perpetrators of this must be brought to justice for their crimes.
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