On 27 February 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, announced a change in defensive strategy that many commentators never thought a German leader would unveil. Styled by Scholz as a Zeitenwende or historic turning point, he declared that Germany would exceed the goal of NATO members to spend 2% of GDP on defence, an obligation that Germany had hitherto been reluctant to fulfil. Germany would commit €100 billion extra to its army and for the first time since 1945, trade arms to countries at war.

For states in the Baltic region, prominently Poland and the Baltic States, it had been an announcement that was a long time in coming. Whilst Germany pursued further trade ties with Russia particularly in energy, these countries warned that Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) was bound to backfire. In Zeitenwende, these countries may have finally received what they have been asking for: a Germany that takes a leading defensive role in Eastern Europe.

During this time of German foreign policy reconfiguration, the Centre for Geopolitics, partnering with the Interdisciplinary Research Centre of the Baltic Sea Region (IFZO) at the University of Greifswald, invited perspectives from three varied perspectives. The panel included: Claudia Müller MdB, Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen representative in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern; Dr Margarita Šešelgytė, director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University; and Prof. Pierre-Frédéric Weber, associate professor at the Institute of History, University of Szczecin. Among the questions asked by the chair, Rt Hon Charles Clarke, was whether Germany’s Ostpolitik of the 1970s could become an Ostseepolitik; a Baltic Sea policy for the new geopolitical situation.

Mrs Müller, who is a member of the Bundestag defence committee and the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Forum, began the discussion by voicing her support for her government’s new initiative, stressing how Russia’s war with Ukraine had succeeded in uniting most of Germany’s parties in taking more defensive action. However, she warned that there was still a long way to go to change some deeply entrenched views. Russia had previously wooed Germany with its reliability as an energy partner, turning heads away from its unreliability in politics and security. As such, there had been little consideration of the Baltic in major trading decisions such as the construction of the controversial Nord Stream II gas pipeline. From Mrs Müller’s point of view, now that the warning signs of Russian imperialism had been realised, Germany’s focus should be on ensuring independence in two key areas. Firstly, Germany should ensure that it is not reliant on any one power for its energy needs, enabling it to adapt to geopolitical crises. Secondly, Germany should work to protect the independence of the states between it and Russia, enabling them to choose their own pathways. Mrs Müller claimed that this second goal had been obfuscated by the thinking of the last twenty years, which had not viewed the countries of the former Eastern Bloc as individual entities, leading to an unwarranted focus on Russia. This, argued Mrs Müller, contradicted the original conception of Ostpolitik which had accepted diversity in Eastern Europe, whilst still keeping vigilant of security threats. Mrs Müller now sees the challenge of overturning the German attachment to Russia, particularly amongst older far-left thinkers and those in local government, who could continue to accept Russia’s aggression as the new normal in order to alleviate crises in the cost of living.

Dr Šešelgytė asserted that, whilst Germany required significant adjustment to face the situation in Eastern Europe, there had been no such Zeitenwende in Lithuania. Lithuania has experienced a significantly different history with Russia to Germany, having always recognised Moscow as dangerous and unreliable. The largest of the Baltic states has hosted a NATO advanced forward presence led by Germany since 2017. For Dr Šešelgytė this was a promising sign that Germany could be prepared to take security in the Baltic seriously, a feeling bolstered by Scholz’s recent announcement. These policy decisions have encouraged Lithuania to view Germany as a potential regional leader. If Germany were to adopt such a role, it would allay fears that the Baltic would not be abandoned should Donald Trump be re-elected as US president in 2024 and that the United Kingdom can be replaced in a post-Brexit Europe. Dr Šešelgytė identified three changes needed for Germany to take the lead. Firstly, Dr Šešelgytė agreed with Mrs Müller that Germany needed to wean itself off Russia energy, a commodity Lithuania has always recognised as weaponised, if it is to take Russia’s threat seriously. This change would require feelings of European solidarity to trump anxieties over the cost of living, as well as a recognition that facilitating trade with Russia would not diminish an imperialist mindset in Moscow. Secondly, Dr Šešelgytė recommended a change in the culture of security in Germany to align more with the strategic approach of the United Kingdom, reconfiguring its defensive approach to deny outside aggression rather than punish it. Lastly, Dr Šešelgytė stressed the need for speed in the political process which has hampered Germany from taking effective action in the past.

On this last point, Prof. Weber, a historian with particular interest on Germany’s relations with East and Central Europe after 1945, was unable to offer much comfort. He offered his view that Zeitenwende was not an abrupt turn on a sixpence, rather a ‘thick Zeitenwende’ which had been developing for years and would continue to develop for years to come. Prof. Weber identified the start of the change in 2017 but also mentioned older initiatives in the Baltic such as long-standing German military presence in Szczecin. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has expediated a reassessment of German eastern policy, Prof. Weber stressed that there is still a lack of urgency as Zeitenwende is attached to gradual generational shifts. Generations, argued Prof. Weber, separated the original Green Party pacifists from the contemporary party which has pushed the need to stand up to powers such as Russia and China. Younger politicians also do not have the immediate post-war memories to dissuade them from adopting a forward military stance, in opposition to a non-military or neutral Germany. Prof. Weber asserted that the influence of the Ostpolitik generation is something that lingers in German politics. It was Ostpolitik which enabled the building of economic and commercial relationships with Russia, gradually morphing into the now highly contested policy of Wandel durch Handel. Prof. Weber pointed out that many of the SPD’s key decision makers had grown up with Ostpolitik as the Zeitgeist and thus reconciliatory attitudes towards Russia were still prominent. Prof. Weber also identified 1991 as an informative influence on German attitudes in Eastern Europe. Prof. Weber argued that it was the false assumption of Germany and the broader Western world at this time, that Russia wanted to westernise and did not mourn the collapse of the USSR. This created a tendency to think that greater economic ties with Russia would pacify it. Ultimately, it also caused Germany and others to dismiss the warnings of former Soviet countries who knew Russia better, as Mrs Müller and Dr Šešelgytė had also asserted.

The comfort that Russia is a reliable trading partner to Germany has been shaken by Vladmir Putin’s invasion. The slow recognition of Germany’s military responsibility has been expediated by the Ukrainian crisis but still needs to overcome entrenched ways of thinking as well as anxiety over energy. The act of Germany turning its ear towards the Baltic rather than Russia emphasises the desire to recalibrate a post-war reluctance to lead in military matters, and to reconstitute Ostpolitik for EU and NATO allies. Fittingly, Prof. Weber ended the discussion on a quote from the former Polish minister of defence and foreign affairs, Radosław Sikorski, who captured a Baltic mood by saying he feared more a Germany that did not engage enough than one that engaged too much.

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