Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has accused Germany of abandoning his country for years of maintaining a relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia that has prioritized the economy over other issues. Zelensky has asked German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for help in stopping the war on his territory in a live speech broadcast at the start of Parliament’s session. The highest Ukrainian president, who has been received with applause from some deputies standing in the hemicycle of the Bundestag, has warned that “a new Berlin wall” is being built in Europe, which separates the oppressed States from the free States . His country, he said, does not want to be on the side of the wall where “freedom is lacking.”
In addition to thanking Germany for its help, the Ukrainian president has also made several accusations against German politicians, such as being late with sanctions to stop the war. He has also referred to the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, built but without permission to operate, and has disgraced the German leaders who have put economic interests first when planning this infrastructure, designed to transport gas directly to Germany from Russia without going through Ukraine. Zelensky has said that the pipeline was part of Moscow’s preparations for war: “We warned them that Nord Stream 2 was a weapon. And his answer was economy, economy, economy”, he assured.
The Ukrainian president has assured that with each new bomb that Russia drops on its territory, the wall that intends to isolate Ukraine continues to be built. The West’s “doubts” about his country’s desire to join the EU and NATO are other “stones” in that wall, he added. The leader, who began his speech a few minutes later than expected due to the bombings in kyiv, quoted Ronald Reagan, “actor and president” of the United States, in his appeal to the German chancellor: “I also say : Mr. Scholz, destroy this wall.” She has also gone directly to him to ask for more leadership.
“Russia constantly bombs us, destroys everything we have built,” said Zelensky, who recalled that Russian forces do not distinguish between civilian and military targets. He has pointed out that thousands of Ukrainians have fallen, including many children. “The occupants have killed 108 children in the middle of Europe, in the 21st century”, he told the deputies, who also stood up to applaud him at the end of his speech.
Germany reviews its past attitude towards Russia
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Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has put Germany in front of the mirror of its close and complicated relationship with Russia in recent decades. The country, still in shock for a war at the gates of his territory that he never thought possible, he is now beginning to criticize himself and reflect on the enormous influence that Moscow has had throughout Europe through a privileged interlocutor: Berlin. The diplomatic and economic relations with Putin’s Russia of former foreign ministers Gerhard Schröder (social democrat) and Angela Merkel (conservative) are now seen in a different, rather darker light, while the debate rages on how Germany could put itself in such a situation of vulnerability.
The war in Europe has suddenly and radically changed Berlin’s foreign and defense policy, and analysts agree there is no going back. The rhetoric of the current chancellor, the social democrat Olaf Scholz, announcing in a historic speech in the Bundestag the rearmament of the Army and the sending of weapons to a conflict zone is the best proof of this, says Rafael Loss, an analyst at the European Council of Foreign Affairs (ECFR). With his intervention, a few days after the Russian invasion began, Scholz tore down the pillars of Merkel’s foreign and economic policy with Moscow, which for years meant that Germany had cheap Russian gas to run its industry and heating systems and a market developing countries to which to export high-value consumer goods.
“German policy on Russia had been reduced to economic relations, completely ignoring geopolitical aspects,” says Loss. Merkel’s biggest mistake was to increase the ratio of energy dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. According to Eurostat data, in 2010 Germany imported 36% of its gas from Russia; in 2020 the percentage was already 65%. The former chancellor did not know or did not want to see the geopolitical implications of the construction of a new gas pipeline, the controversial Nord Stream 2, with which Moscow was going to double the volume of gas that would reach Germany directly through the Baltic Sea bed, avoiding Ukraine, a traditional transit country. Merkel dodged criticism from the United States and Eastern European partners by assuring that it was a private business project.
Scholz made the decision to suspend the pipeline certification process the day after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 exemplifies the “appeasement syndrome”, in the definition of Stefan Meister, an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe at the DGAP (the German Council for Foreign Relations, in its German acronym), which Europe has suffered, and especially Germany, compared to Russia. For years he has been confident that maintaining dialogue and good economic relations was enough to contain Putin. “Germany has finally understood that this is about the security of Germany. Until now I did not want to understand it, I refused to understand it, it was a problem of mentality”, Meister said at a meeting organized this week by the Bled Strategic Forum.
“Previous German governments did not recognize the risk that Vladimir Putin represents, despite the fact that he revealed his approach with brutal transparency,” says Daniela Schwarzer, an analyst at the Open Society Foundation. It is not that Putin had not provided clues. In 2014 he invaded Crimea violating international law and the integrity of the Ukrainian territory and since then a war has also been waged in eastern Ukraine against pro-Russian secessionists in which 14,000 people have died, this expert recalls. “Despite this, German politicians assumed that strong commercial ties could prevent the conflict from escalating. Merkel was of that opinion; also the current Chancellor Scholz and his party. They were both wrong and based their Russian policy on wishful thinking instead of thinking about the worst case scenario and preparing Germany and Europe for it,” Schwarzer says.
Experts agree that from now on German leaders, and those across Europe, must make it a priority to make the European Union more independent from “problem partners,” as Schwarzer calls them, particularly authoritarian regimes. or dictatorial. Energy is one leg of that turnaround, but technology supply chains and security and defense are also mentioned. Chancellor Scholz’s historic announcement goes in that direction. Berlin has abandoned the pacifism of recent decades and will invest 100,000 million euros to improve its armed forces, so in need of funds that Lieutenant General Alfons Mais, the Army’s highest-ranking officer, publicly assured last month that they would not be prepared to defend the country in the event of an attack.
Angela Merkel’s 16 years at the helm of Europe’s locomotive are being questioned. The former chancellor understood each other as equals with Putin, since she speaks Russian and she knows first-hand the Soviet space, having lived 35 years in the German Democratic Republic. But Loss assures that the former chancellor was dedicated to the economy and she did not personally deal with German policy with Russia, that she left it to others in her government. The now-crippled Nord Stream 2 “mistake” is entirely his own, he adds.
But it was the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, his predecessor, who promoted the first gas pipeline through the Baltic and then actively worked for the construction of the second. Schröder has become a pest in Berlin since Russia began threatening Ukraine with troop movements along the borders, but after the attack his situation has become untenable. He has not yet given up his posts on the boards of several Russian state-owned companies, including gas company Gazprom. His trip to Moscow last week to presumably act as a mediator with Putin has once again raised all kinds of suspicions about him. It is unknown what he talked about with the Russian president, but it is known that he acted on his behalf, without notifying his party or the German government.
As a result of this rude awakening to reality, Germany is now reflecting “very critically on its passivity, which is very necessary,” says Schwarzer. “We must learn from our past mistakes not only with regard to Russia, but also as we look toward our partnership with China. The war in Ukraine shows that there is a systemic conflict between Western democracies and authoritarianism, and China is watching very closely what the EU and the US are willing to do to defend democracy”, he concludes.