A controversial policy Germany built toward Russia over the past five decades is slowly being dismantled because of the latter’s aggression against Ukraine.

Economically, the policy was anchored in a gas pipeline constructed during the early 1970s that brought Russian energy to Europe via Germany.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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Politically, it was based on Ostpolitik or “Eastern policy.” There was an unshakeable belief by successive German governments that Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”) would bring Russia closer to Europe via such links.

Central and Eastern European governments were in no position to challenge that German policy. They were under the Kremlin’s yoke. Several of them now openly question Berlin and Paris’s motivations in talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “France and Germany are not really trusted by the Central Europeans,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels.

Over the decades, France’s role in anchoring Germany to the EU was pivotal. Successive French governments who had their sights on a more politically, defensively, and economically integrated Europe, needed a German commitment.

The conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl championed more integration—and enlargement. His decision to replace the D-Mark with the Euro currency in a move pushed by Paris cannot be underestimated. It strengthened the Franco-German axis at a time when Europe had to deal with the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Gulf War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In these times, it was the United States that took the lead. The EU, in the meantime, chugged along a path of incremental integration.

Today, the war in Ukraine is testing Europe’s ability and capability to deal with this conflict and its ramifications for the region’s security and stability.

Leaving aside the endless, often disingenuous debates by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government about what kind of weapons to send to Ukraine, Germany’s and France’s relations with Russia are at a crossroads.

Some influential business lobbies in both countries harbor illusions that once the war in over, it will be a return to business as usual with the Kremlin. It won’t.

Europe’s dependence on Russian energy is going to decrease, and rapidly. The EU is also revamping its energy and climate policies, increasingly driven by geostrategic considerations.

As for Germany, under immense pressure, earlier this year Scholz abandoned the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would have increased the flow of Russian gas directly to Germany. The Central Europeans, particularly Poland and the Baltic States—not to mention the United States—were vocal in their criticism of Berlin’s longstanding dependence on Russian energy. For them, such German dependence dictated Europe’s policy toward Russia.

With the scrapping Nord Stream 2, the energy relationship, one of the pillars of Germany’s Russia policy, is being dismantled. This could have the effect of orientating Berlin more toward Europe. Maybe Russia’s war against Ukraine is finally ending Germany’s romance with Moscow, to the benefit to the EU—and France.

President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the closing ceremony of the Conference on the Future of Europe on May 9 set out an ambitious and, for some member states, a controversial agenda for the EU based on different speeds and tiers.

Also in his speech, Macron had no illusions about the limitations and political costs of the union expanding to include Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. There is too much unfinished business inside the EU that requires more fiscal, political, and economic integration. There’s also an anti-enlargement sentiment fueled by Poland’s trampling on the rule of law and Hungary’s corrupt, clientelist system.

For all his unrealized ambitions for Europe, Macron is going to need Scholz, whose leadership inside and outside Germany is sorely lacking. “France and Germany are not delivering vis-à-vis Europe’s direction,” said Fallon.

Not yet.

Eugeniusz Smolar from the Center for International relations in Warsaw said the war in Ukraine “could be a moment for Germany—to look more towards Europe instead of having its sights on Russia.” Let’s hope it’s not a long wait.