This article by Katja Hoyer for the Telegraph dated 22 February 2022 begins with these words: "The veil has finally lifted: Moscow never wanted a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis."
‘Putin is our enemy now,” said Germany’s largest newspaper Bild yesterday. As the country woke up to reports of Russian tanks rolling over Ukrainian borders, the veil was finally lifted from German eyes: Moscow never wanted a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis.
Sahra Wagenknecht, of the far-Left Die Linke party, claimed not two days ago on German television that “Russia has in fact no interest to march into Ukraine”. According to her and many on the German Left, Moscow saw itself forced into a corner by Nato expansion and felt it needed security commitments from the West, “if necessary also by military means”.
But the claim that Putin was negotiating in good faith was not confined to the fringes of German politics. Former chancellor Angela Merkel argued throughout her time in office that “security in Europe needs to be established with Russia, not against Russia”. Her predecessor Gerhard Schröder has long been a close personal friend of Putin. He has accused Kyiv of “sabre-rattling”.
But the realities of Russian tanks in Ukraine have been a wake-up call to German commentators. Putin’s televised speech was subjected to a sentence-by-sentence dissection in many media outlets. In a nation as history-conscious as Germany, his words could not fail to ring alarm bells. The claims that Ukraine was entirely a product of Soviet policy and that it “never had a tradition of genuine statehood” was particularly evocative to German ears.
The German Russia expert Gustav Gressel dared to draw the comparison that was on many minds when he tweeted: “Since Mein Kampf I have not heard such an endless cascade of blatant lies like in Putin’s speech. It is not only about recognition of the proxy republics. He basically provided a rationale to invade and destroy Ukraine.”
Putin’s speech should not have come as a shock. He expressed the view that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” as early as 2005. Putin has also demanded that Nato be scaled back to 1997 levels and that American, British and other Western forces be removed from central and Eastern European countries altogether. These statements gave a clear indication that Moscow’s ambitions reach beyond the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine.
But his recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent “People’s Republics” made it indisputable that there was never a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis that would have satisfied him. With Russian aggression now a political reality, the Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has paused the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. His Social Democratic Party (SPD), traditionally closely aligned with Russia, has also become more outspoken. Its leader Lars Klingbeil told reporters that he wants the Bundeswehr properly equipped. Defence minister Christine Lambrecht, also of the SPD, made similar suggestions to Der Spiegel.
It remains to be seen whether the rude awakening of Putin’s violations of Ukrainian sovereignty will have long-term effects on German politics or if the safety blanket of pro-Russian sympathy will fall back over Berlin. It is unlikely that pausing Nord Stream 2 will be enough to stop Moscow in Ukraine. But if Putin’s actions there have forced Germany onto a more principled foreign policy path, he has already lost a lot.
Katja Hoyer is an Anglo-German historian and visiting research fellow at King’s College London
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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz