Is the new German government good news for Ukraine?

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The sun is finally setting on the Merkel era in Germany and a new coalition government is about to take over. What will this change mean for Germany’s foreign policy towards Russia and Ukraine? Berlin’s approach, if changed, will not only affect relations with Moscow and Kyiv, but also with other European partners, especially in Eastern Europe, and also with the Biden administration in Washington.

Much of the debate over the possible implications for German foreign policy of the new coalition centers on Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock, who is set to become the country’s new foreign minister. Baerbock called for a tougher stance on Russia and voiced his criticism of the Kremlin. His position departs from the essentially soft line towards Moscow that was the hallmark of the previous German government.

As Germany’s parliamentary elections in September 2021 approach, Baerbock and the Greens have come down significantly tougher on Moscow and Beijing than their main political rivals. Meanwhile, Baerbock acknowledged earlier this year that Ukraine’s NATO membership was still unrealistic due to continuing divisions over the issue among alliance members, but still expressed his empathy and support for Ukraine.

Baerbock has previously called on Germany to scrap the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. She dismissed the idea that it is a purely economic project, stressing that the pipeline aims to destabilize Ukraine. As she said, “I went to Russia and spoke to key players. It was openly said that the objective was Ukraine and to circumvent the sanctions.

Predictably, there was an initial negative response in Russia to Baerbock’s planned new role. On Nov. 24, Russian news agency TASS quoted Russian Academy of Sciences researcher Vladislav Belov, whose critical assessment of Baerbock’s nomination reflected the general mood of skepticism. “She is absolutely ill-suited,” he commented. “The bilateral dialogue between Russia and Germany will undoubtedly suffer. She is not a diplomat, knows little about foreign policy and is hostile to Russia.

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While many in Moscow recognize that Baerbock represents a break from what they were used to in bilateral relations with Germany, will Berlin really change its tune?

The German Social Democrats, or SPD, known for their constant concern to maintain a close relationship with Moscow, won the most votes in the German elections. The Greens, much more critical of Moscow, have been the kingmakers in forming a viable coalition but remain a junior partner.

How things will play out now is uncertain. Much will depend on how the situation develops over the next few weeks until the new coalition takes office in mid-December. Key issues include the situation on the Ukrainian and Belarusian borders, actions by the Kremlin, and responses from Washington and Brussels.

Berlin’s behavior in the last weeks of the Merkel era has caused increased dismay in Kyiv and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Merkel’s recent phone calls to Putin and Lukashenka, which took place without prior consultation with Berlin’s partners, added insult to injury.

As former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said earlier this month, ‘the rest of Europe, at least east of the EU, is just being patronized, crushed and ignored’ by Berlin . In other words, many former Warsaw Pact countries feel that Germany has ceased to be a team player driven by European interests. For Kiev and others, this is worrying.

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The issue of Nord Stream 2 remains at the center of German foreign policy debate. The outgoing Merkel government appears to be making a last ditch effort to ensure that this controversial project survives despite strong opposition from Ukraine and its partners inside and outside Europe. The new coalition bides its time and remains discreet on the subject.

TASS was quick to note that the published coalition agreement made no direct mention of Nord Stream 2 and avoided references to German reliance on Russian fossil fuel. Instead, the document simply states that the new government wants to cooperate with Russia on hydrogen and climate protection while continuing to support Ukraine as before.

Nevertheless, there are some encouraging words for Kiev, even if they seem familiar and await qualification. “We demand an immediate end to destabilization attempts against Ukraine, to violence in eastern Ukraine and to the illegal annexation of Crimea,” the coalition agreement reads. “The path to a peaceful solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the lifting of related sanctions depends on the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. We advocate resolving frozen conflicts in the region.

How will this translate to Germany’s role in the Normandy format of the peace talks to resolve Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine? In the absence of a more resolute German and, for that matter, French position, Kyiv continues to signal that it hopes Washington will add its weight and make a difference.

Over the past few days, the Ukrainian President, Foreign Minister and Kyiv’s Ambassador to Berlin have worked hard to convey Ukraine’s message to the new government in Berlin and to the German public. Meanwhile, members of the outgoing Merkel administration pressured Washington to make Nord Stream 2 happen.

Will German political and economic mercantilism prevail, or will the new coalition succeed in re-establishing Berlin’s role as a principled and trusted European leader?

Bohdan Nahaylo is a British-Ukrainian journalist and Ukraine veteran based in Kyiv. He was previously a senior UN official and political adviser, and director of the Ukrainian service of Radio Liberty.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

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Image: Olaf Scholz, first candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, co-leaders of the Green Party, Christian Lindner, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), Lars Klingbeil, Party General Secretary Social Democratic Party (SPD), Federal Green Party Political Director Michael Kellner, General Secretary of the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) Volker Wissing and German Social Democratic Party leaders Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken walk after a final round of coalition talks to form a new government, in Berlin, Germany, November 24, 2021. (REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

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