Russian Brinkmanship Poses Early Test for Germany’s New Leader
Germany will have a new government next month after three parties agreed this week to form a coalition, ousting the ruling Christian Democrats, the party of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel. The new government faces an early test of foreign policy, as Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops on Europe’s eastern borders.
Members of the Social Democratic Pary, or SDP, which narrowly won the highest vote share in September’s election, agreed to lead a coalition alongside the Green party and the Free Democrats. SDP leader Olaf Scholz, who will be Germany’s next chancellor, pledged to strengthen Germany’s existing alliances in a speech Wednesday.
“Our friendship with France, our partnership with the United States, and a commitment to peace and prosperity in the world are the pillars on which our foreign policy is based,” Scholz said in Berlin.
That peace appears increasingly fragile on Europe’s eastern borders. Russia has deployed around 90,000 troops alongside military hardware close to its border with Ukraine and continues to support separatist rebels in Ukraine’s Donbass region.
On Thursday, Merkel warned of tougher sanctions.
“Any further aggression against the sovereignty of Ukraine would carry a high price. That’s totally clear,” she told reporters.
Support for Belarus
Russia is also supporting Belarus, which Europe accuses of manufacturing a migrant crisis on its border with Poland. So how will Germany’s new government deal with these immediate security challenges?
Scholz has yet to detail his policy toward Russia. The 177-page coalition agreement restates strong German support for NATO as the basis of European security, noted Liana Fix, the program director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung analyst group in Berlin.
“Broadly, there’s continuity, but what is interesting is that there’s also quite a strong rhetoric when it comes to supporting civil society in Russia, and also quite a strong rhetoric when it comes to countering the autocratic challenge that is coming from Russia. And here you definitely see the footprint of the Green party which has entered the coalition,” Fix told VOA.
Green party leader Annalena Baerbock will be Germany’s next foreign minister. A first major decision will be to approve the opening of the completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany, which critics fear could be used by the Kremlin to blackmail Europe. The U.S. recently tightened sanctions on Russian companies involved in its construction.
“The Greens, that were at the beginning actually opposed to Nord Stream 2, did not want to use their political capital to enforce a stop of Nord Stream 2 in the coalition treaty,” Fix said.
What of the personal relationships? Merkel was raised in East Germany under communism and speaks fluent Russian. “This gave her special access to the Russian president,” Fix told VOA. “Olaf Scholz doesn’t have this background, but he’s very much aware of the situation, where he always argued that ‘might does not make right’ and that this is one of the bases for his understanding of foreign policy and also of policy towards Russia.”
‘The world will change’
In his speech Wednesday after striking the coalition agreement, Scholz said Germany must be ready for a new world order.
“The world will change,” he said. “It will become multipolar, which means there will be many strong countries and powers across the globe which will have influence on what happens in the future.”
For now, much of the new government’s focus will be on the soaring coronavirus infection rate at home. In Germany this week, COVID-19-related deaths surpassed 100,000 since the start of the pandemic, a grim milestone as the coalition prepares to take the reins of power in December.