Dr. Stefan Meister has been the head of German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)’s program on international order and democracy since August 2021. From 2019 until then, he worked as director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s South Caucasus Office in Tbilisi. Radio Free Europe’s Georgian Service sat down with him during the McCain Institute, George W. Bush Institute and the Economic Policy Research Center 2022 Tbilisi Conference on September 5-6.
Let’s begin with Germany. After seeing the photo of the very crudely stitched together cables that Gazprom published on twitter to “explain” why they aren’t supplying gas to Germany, I don’t want to be overly blunt, but I have to ask this – has Germany been had?
I think the Kremlin has understood that Germany is the weak spot in Europe. It created not an interdependence, but a dependence. We have now learned that we are more dependent on Russian gas than Russia is dependent on our payment, that we are a vulnerable society and that we have a leadership that has no understanding where it’s going. I think this war has changed the perception of Russia in Germany, among the German [political] elite and society. It’s a game-changer. I think it’s for the first time that Germans understand that this is about our security. We did not understand it in 2008. We did not understand it in 2014. Now, we finally under understand it, we have the “Zeitenwende” speech of Mr. Scholz and the military spending of 1 billion Euro.
I was advising the German foreign office for 10 years and the German Chancellery for 14. Many of the things happening now are things we warned them against
But you know, this is just catching up to the reality, not getting ahead. We have a Chancellor at the moment in Germany who is not leading on this war; it’s the US who is leading on the Western response, but our Chancellor is risk averse. And there is no strategy, there is no mindset or cultural change. It’s just a speech, and spending for defense. Russia has been a major challenge for European security since the end of the world war. It’s a revisionist power. It’s not like the Soviet Union, the status quo power; it will go further. So you really need a completely different thinking and mindset. And I don’t think that Germany is ready yet to take the lead and to do what is really necessary.
Nord Stream ended up a geopolitical project after all, instead of just economical. Why did the German elite spend so much time convincing the rest of the world that it wasn’t?
To be honest, I think this was a refusal to believe the reality. You’re sitting in your comfort zone, you modernize the energy system on cheap Russian gas, and your whole industry ends up depending on that Russian cheap gas. You don’t want to give it up, of course, because it’s nice. It’s comfortable. There was a war in Karabakh? But its far away. There is something happening in Donbas? It’s not our country. We were sitting in our comfort zone. Nobody wanted to tell society that our geopolitical environment, our security, had already changed. Leaving that reality was not easy. Even if experts were saying, “if you don’t act now, the price will only grow.” And I think that this is exactly what happened, starting in 2008.
Now, Germany is left without Russian gas. And when the winter comes, and the proverbial purses have to be tightened, how much impact is it going to have on support towards Ukraine in Germany?
I think we have reached the peak of support for Ukraine in German society, perhaps in the whole of Europe, except for the Baltic States and Poland. The people increasingly feel the costs of this war and of the sanctions. There is this global crisis after the pandemic, too, and I think this was also within Mr Putin’s calculations. Our societies are much more vulnerable than Russian society. There is a vulnerability in our elites, they are really afraid of the winter, and that the pressure from society will push for a compromise, to put Ukrainians under pressure to work towards negotiations, and for us to lift parts of the sanctions. I think the threat is there. I think our societies are afraid of losing their living standards, losing their comfort, even if we are still pretty rich compared to other societies, which also suffer from the energy crisis, from the pandemic era and so on.
What does this war spell for Merkel’s legacy? Will it be tarnished? I’ve heard people dub her Frau Chamberlain.
For me, it’s really difficult that Angela Merkel does not agree that she made mistakes. She publicly very clearly said she did not make any. Her legacy is much more problematic than we thought. When she left, we thought of her as a leader of the free world. But I think she made a lot of compromises on Russia. Without Germany and France, Russia would have gone further in 2014, so what she did in crisis management was important, but as a person with an East German background, speaking the Russian language, understanding how the Russian system functions, I would even blame her more for not doing certain things. I think that’s the main German problem – not doing things. Not leading, not stopping the pipeline, not becoming less dependent on Russian gas. Part of her legacy will be that she kept this illusion of a comfort zone, both in terms of economy and security.
She also says she stands by the 2008 Bucharest summit decision even today. Was it a blunder not to support Georgia and Ukraine’s membership bids?
It was a mistake. You need to understand that the security situation in this region has comprehensively changed. And you need to build up security alliances with countries like Georgia and Ukraine, and help to modernize their armies, help to supply them with weapons, and to give different kinds of guarantees, especially when you are not willing to offer them NATO membership for reasons like conflicts on the soil and so on. But I think we now know that outside of NATO, there is no security anymore. That’s the lesson we learned. So I think, yes, it was a mistake at that point. But it was also a mistake made out of ignorance. There was a lot of ignorance.
We have a Georgian government which has no interest in integration into the EU, as doing so will challenge their power position
Since 2014, the US has done a lot to modernize. NATO did a lot to modernize the Ukrainian army. Membership perspective for the EU for Georgia, at a time when there was really a reform government, when there was really a change, would have made a difference. These are mistakes which our leader and our leaders have made. I was advising the German foreign office for 10 years and the German Chancellery for 14 years. Many of the things happening now are things we warned them against. Now, when people ask, “why didn’t we listen to the Baltics, to the Poles and so on?”, it’s not hard to answer them. We would hear them out, but we wouldn’t listen, we didn’t want to listen- the things they were telling us didn’t fit into the reality we had created, they were, once again, refusing the truth. And I think it’s lip service to now say “oh, we should have listened.” At that time, we had different interests – we didn’t want to have a conflict with Russia, we wanted to get resources from Russia. Not only Germany did that, many other countries did too. We didn’t want to get into a bigger conflict. We didn’t want to step into Russia’s sphere of influence. And that invited Russia to do more. I feel bitter about it. It’s not a great feeling to be vindicated, when you know they could have listened at the time, but they didn’t want to. There’s no pleasure in it.
The reality is changing every day but we are not keeping up. Now we are talking about what might happen, why we need to supply weapons. Why are we not planning ahead? One month, half a year. What’s next for Georgia? What’s next for Moldova? We are not doing it. Again.
There was a particularly foreboding remark from Schroeder recently. He said that when the war ends, Germany will go back to Russia’s door, because the West doesn’t have the luxury to turn its back on Russia, that it will be ‘business as usual.’ Do you see that happening?
I’m not so sure. Our societies don’t want to lose their welfare, and our living standards will go down because of these current crises. We are living in a different reality. There is recognition of this reality. We understand it’s about security. But we will always have a tendency toward appeasement. And we will always have a tendency to fake things in a way that is not too costly. We have a wrong cost benefit calculation, in my opinion: We think if we appease, if we make a compromise, if the other side wins, then we win too, then it might be get better. But we don’t understand that Russian thinking is win-lose, not win-win. And if we don’t catch up to this reality, our costs will only grow.
What is the foundation of this perpetual German reluctance to stand up to Moscow?
I think it’s a cultural change that happened after World War 2 within German society and the elites. It’s a kind of pacifism. It’s a kind of anti-war behavior. And it has also become a very rich society, which loves its comfort. It’s not really flexible enough to keep up with the reality. It has historical roots with all this guilt complex, and gratitude to Gorbachev. It’s also a lack of strategic culture- what we’ve seen since 2000, in Germany, is an increasingly bureaucratic culture. And it is increasingly an economics-ation of our whole policy, and we lost our great thinkers in military strategy.
How do you think Georgia’s future will be shaped by what is happening now in Ukraine?
I think we see a major change in the entire post-soviet region now, and I would say Russia is accelerating the decline and fall of its own empire. With this war, it has destroyed the Russian empire. My question is, which other players will shape the future of the South Caucasus and Black Sea region. Is it Europe? The US? Turkey? Iran? China? Georgia now has this potential EU candidate status which is linked to domestic policy. But how serious is this? I think it’s serious if Georgia does its homework, but it’s a long-term process. I think it is something Georgia really needs – a perspective into Europe, but Georgia also needs to have short-term measures in terms of its own security and economic development. And at the same time, we have the Karabakh war, which will bring forward the energy and connectivity issue, and all this will really affect the future and reality in this region. For me, it’s a question whether the US is really willing to return to this region as a player. I am rather skeptical about that to be honest. And is Europe ready to keep up in the neighborhood and do what’s necessary? I also have my doubts about that. Then we have a Georgian government which has no interest in integration into the EU. Doing so will challenge their power position. Because integration into the EU means working with the rule of law, having independent media, working on the election system, and I think it’s exactly what would cost them the next elections. And I think that people who make the decisions here are afraid of losing power, because it could be about their own security. And that’s the problem now: There is a government ruling over people who want integration into Europe, but this government has no interest in it, and it opens room for the Russian side to maneuver in and impact Georgian politics.