Vladimir Putin knows Germany well. He served as a KGB officer in Dresden from 1985, witnessed the sudden collapse of the East German regime in 1989, and later described destroying the office files:
“I personally burned a huge amount of material. We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst.”
After persuading a group of demonstrators not to storm the KGB headquarters in Dresden – he warned them his comrades were ready to shoot – Putin telephoned a local Red Army tank unit to ask for help.
“We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end of the line said. “And Moscow is silent.”
Moscow today is not silent, and one of Putin’s aims in the present crisis is to drive an ever deeper wedge into NATO, so the Germans and French become detached from the Americans and British.
Who in the British Cabinet has anything like Putin’s knowledge of Germany? Or indeed of Russia?
In 1974, the year before Putin joined the KGB, Matthias Warnig joined the Stasi, the East German secret police. He and Putin are said to have worked together in the late 1980s, recruiting West Germans to the KGB, but they undoubtedly got to know each other in 1991, when Putin was head of External Relations for the Mayor of Saint Petersburg and Warnig chaired the Russian subsidiary of Dresdner Bank, which was opening an office in that city.
In 2006, Warnig became Managing Director of Nord Stream AG, set up to pipe gas through the Baltic to Germany, and since 2015 he has served as Chief Executive Officer of Nord Stream 2 AG, which is owned by Gazprom, the huge Russian state gas company.
Warnig studied “National Economy” in East Berlin and in 2012 was awarded the Order of Honour of the Russian Federation.
Nordstream’s board is chaired by Gerhard Schröder, who took the post in 2005 just after stepping down as German Chancellor. There are also four Gazprom directors.
This is a serious, long-term relationship, backed at the highest level in both Russia and Germany. The Americans and the Ukrainians have protested in vain.
Schröder decided in 2002 to phase out nuclear power in Germany. When Angela Merkel succeeded him as Chancellor, she said she would extend the life of Germany’s nuclear power stations, but after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, she changed her mind and announced that the stations would be closed in 2022.
Fukushima was caused by a tidal wave: not a problem in Germany. Merkel wanted to steal the Greens’ thunder, but her decision also made Germany more dependent on Russian gas.
For the Germans, the idea of another war with Russia is unthinkable. The last one was so hellish that “never again” is the prevailing view.
Putin knows this, but the thought is less likely to be at the forefront of British ministers’ minds.
The head of the German navy had to resign the other day, after making some artlessly pro-Putin remarks at a conference in New Delhi.
He said Russia is a Christian power which we need on our side against China, and it would cost us nothing to show Putin some respect. To him, these remarks were glimpses of the obvious, because the people round him say the same.
Yesterday morning I rang my friend Tilman Fichter in Berlin, comrade of Rudi Dutschke, Willy Brandt and Peter Glotz, a man sympathetic to the British and the Americans, but with an insight into the tides of German and European history. He said:
“The Americans must be very careful. If Germany had to choose between staying in NATO and going to war with Russia, a majority of Germans would say we should leave NATO at least for the next year.”
Repress any momentary feeling of irritation you may feel at hearing of this desire to opt out of the obligations of NATO membership. It is easy for Boris Johnson to sound a gung-ho note about Ukraine.
It is impossible for Germany’s leaders to do so. By being so hesitant about extending any kind of help to Ukraine, they are reflecting rather than defying public opinion.
Every German family lost a father, a brother, a husband in Russia. In Russia it is the same. These are two nations joined in a colossal suffering. As Fichter said:
“There is no chance that Germany would voluntarily take part in a campaign against the Russians. This is really the spirit of the people here.”
He pointed out that the Russians left Germany and made re-unification possible. Mikhail Gorbachev is remembered with gratitude by the Germans for not telling the tanks in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden to leave barracks and attack the German people in 1989. This wasn’t 1953, 1956 or 1968. What a deliverance.
To British eyes, the “Normandy format” – the talks now promoted by Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, in order to arrive at a negotiated settlement of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine – may seem like so much window-dressing.
But NATO – in the words of a Briton, Lord Ismay, who served as its first Secretary-General – was founded “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” – and that can’t any more be its purpose as far as the Germans are concerned.
Let us not now play into Putin’s hands by driving the Germans into his arms.