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The Nord Stream pipe dream: How an outdated Ostpolitik misguided Germany’s foreign policy toward Russia
The Korean Journal of International Studies 21-2 (August 2023), 239-276
Published online August 31, 2023
© 2023 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Hannes Mosler [Bio-Data]
Received February 26, 2023; Revised June 13, 2023; Accepted June 26, 2023.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
The Russian war against Ukraine in 2022 marks a turning point in international relations, as it threatens the existing rules-based international order since the end of the Second World War. For Germany, the Russian aggression was a wake-up call regarding its failed post-unification Ostpolitik and prompted the proclamation of a Zeitenwende ? a turnaround in its foreign policy strategy. The Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which supplied Germany with natural gas directly from Russia through the Baltic Sea, are one of the most representative examples of Germany's misguided policy, as they have created an asymmetrical interdependence to Germany's security-threatening detriment. Against this background, the article uses a constructivist approach to examine the reasons for Germany's ill-advised policy toward Russia and to answer the question of why Germany voluntarily made itself dangerously vulnerable to Russian interests. To this end, the study sheds light on the link between historical memory and policy in the communicative actions of key political actors involved in the policy-making processes between 1998 and 2022. To this end, the study sheds light on the link between historical memory and policy in the communicative actions of key political actors involved in the policy-making processes between 1998 and 2022. Based on the analysis, the article argues that a particular set of cultivated collective memories misled the German leadership into a foreign policy strategy characterized by a misguided confidence in Russian credibility.
Keywords : German foreign policy, Ostpolitik, Nord Stream, Zeitenwende, war on Ukraine, inattentional blindness, political culture, collective memories, asymmetric interdependence

Horror scenarios abounded when Russia shut down the Nord Stream 1 pipeline under the Baltic Sea in August 2022, as Germany used to import more than half of its natural gas from Russia (Statista 2022). For months, public debate in Germany was dominated by worries about the nightmare of freezing homes, paralysis of industry and a severe recession. The government activated an emergency gas plan and urged industry to save energy wherever possible, and to citizens to take only cold, short showers. The media spoke of a Russian “gas war” and a German “Heizangst” (i.e., being afraid of using gas for heating purposes), and indeed, rising energy prices soon became a reality.

The Russian blackmail attempt was a reaction to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's proclamation of a Zeitenwende – a paradigm shift in Germany's foreign policy with a special focus on its policy towards the East or Ostpolitik. In the face of Russia's all-out war against Ukraine at the end of February 2022, Germany vowed to increase the defense budget to strengthen the Bundeswehr (100 billion euros) to ensure Germany's defense and deterrence capability; and to quickly reach NATO's goal of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense to contribute to the common defense and deterrence capability; and to deliver heavy weapon systems to Ukraine (Scholz 2022). In addition, sanctions against Russia were further tightened. Then Russia counter-sanctioned Germany with the shutdown of Nord Stream 1. Fortunately, however, the worst case was averted, thanks in part to energy conservation by the population and industry, but also to the German government's ability to find alternative suppliers, and not least to the relatively mild winter. Nevertheless, the economic loss was enormous, as was the burden on households, and it vividly demonstrated Germany's vulnerability to Russia misusing Germany’s energy dependence as a ‘political weapon’. This is remarkable because not only Eastern and Northern European countries, but also the rest of Europe and the US, too, had vehemently opposed the construction of the pipeline from the outset on energy security grounds. What is even more puzzling is that the construction of Nord Stream 1 (2005-2013) and Nord Stream 2 (2011-2021) took place during periods of repeated conflict, particularly between Russia and the key gas transit country Ukraine, with gas supply disruptions in 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2013 that were vivid examples of what could happen to Germany (Schneckener 2022). Yet, seemingly unperturbed, Germany threw caution to the wind, only to have it boomerang back on them. What made Germany compromise its own security?

Of course, it is no secret that since the end of World War II, Germany has pursued a distinct foreign policy toward Russia. Owing to its self-perception in light of its particular historical experiences and its special way of taking responsibility for its past Germany's foreign policy was based on principles such as general restraint, renunciation of war and pacifism or anti-militarism, international integration and multilateralism, the rule of law and human rights, etc. In the literature, Germany's foreign policy toward Russia is characterized as a complex balancing act between economic interests, political considerations, and responsibility in the international community (Banchoff 1996; 2002; Berger 1997; Duffield 1998; 1999; Hampton & Pfeifer 2007; Markovits & Reich 1997; 2002; Maull 2007; Stent 2007). These accounts were mostly motivated by the question of what to expect from Germany's future foreign policy after unification, and most of them convincingly concluded that the reticent foreign policy behavior would not change much because the past continued to weigh heavily on the country. Looking back some two decades later, however, it is clear that critical junctures such as German unification have indeed led to a gradual shift in German foreign policy toward less vigilance and deterrence toward Russia. The megaprojects of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines are the core manifestation of this outdated Ostpolitik with a distorted vision of Russia's interests and its growing aggressiveness since the late 1990s. The question, then, is how to explain this phenomenon, which the literature has only recently begun to address in passing under terms such as “selective perception” (Adler 2022), “jammed reception” (Schneckener 2022), “Stockholm syndrome” (Heinemann-Grüder 2015), or “distorted view” (Urban 2022).

Moreover, at the latest since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2022, there is broad agreement that Germany's post-unification Ostpolitik towards Russia was a failure. However, there are two seemingly contradictory main positions on the reasons for this outcome (see also Deitelhoff 2022). One side, represented most prominently by scholars such as Mearsheimer (2014; 2022), Münkler (2015; 2021), or Hacke (2014), argues that the reckless eastward expansionist policies of both NATO and the EU, which Germany actively supported if not led, provoked Russia to such an extent that the situation escalated to the point where Russia launched a war against Ukraine. On the contrary, proponents of the other side (e.g., Adler 2022; Adomeit 2019; Heinemann-Grüder 2022; Risse 2022; Umland 2022; Urban 2022) share the perspective that Germany was too complacent and considerate in its unwavering policy of appeasement and integration toward Russia, which thus felt less deterred in its increasingly aggressive posture. In other words, while on the one hand, Germany is accused of being too ruthless towards Russia, on the other hand, it is accused of being too considerate towards Russia.

This raises the question of how to explain Germany's dual foreign policy of simultaneously expanding eastward towards Russia and internationally integrating Russia. In what follows, I will argue that these seemingly contradictory policy strategies must be conceptualized as two sides of the same coin. Drawing on a constructivist approach to foreign policy analysis informed by the concept of collective memories and the heuristic of “inattentional blindness” (Bock 2015), I demonstrate this by addressing the pipeline puzzle: why did Germany insist on Nord Stream 1 and 2 despite strong, widespread, and obvious security concerns? After introducing the theoretical concepts of the study, in the first part of the investigation I provide a historical survey of the genesis and transformation of German Ostpolitik up to reunification. In the subsequent main part of the analysis, I examine the political narratives surrounding the construction and commissioning of the two gas pipelines, focusing on the communicative actions of key political actors between 1998 and 2022.


Explaining Germany’s foreign policy motives

There are several obvious explanations for the German fixation on the gas pipelines (see Duffield & Westphal 2011, 180-183; Westphal 2007, 105-111).1 First and foremost, Germany had a vested interest in securing overall favorable economic relations with Russia in terms of trade and investment. The import of natural gas from Russia accounted for a particularly large share, which was a vital source of energy for its manufacturing industry and private households. It was, therefore, attractive to have a direct link to the source of supply through pipelines, which also conveniently eliminated supply disruptions due to conflicts between Russia and transit countries such as Ukraine. As such, the Russian supply line also represents an additional source that contributes to the strategy of diversifying sources for reasons of energy security. Another important reason for using the Russian gas link is Germany's energy mix, which in turn is strongly influenced by the country's energy and climate policies. Since Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power in the medium term and fossil fuels in the long term and to use renewable energy sources instead, natural gas has been chosen as a bridging energy source for the time being. In addition, alternative sources of natural gas, such as shale gas, were not acceptable to German environmental policy. Another factor that positively impacted the procurement of the gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea was the lobbying activities of the resourceful domestic and international industry with an interest in the matter, as well as influential political actors. In addition to well-known proponents such as Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) or Chancellor Angela Merkel (2005-2021), many other (former) politicians with valuable networks in both countries were involved in effectively promoting the project (Adler 2022; Laabs 2022; Bingener und Wehner 2023).

While these mainly economic motives already explain a large part of Germany's foreign policy behavior with regard to its energy security vis-à-vis Russia, what remains difficult to explain on the basis of these factors alone is why Germany would accept the obviously high security risks associated with excessive reliance on Russia's goodwill. Most approaches to international relations assume the interplay between structure and agency and between the international as well as domestic level regarding foreign policy making (see Evans, Jacobson, and Putnam 1993). For the present investigation, I adopt a constructivist approach. Although diverse, constructivist approaches to the study of international relations share several interrelated key conceptual assumptions, as follows (see Adler 2013; Leheny 2014). Constructivists argue that reality is socially constructed and shaped by human ideas, beliefs, norms, and values, and thus they contend that international relations cannot be understood solely in terms of material factors, but require an examination of how ideas and norms influence state behavior. Consequently, they argue that these factors influence the formation of state interests, identities, and preferences, which in turn shape state behavior and interactions in the international system, such as foreign policy making. Thus, constructivists assume “particular sets of normative and cognitive beliefs which a society and its leaders hold about the nation, its role in the international system, and the utility of military force in the realisation of national goals,” (Berger 1997: 41) and thus argue that states' self-perceptions and understandings of their place in the world shape their actions. Building on this, I argue that collective memories are key to informing a statés self-perception, forming a nation’s “political-military culture” (Berger 1997), which in turn determines foreign policy behavior.

Collective history and political culture

Political culture understood as stemming from and manifesting in social identity or “foreign policy identity” (Risse 2007) is key to defining the basic objectives of a collective; it informs the way how the collective and its leaders perceive its surrounding context; it instructs the identification of available actions; and it influences the assessment of the options that have been identified (Duffield 1999, 771-772). Put another way, political culture functions as the DNA of foreign policy behavior, providing the basic blueprint that sets the parameters for justified (and unjustified) behavior. Political culture is generated by a complex process of interaction of the collective, on the basis of which it produces a certain world view that becomes the source of its identity and thus its guiding principle for legitimizing action. In this way, identity-establishing political culture provides for coherence and persistence, and thus effective agency of a collective, or its leadership. A major factor in constituting a society’s identity through its political culture is its collective memories (similar Schmelling 2007, 102). This is because agents of socialization, including “ideological state apparatuses” (Althusser 1970), carry and mediate certain interpretations of the past that are related to perceptions in the present and objective in the future (Heinrich 2009, 84). Collective memories understood as “reflections on national historical experience and its relevance for the present” (Banchoff 2002, 410) affect foreign policy choice in that it crucially informs decision makers when reduction of complexity is necessary due to ambiguity, which is why “leaders often articulate their policies against a historical backdrop, interpret past events, and relate them to present imperatives” (Banchoff 1996, 38-39; 2002; similar see Eun 2019; Leithner 2009; Markovits and Reich 1997; 2002; Banchoff 2002; Berger 1997; Schneckener 2022). However, collective memories are not given, but subject to constant contestation and thus change at a certain point in time by certain powerful (elite) groups of a given society. Thus, though not completely, collective memories’ contents are dependent on powerful actors who can influence the socialization canon significantly. This happens by way of respective education policies and the like in the sense of a process of selecting certain elements from the “stored memory (Speichergedächtnis)” that are transferred to the “functional memory (Funktionsgedächtnis)” (Assmann 2020), which represents the basis for the socialization canon.

In addition, repeated and emphasized reference to these mnemonic elements through communicative action such as speeches and other public utterances by powerful actors contribute to the generation or maintenance of a dominant collective memory (see for example Markovits and Reich 2002, 447). In this way, a certain set of values, norms, and ideas is rendered authoritative in the sense of a “social myth” (Bouchard 2017) or hegemonic discourse (Gramsci), which allows political elites to legitimize and justify their actions or inactions. Here narratives – often drawing on historical analogies – serve as cognitive frames that bestow meaning to actions by reducing complexity and generating acceptance and compliance within the addressed audience (Scheckener 2022, 4; similar see Roe 1994; Oppermann and Spencer 2023). Thus, on the basis of collective memories that shape a national identity and are reflected in a political culture, foreign policy decision-makers equip themselves with a perception of the world that enables them to navigate international relations.

However, while this allows for effective facilitation of agency, at the same time it can lead to severely limiting the ability to act. Psychologically, this works like stereotypical images, where “(i)nitial judgments or prior beliefs serve as a conceptual anchor on the processing of new information and the revision of estimates” (Stein 2013, 20), and, thus, will make actors to „see what they expect to see and to assimilate incoming information to pre-existing images“ (Jervis 1976, 117). This is for example the case when the empirical reality, the actual circumstances in which actors operate, change significantly compared to the range of conditions on the basis of which a given political culture was produced and re-produced (re-confirmed). In this way, a given political culture may hamper the ability of actors to realize fundamental change of the external circumstances within which it must operate effectively. This is because it can either create potential threats to onés security that are not recognized as such, or it can lead one to perceive a threat where there is none (Stein 2013).

One way of conceptualizing this phenomenon is the heuristic of “inattentional blindness” (Bock 2015), which assumes a misleading perceptual framing effect when the observer's attention is occupied by other cognitions. As a result, the observer's ability to unambiguously identify an actually fully visible event that unexpectedly occurs is severely hampered until he or she is consciously aware of it; and even then, the observer's ability to properly assess the situation may remain impaired, thus failing to see the gorilla in the room (Bock 2015, 523).2 Regarding the case at hand, the basic assumption is that, due to a certain political culture, the ability of actors to recognize certain (changing or changed) realities is hindered because this (new) reality is in too much dissonance with the “(i)nitial judgments or prior beliefs [that] serve as conceptual anchor on the processing of new information and the revision of estimates” (Stein 2013, 374). As a result of such an “outdated” assumption, on the basis of which actors develop theories about the behavior, goals, and intentions of other actors (Bock 2015, 518), actions and their outcomes that are in the interest of the collective that holds this particular worldview are not facilitated but frustrated. This is because it leads actors to false perceptions, which they themselves may not realize until a significant shock to their belief system occurs that allows them to question their own fundamental beliefs (identity).

Drawing on “narrative policy analysis” (Roe 1994), I operationalize the above conceptualizations through analyzing communicative action in three triangularly related dimensions – narrative, evaluative, and prescriptive (Banchoff 1996, 37-39). The narrative dimension includes public statements by political leaders, in which they selectively relate a given issue in the present to significant events in the past in a meaningful way. The evaluative dimension concerns adding characterization to the descriptive narration on a quantitative and qualitative level. The former regards assessment through selection or de-selection or emphasis or de-emphasis of certain events, while the latter concerns appraisal through depicting occurrences positively or negatively. By way of concluding inference from the narrative and evaluative dimension, the prescriptive dimension pertains to justifying particular policy priorities appealing for either continuity or change of existing principles and practices. Therefore, based on a contextualization through the examination of secondary literature, expert commentary, and general press reports, I analyze public statements by key actors as reflected in official speeches, parliamentary transcripts, and government responses to parliamentary interpellations.


The old Ostpolitik since Adenauer

West Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, is well known for how his reading of the past translated into the foreign policy direction of his governments (Berger 1997, 45-48). For him, the repeated aggression and destruction by German armed forces based on excessive nationalist ideas made it necessary for the liberated country to regain credibility as a civilized neighbor, especially vis-à-vis France, but also vis-à-vis the rest of Europe and beyond (Banchoff 2002, 412). Thus, the prescription for Germany's postwar foreign policy became rapprochement and transnationalization through firm integration with the West. Of course, various international constraints at the time also contributed to the formation of Germany's foreign policy strategy. For obvious reasons, after World War II and during the Cold War, Germany saw its “peace in freedom” philosophy (pacifism) threatened primarily by an invasion by Russian troops (Warsaw Pact troops) and/or by Russian nuclear strikes. The Soviet Union was clearly perceived as a powerful country with hegemonic ambitions. Therefore, the measures to be taken to protect the country against this threat were clear: deterrence and defense (or defense by deterrence). Since Germany was not able to accomplish this on its own (and due to other circumstances resulting from the post-war order), it joined a multilateral alliance with the U.S. and the Western powers within the framework of NATO, which had been formed shortly before the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1949. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of the horror scenarios of a nuclear war that became more and more obvious and probable with the intensification of the Cold War (e.g. Berlin Blockade 1948-1949, Korean War 1950-1953, Second Berlin Crisis 1958-1959, Cuban Missile Crisis 1961, etc.), the element of détente was added to the previously exclusive deterrence policy at the end of the 1960s as a means of reducing tensions.

The new Ostpolitik since Brandt

This new Ostpolitik was mainly shaped by Willy Brandt, who was to become Chancellor in 1969, and who had already begun to formulate the idea of rapprochement with the Eastern Bloc through trade and exchange in 1949 and had since gradually developed it further (Schmidt 2003). The death of Stalin and the brutal suppression of the uprising on June 17, 1953 were an expression of the growing formation of blocs and all the more reason for Brandt to push his idea of détente. The underlying rationale was that maintaining and expanding political stability in Europe and beyond was a priority. The approach Germany pursued to achieve this goal was not to promote stability by excluding Russia, but to induce stability in Europe by trying to integrate Russia into the liberal democratic camp (see Duffield &Westphal 2011, 175). Germany wanted to at least prevent Russia from becoming more extreme communist by promoting economic exchange. This is well illustrated by the famous slogan “change through trade,” which is another way of saying that Russia was to be transformed into at least a friendlier country (Bahr 1963). After all, the post-war German economy, including its so-called economic miracle, required massive natural resources, resources that it did not have at home but had to import. The Suez Crisis of 1956 was a crucial event in this regard, because in its aftermath the U.S. made it increasingly difficult for Western European countries, including Germany, to import crude oil and later gas from the Middle East. Moreover, the U.S. was not yet able to export these resources on a large scale because it had not yet sufficiently developed its industry. To some extent, these circumstances pushed Western Europe to look to its class enemy, the Soviet Union, for the natural resources it desperately needed (Thompson 2022, 43-49).

It was against this background that the first negotiations between Germany and the Soviet Union took place in the late 1950s, with the aim of jointly exploiting the newly discovered gas fields in Russia (see also Westphal 2007, 94-95). German companies produced steel pipes that were used to build pipelines through countries such as Ukraine to export natural gas and other fossil fuels from Russia to Germany.3 As a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, this trade across the Iron Curtain was initially halted under pressure from the United States, only to be resumed at full speed in early 1970 - Brandt had become Foreign Minister in 1966 and Chancellor in 1969 - with the “Natural Gas Pipeline Treaty”. After the first oil crisis in 1973 and the second in 1979, the exchange of pipes for natural gas was expanded in the early 1980s at the end of the following SPD government under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (1974-1982).

The oil crises once again highlighted the precarious dependence of resource-hungry Germany on the unstable Middle East region, which is why the natural gas trade with the Soviet Union came at just the right time as a source of energy diversification. Moreover, it fit well into Germany's newly evolving foreign policy strategy, which was also influenced by the rapprochement of the bipolar world order (e.g., the U.S. policy of détente). The CSCE Final Act of Helsinki (1975) laid the foundation for a peaceful order in Europe and the world. Brandt's new Ostpolitik, which gained more and more weight in German foreign policy with his rise from SPD functionary to Berlin mayor, SPD chairman, foreign minister, and finally chancellor, mutually stimulated economic developments between Germany and the Soviet Union (cf. Bösch 2017; Schmidt 2003). The synergy effects for both sides were so significant that the Soviet Union even supplied uranium for German nuclear power plants (Bösch 2014, 172). Energy diplomacy became a “catalyst for Brandt's Ostpolitik” (Bösch 2014, 182). Even then, the U.S. warned Germany of a possible dependence on Soviet natural gas, but against the backdrop of continued reliable supplies despite short-term crises and the lucrative business for both sides, these warnings fell on deaf ears. At the time, and for decades to come, successful trade across the Iron Curtain proved to be a reliable constant in the otherwise precarious Cold War.

However, the foreign policy shift (Berger 1997, 50) in the late 1960s and early 1970s did not depend exclusively on Brandt, although it came to the fore during his tenure (1969-1974), but was embedded in the postwar German zeitgeist. Germany was forced by the Western Allies into a process of political re-education and critical self-reflection on its historical atrocities, and the Germans themselves made efforts to reinvent the collective of the German nation. One of the core principles of post-World War II Germany is well summed up in the motto “Never again war!”, and thus during the Cold War the most important goal was to stabilize political circumstances and create conditions for a lasting peace. Against this background, Germany's foreign policy attitude toward Russia was peculiar in that Germany felt a special historical responsibility, mainly because of the tremendous atrocities committed by the German military against the Russian people, but also because of the longer common history of the two countries even before World War II. In addition, the fact that Russian troops had played a decisive role in liberating Germany from Nazi rule made Germany particularly grateful and obligated to Russia.

This dual (two-track) security strategy of the new Ostpolitik, which manifested itself on the one hand in defense and deterrence in the form of armament within the Western European security structure and on the other hand in change through trade and integration through transformation (Berger 1997, 50), was successful until the early 1990s in promoting the values of “securing peace in freedom” plus prosperity. This policy of deterrence-détente contributed decisively to the institutionalization of a peace regime that built on, updated, and expanded the cornerstones of the postwar order.

Post-reunification shift in Ostpolitik

The election of the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl as Chancellor in 1982 marked a conservative turn in German politics, but his Ostpolitik did not change much from that of the previous SPD government. Although he was the “reunification chancellor,” Kohl took up Adenauer's interpretation of the past for Germany's future, which for him meant continuing and furthering its firm Western integration and Europeanization (i.e., transnationalization). Moreover, he could look back on decades of peace and prosperity in postwar Germany (“peace dividend”) thanks to this very foreign policy strategy, which strengthened its legitimacy (Banchoff 2002, 414-416).

The peace order for Europe and the world was completed with the Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990). In it, the signatories, including the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union, pledged to recognize, uphold, and promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law, economic freedom and responsibility, friendly relations among participating states, and security. Other regular meetings and agreements followed. Among these was the Budapest Memorandum (1994), which contained joint pledges of security guarantees by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. On this basis, Ukraine also gave up the nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union had stationed on its territory. Thus, until the early 1990s, developments were dominated by mostly positive impressions. The peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and Russia's reforms seemed to point to the expected convergence of Russia with the liberal-democratic West. From the German perspective in particular, Russia's support for German reunification, its cooperation in the subsequent peaceful withdrawal of troops from East Germany, and the steadily growing good trade relations were seen as a clear confirmation of a credible and sustainable partnership. This fit well with the basic foreign policy idea of creating a lasting peace through deeper cooperative interdependence, which would increase the costs of military conflict. At the same time, the relationship with its main ally, the United States, remained strong, and Germany was assured that the United States would provide the necessary means of protection in the event of a crisis. Accordingly, defense spending was continuously reduced, and there was also a broad public consensus domestically to normalize relations with Russia and thus cultivate a friendly image of Russia.

With reunification and the gradual westward shift of the former Eastern Bloc countries - in 1998 Ukraine officially applied for EU membership, and five years later NATO membership was declared a national goal (Umland 2022, 81) - Germany soon found itself “surrounded by friends” (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung - BMVg 1994). Thus, the hitherto main threat of an invasion by Warsaw Pact troops was averted, and the previous security policy of defense and deterrence no longer seemed to correspond to the given circumstances. In fact, the horrendous armaments and defense spending seemed downright contradictory and inappropriate, so that a clear turning point was soon to emerge, after which defense and deterrence would be successively scaled back and trade relations further expanded. Thus, from a perspective that no longer saw an immediate threat from conventional weapons systems and troop invasions by Russia, the focus shifted away from Germany's defense in Europe to current and potential sources of danger in more distant countries. The number of troops in the Bundeswehr was gradually halved to 250,000 (2005), defense spending as a percentage of GNP was also halved to about 10% (from around 1995), and the minimum NATO contribution of 2% was for a long time only half met. And although the actual defense expenditures increased continuously, the qualitative conditions of the Bundeswehr deteriorated significantly.4 Instead, Germany largely externalized the focus of its security strategy. This manifested itself in a preventive strategy of either containing sources of conflict abroad or preventing them from arising in the first place, using a dual strategy of military and civilian power functions (Maull 2007). German soldiers increasingly participated in military operations abroad that had previously been considered impossible. After the initial “purely logistical” support of military operations by allied states, direct interventions also increased from the end of the 1990s, including recent missions such as in Afghanistan (2001-2021) or Mali (2013-present) (see Bundestag 2022). In addition, Germany's deliveries of weapons systems to other countries continued to increase, making it one of the world's top five arms exporters (SIPRI 2022, 13).

In addition to this security strategy of external defense, Germany also promoted internal defense on a second level in the sense that it pursued the strategy of either integrating possible destabilizing actors (states) into the multilateral security and economic structure of NATO and the EU, or at least associating them (mutual reliability of expectations). The idea was that a stronger political, military, and cultural interdependence of states, in addition to the already strong economic ties, would lead to a convergence of interests, which in turn would help prevent potential threats. This strategy was most evident in the eastward and southeastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary joined NATO in 1999, followed by Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria, as well as the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) in 2004. Only Belarus and Ukraine now stood between Russia and the West, NATO. Albania and Croatia followed in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020. With some differences, a corresponding eastward expansion of the EU followed in parallel.5 Formats such as the Barcelona Process (later the Union for the Mediterranean - UfM) (EEAS 2022) or the Neighborhood Policy (Europäisches Parlament 2022) were established to at least associate states that could not, should not, or did not want to be directly integrated into the EU. In the same vein, the NATO-RUS Founding Act of 1997 (NATO 2009) and the NATO-Russia Council's Rome Declaration of 2002 (BMVg 2022) attempted to bind Russia to European security policy.

However, similar to the side effects of arms exports, this actually sensible and effective integration and networking strategy also had negative repercussions. Russia, which had not moved closer to the West as hoped, felt noticeably encircled, especially by NATO's eastward enlargement, which began in 1999 with the first round of accessions (bpb 2022). From Russia's point of view, the buffer zone between it and the liberal, democratic West had thinned to a threatening degree. Although Russia has tried to engage with the new liberal order, at least since Putin became prime minister in 1999, it has at the same time continued its old Soviet-imperialist policies. It is irrelevant whether, as Putin and others claim, there was a gentlemen's agreement in 1990 not to expand NATO eastward or not. The entire process of rebuilding Europés new political order after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification unmistakably points to a mutually recognized understanding that the interests and reservations on both sides of the former Iron Curtain had to be taken seriously if the peace order was to be sustainable (Bock 2015: 536).

As for Germany's involvement in the eastward enlargement of NATO and the EU, on one level this can obviously be explained by Germany's commitments as a core member of these two major collective actors. Thus, it simply reflects Germany's dedication to collective security and its belief in the importance of promoting democratic values and institutions in its neighborhood. Nevertheless, the supposed ruthlessness with which Germany pursued these policies can be explained by the fact that the cognitive abilities of the German political leadership were decisively impaired by selective perception, because it was too preoccupied with its cultivated image of Russia as a threatening aggressor, and thus “deviating and dissonant information about the established assessment of NATO's eastward expansion [was] blocked” (Bock 2015, 538). This led to insensibility to the obvious, namely that Russia felt de facto threatened by the West's eastward expansion - regardless of its legitimacy as seen by the rest of the world.6 Putin's superpower fantasies of bringing Ukraine back into the empire may seem outdated, but that does not mean they are not valid reasons for Russia to feel threatened. Moreover, Russia has made no secret of its unease. However, Russia's signals that it felt its security threatened and that it wanted to participate in shaping the European security order on an equal footing were either disregarded as harmless “folklore or Soviet nostalgia” (Schneckener 2022, 8) and/or (mis)interpreted as nothing more than threatening gestures that logically had to be met with the further integration of additional post-Soviet states into NATO and the EU as a measure of multilateral peacekeeping.

In the early 1990s, Russia experienced a constitutional crisis (1993) and intervened militarily in the First Chechen War (1994-1996) and the Second Chechen War (1999). With Vladimir Putin, who had been prime minister since 1999, and his election as president in 2000, a political leader came to power who was believed to be capable of reform. Putin's speech at the Bundestag in 2001 suggests Russia's ambivalence about seriously engaging with the new liberal order, while at the same time being constrained by domestic challenges (Putin 2001). It also shows Putin's appeal to the West to recognize Russia's difficulties and to reach out further to Russia. In other words, in addition to Russia's proclaimed commitment to support the liberal reforms that have been introduced in Russia, Putin's criticism of the West, especially regarding Russia's lack of a say in NATO and the entire security structure, can hardly be overlooked when he rhetorically asks: “Is this true partnership?” (Putin 2001). Thus, the historic speech at the Bundestag contained almost all the core issues of relations with the West, which at the time seemed largely open to negotiation. And over time, as EU integration and NATO enlargement progressed, Putin's speeches became increasingly explicit (see below). However, the West, and Germany in particular, apparently overlooked the conspicuously growing forcefulness in Putin's communication and foreign policy. The German strategy focused on positive aspects in order to create a constructive relationship. For example, in the same year the German-Russian consultative meetings (2001-2005) were institutionalized, and four years later the two countries signed a contract for the joint construction of a natural gas pipeline (Nord Stream) directly connecting Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea.

In summary, the above historical examination of Germany's “political-military culture” (Berger 1997) has shown that distinct collective memories have generated its particular foreign policy behavior, which is characterized by norms and principles such as foreign policy restraint, international integration, and antimilitarism. The negative experience of German crimes against humanity under the fascist regime and during the Second World War constitutes a “curse of catastrophe” and was reflected in the foreign policy of the first two decades after the war, which emphasized Germany's integration with the West and deterrence of the East. Subsequently, since the late 1960s, foreign policy was complemented by a shift toward German unification and integration of the East with the West, while maintaining vigilance and deterrence against Russia (Heinemann-Grüder 2022, 363). The long postwar period of peace and prosperity positively confirmed Germany's foreign policy strategy.

Similarly, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the real socialist system, and the reunification of Germany seemed to provide striking evidence that Germany's Ostpolitik of change through trade had become a panacea (see also Maull 2007, 77). The progress of European integration and NATO's eastward expansion were perceived as positive feedbacks, seemingly confirming modernization theory and the end of history thesis (Fukuyama 1992). Deluded by this “curse of success,” Germany's national leaders were fatally misled into thinking that it was only a matter of time before Russia would also fall for their soft power and transition to liberal democracy. In addition, Germany's constant remembrance of the atrocities committed as part of Nazi Germany's brutal campaign against Eastern Europe cultivated a special, conscious attitude that led to a special, considerate treatment of any issue related to Russia. Almost exclusively caught up in this particular collective memory, Germany's political leadership deluded itself into an ambivalent “inattentional blindness” (Bock 2015) that made Germany's leadership unable to recognize Russia's growing discontent and resentment toward the West, as well as the ominously growing asymmetry in its interdependent relationship with Russia. Ultimately, this misguided expansionist-integrative strategy led to a two-pronged foreign policy that ultimately had the potential not only to provoke but also to induce Russian aggression. It is this selective perception and the resulting foreign policy that must be understood to explain Germany's declining defense spending and increasing energy dependence. Building on these contextual insights, the following main analysis examines the policy narratives that are key to the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines.


When Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder took over the chancellery in 1998, he became the expected “future SPD chancellor [who] pointed to Brandt's opening to the East in the 1970s as a positive precedent for a shift in German attention to the East” (Banchoff 1999, 416). Initially, he “did not, like his predecessor Kohl, rely on the “big historical perspective” but on sober pragmatism” (Rahr 2008, 191). However, soon after his first meeting with Putin, he recalibrated his perspective (Stent 2007, 445-448). In addition, Schröder, along with his foreign minister Joschka Fischer, tended to be skeptical of military security policy, while emphasizing the means and ends of moral civilization and international law in German and European foreign policy, de-emphasizing national interests, and “took Germany's and Europés self-assertion in security policy for granted” (Hacke 2002). Schröder's perspective on the past and his prescription for the relationship with Russia and the foreign policy to be pursued are clearly evident in several of his speeches, especially in his last year in office, shortly before the official decision to build the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline. He argued that the memory of the suffering that Germany brought to Europe “should not remain without consequences” (Schröder 2005c), and that the relationship with Russia was particularly important because “the events of the past century should never be repeated in the history of both peoples” (Schröder 2005c). Schröder emphasized how fortunate it was that, since the great turning point of 1989/90, the two countries had managed to “finally overcome the rifts of the past” (Schröder 2005b) and to have “moved from the confrontation of the Cold War to ever more comprehensive cooperation” (Schröder 2005). As part of this “strategic partnership” between Germany and Russia, he sees considerable opportunities in the energy partnership, “especially in the natural gas sector” (Schröder 2005a). This is also due to the fact that Germany has an “extremely reliable and responsible gas supplier” in Russia (Schröder 2005a; Schröder 2005b).7

Against this background and in view of Schröder's close personal relationship with Putin (see Westphal 2007, 105-107), it was not surprising that in 2005, shortly before his expected election defeat, he signed a memorandum of understanding for the construction of a natural gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea from Russia directly to Germany - Nord Stream 1. This increased Germany's already high share of natural gas imports from Russia, which was 41.7 % in 2005 (Westphal 2007, 96). This was the first time that a direct natural gas pipeline was laid between Russia and Germany, bypassing third countries such as the Baltic States, Poland or Ukraine, which had previously received large sums of money for transporting natural gas to consumers in Western Europe. This made Russia less politically dependent on these countries and allowed it to do business directly with Germany. Conversely, these countries, which were already dependent on Russia, have become even more so. Less revenue and more political dependence are the two main reasons why the transit countries were critical of the new pipeline from the beginning. However, there were also debates in Germany and other countries about Germany's increased dependence on Russia due to the growing centralization of energy supply with Russia as the main supplier (as opposed to the officially declared goal of diversification) and the related issue of energy security (see Westphal 2007, 93, 112; Stent 2007, 451). Nevertheless, the critical remarks, mostly made by think tank researchers, went largely unheeded or were downplayed by the German government or the business community.8

The new government under Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel (2005-2021) also stayed the course (Heinemann-Grüder 2022). The government's main strategy was to further promote the integration of Russia (Grätz 2011, 70). Despite this apparent deepening and intertwining of relations, Russia continued to exhibit developments that once again pulled the country away from the West. At the beginning of Putin's second presidential term in 2004, Russia's increased influence on the presidential elections in Ukraine began. The pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko won the election against his pro-Russian opponent Viktor Yanukovych, but the new ruling camp that had emerged from the Orange Revolution was unable to form a united front to properly stabilize the political situation in Ukraine. Two years later, in 2006, Russia and Ukraine had a dispute over gas prices, and Russia cut off its gas supply, which also led to a reduction in gas supplies to European countries. Finally, the case that was often warned about occurred (Grund 2007, 13370), and the temporary interruption of natural gas supplies to Ukraine showed how Russia was able to use its new power (Süddeutsche Zeitung - SZ 2006). This made it clear to other countries dependent on gas imports how Putin could use the fossils as a political weapon against them in the future (Farrell & Newman 2019; see also Liuhtu 2010).9 It was another unmistakable demonstration of the potential dangers for Germany of an asymmetrically integrated relationship with Russia, i.e., a relationship in which one side – Russia – has potential leverage over the other – Germany – because of asymmetric interdependence (see Keohane and Nye 2000).

This led to a renewed focus on energy security in the European Union and in Germany. The European Commission (EC) issued a policy strategy paper on the subject, emphasizing the urgency of addressing energy security in Europe (EC 2006). As far as Russia was concerned, although it saw the EU as “an equal partner in this relationship”, it nevertheless sought “a true partnership” that would “provide security and predictability for both sides” and therefore proposed to integrate Russia more effectively into a common partnership with the EU (EC 2006, 15). The German government also felt compelled to address the issue of energy security, which led to a major initiative by the Chancellery in the form of three consecutive energy summits of key federal ministries in 2006 and 2007. In particular, the new German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (2005-2009 & 2013-2017), who had previously been Chief of Staff in the Chancellor's Office under Schröder (1999-2005), and his ministry became active in promoting a cooperative and peaceful engagement with Russia on energy trade issues. In a newspaper commentary, Steinmeier referred to Germany's positive experience in reducing tensions in the East-West conflict during the Cold War, arguing that “this approach remains relevant to defuse the potential for conflict associated with growing energy competition”, and also argued for the “reduction of energy dependency” (Steinmeier 2006). Similarly, the German Ministry of Defensés White Paper emphasized that “energy issues will play an increasingly important role in global security in the future,” especially with regard to the “growing dependence of Germany and Europe on imports of fossil fuels” (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung 2006, 23), and stressed the “special role of Russia” (ibid., 57-58). Paradoxically, however, the dependence on gas imports from Russia in particular, continued to grow, and the procurement of Nord Stream 1 was a crucial building block.

Against this background, the opposition in 2006 repeatedly pressed the Merkel-government on the matter of the gas pipeline in minor interpellations (Bundesregierung 2006, 2006, 2006a, 2006b). The government's responses were characterized by a recurring pattern of argumentation consisting of three main elements. First, the government emphasized that the gas pipeline would ensure the diversification of energy sources and thus contribute to the security of Germany's energy supply (Bundesregierung 2006, 1; Bundesregierung 2009, 10):

The NEGP will create a direct connection to the world's largest gas deposits in Russia and additional new transport capacities. This will ensure long-term security of supply with natural gas in Germany and also in the European Union.

Second, the statements repeatedly stressed that the Nord Stream project was a pure business project operated by the participating companies in Russia and Germany (Bundesregierung 2006, 1; similar see Bundesregierung 2006a, 3; Bundesregierung 2006b, 1). Typically, the German government would comment on questions regarding its responsibility on the matter by saying that

[t]he North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) is a project of the companies E.ON, BASF and Gazprom. The companies involved in the project decide on the planning and continuation of the project to build the NEGP. The federal government is not involved in the project.

Finally, responding to the question of to what extent it saw the need to question Russia's role as a “strategic partner” against the background of the Russian- Ukrainian gas controversy, the government emphasized Russia's reliability by referring to long-term credibility in the past (Bundesregierung 2006a, 2):

For almost 40 years, these deliveries of gas and oil have been largely smooth and reliable. Building on this, […] the Federal Government continues to strive for a long-term energy partnership with Russia without one-sided dependencies.

On October 2, 2007, shortly after the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, Gazprom first threatened to stop gas supplies to Ukraine, and in early March the following year, again reduced the gas supply (Buckely et al. 2008) as a way of applying political pressure, and thus challenging the German government’s complacency. Meanwhile, Putin has continuously and increasingly voiced his concerns about Russia's place at the European leadership table. At the latest, since Putin's speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 (Putin 2007) and at the NATO meeting in Bucharest in 2008 (Gebauer 2008), Russia has made it explicitly clear that it demands a greater say in international political decision-making processes in the region, and in Munich, Putin was quoted as saying that “I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” (Putin 2007). A year later in Bucharest, Putin, while acknowledging progress in the relation between NATO and Russia, made it clear that “[i]t is no secret that there are serious obstacles to the development of our relations: the continued expansion of NATO, the creation of a military infrastructure on the territory of new members” (Putin 2008). Shortly thereafter, Putin launched the war on Georgia (2008), and despite similar continuous conflicts, former Chancellor Schröder as well as large parts of the industry kept emphasizing that “[t]here is no reason to doubt Russia's delivery reliability.” (SZ 2007; SZ 2008a). Meanwhile, the media increasingly cautioned that the “Kremlin makes politics with energy” (SZ 2008). And, indeed, after another conflict between Moscow and Kiev had emerged at the end of 2009, on January 1, 2009, Gazprom again stopped deliveries to Ukraine for about two weeks because of a dispute over the payment of gas bills and a missing contract for 2009 (FAZ 2009). However, despite these recurring gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine that had a direct effect on Western Europe’s energy security, too, Germany’s leadership nevertheless continuously put faith in Russia.


Meanwhile, Merkel more actively pursued an energy policy initiative on climate change, energy efficiency, promoting renewable energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and phasing out nuclear power, while relatively neglecting energy security (Duffield 2009, 4287). Alternative energy sources were needed to implement the Atomkonsens (phase-out consensus), which had already been announced in 2001 (Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2001). In 2011, with the completion of Nord Stream 1 and Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear power in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima incident, natural gas became the key bridging energy source. Theoretical alternatives, such as shale gas from the US or other countries, contradicted climate-conscious policy goals and were therefore not considered. In the spring of 2013, the Nord Stream consortium proposed the construction of Nord Stream 2, even though only half of the capacity of Nord Stream 1 had been used (Die Welt 2013). From the outset, both the EU and the US, as well as former Soviet states such as Poland and Ukraine, were strongly opposed to this second line, as it would exacerbate the already existing problem of centralizing Germany's and Europés energy supplies, thereby increasing dangerous dependence on Russia. With the construction of Nord Stream 2, Russia would be able to bypass gas transit countries such as Ukraine, which would not only suffer a loss of revenue for transporting gas to the West, but would also become much more dependent on Russian gas supplies because they would have no leverage. This is because Nord Stream 2 would provide Russia with an additional alternative export route, which would tilt the previous balance of interdependence between Russia and Ukraine (= stability through entanglement) decisively in favor of one side - Russia (Umland 2020; 2022; Westphal 2007, 109). In other words, by promoting Nord Stream 1 and 2, Germany not only promoted its own dependence on Russian gas more than necessary, but also fostered the threat of Ukrainés territorial insecurity vis-à-vis Russia.

That these fears were not unfounded was demonstrated shortly after the proposal for a second Nord Stream pipeline in the fall of 2013, when Russia successfully pressured Ukraine not to proceed with the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, which would have brought the country closer to the West. Moscow had granted Kiev discounts on natural gas after President Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014) declared that he would not sign an EU association agreement that had been negotiated for years. The German press interpreted these developments as “a relentless demonstration of power by the Kremlin, showing the entire continent how dependent it has long been on its sinister partner Russia” (SZ 2014). And it was these events that led to the Euromaidan protests (2013-2014) against Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs, as well as against pervasive corruption. As a result, Yanukovych went into exile in Russia, and an interim government was installed in early 2014. In March, Russia annexed Crimea in violation of international law, and Russian-backed secessionist movements emerged in eastern Ukraine. The German press once again pointed out the obvious: “Pipelines are power” (SZ 2014). Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk was quick to emphasize that measures must be taken to prevent a security threat due to Russia's overwhelming position in supplying large shares of gas to European countries, first and foremost Germany (FAZ 2014). Shortly thereafter, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while denying that Germany was the European country most dependent on Russian gas imports, declared that Europe would reduce its dependence on Russian energy sources as a long-term consequence of the Crimean crisis and that the “entire energy policy” would therefore be reviewed (FAZ 2014a).

In early September 2014, the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine signed the Minsk Protocol (or Minsk I), which sought an agreement to end the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, the effectiveness of the agreement was undermined by numerous violations, and a second agreement (Minsk II) was signed shortly thereafter, in February 2015. The agreed ceasefire was again violated and the conflict continued despite many successive attempts, all tailored to the two Minsk agreements. At the EU summit in Brussels at the end of March 2015, the leaders of several Eastern and Southern European countries opposed the Nord Stream 2 project on the grounds that it would threaten energy security if gas dependence on Russia was too high (FAZ 2015). In the end, however, Merkel successfully lobbied to prevent the EU from taking a clear position against the project, arguing, once again, that Nord Stream 2 was merely an economic project (FAZ 2015b).

In line with the government's complacent stance on the issue, a study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy (BMWi) was published in July 2015, analyzing “possibilities for improving gas security and crisis prevention” in light of “discussions about possible, politically motivated restrictions on gas imports” (BMWi 2015). The study concluded, however, that “the level of supply security that has been historically and currently considered sufficient” (BMWi 2015). Only a few politicians, such as Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag and a member of Merkel's CDU, were not convinced of Russia's reliability and repeatedly questioned the government's claim that Nord Stream 2 was merely a private business deal, pointing to the political nature of the Nord Stream project (FAZ 2015a). On top of that and in line with the EU’s critique on the project, for Röttgen the pipeline “contradicts the goal of reducing dependence on Russia in the energy issue” (FAS 2015). The Ministry of Defense seems to have shared the basic concerns about Russia when it asserted in its 2016 White Paper that “Russia is openly calling the European peace order into question through its willingness, which has come to light in Crimea and eastern Ukraine” (BMVg 2016, 31), which “requires a dual approach: one of credible deterrence and defense capability, and one of willingness to engage in dialogue.” (BMVg 2016, 66)

Indeed, at the beginning of 2018, the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine resurfaced, and Russia once again cut off gas supplies (Handelsblatt 2018). For the first time, the German government voiced concerns about Russia's reliability, albeit indirectly, when its spokesperson stated that it was in the EU's interest that Russia prove to be a reliable partner in gas supplies and that a continuous supply must be guaranteed (Spiegel 2018). However, when pressed by the opposition in a minor interpellation two months later, the German government fell back on its now familiar mantra-like argumentation (Bundesregierung 2018, 2-7):

[T]he Russian companies have fulfilled their delivery obligations towards German contractual partners in the past. There is no reason to assume that this could change in the future. […] Nord Stream 2 is a commercial project of the companies involved. The Federal Government is aware of the political dimension and takes the corresponding concerns of partner countries seriously. […] As an additional supply route for natural gas from the Russian Federation, the pipeline will help improve the EU's security of gas supply.

Meanwhile, the simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine increased significantly again at the end of 2018 due to provocations by the Russian military, prompting the Ukrainian leadership to declare a temporary state of emergency to control the threat. Later, in the spring of 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected as the new president of Ukraine, who met with Putin in Paris in December in the so-called Normandy format, that is, negotiations between the two countries mediated by France and Germany. To no avail, however.

U.S. pressure on Germany increased to such an extent that the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, wrote a letter on January 3 to several German companies with close trade ties to Russia, stating that the completion of Nord Stream 2 “could well mean the removal of a key strategic deterrent to aggressive Russian behavior in Ukraine” (Grenell 2019). However, the German government was not deterred from its course, as evidenced by Merkel's speech at the Munich Security Conference in mid-February 2019, where she assured her domestic and international critics (Merkel 2019) that:

[n]obody wants to become unilaterally and totally unilaterally dependent on Russia. But if we received Russian gas during the Cold War […] then I don't know why times are supposed to be so much worse today that we don't say: Russia will remain a partner. […] Do we only want to make Russia dependent on China […]? Is that our European interest? I don't think so either.

The German government's unchanged position was also reaffirmed in response to a minor interpellation from the opposition on the government's position on energy security (Bundesregierung 2019a, 4), where it stated that:

Nord Stream 2 will bring additional security of supply for Europe and thus make a positive contribution to the goals of the Energy Union.

In August 2020, the famous Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was poisoned, presumably by the Russian secret service, and was later treated in Germany for his injuries. This incident worsened relations between Russia and Germany, as well as with the EU and NATO. For the US, it was an additional reason to reiterate its opposition to Nord Stream 2 and to impose further sanctions against Russia. Finally, in early 2021, the situation in Ukraine began to escalate when increasing Russian military movements on the border prompted the Ukrainian parliament to allow the temporary stationing of foreign troops on its territory. The British, French, and U.S. militaries conducted reconnaissance flights in the region, including exercises over Ukrainian territory. Subsequently, Russia began to significantly concentrate its troops on the border with Ukraine, while submitting a proposal to NATO to agree not to expand its membership to former Soviet states. Half a year after Joe Biden's inauguration as President, the US had abandoned its previous strong opposition to Nord Stream 2 (Schäuble 2021). Instead, the U.S. and Germany jointly declared (Auswärtiges Amt 2021) that:

[s]hould Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive actions against Ukraine, Germany will act at the national level and in the European Union, and press for effective measures, including sanctions […]. This pledge aims to ensure that Russia does not use any pipeline, including Nord Stream 2, to achieve aggressive political goals by using energy as a weapon.

In the face of increasing Russian aggression in Ukraine and constant pressure from the U.S. and EU member states, the German government slowly accepted a more skeptical approach to Russia and its gas pipeline. However, at the first meeting between the newly elected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Brussels in December 2021, Scholz repeated the old Merkel arguments about the purely “economic” nature of the pipeline (Schuller 2022). Moreover, in early January 2022, Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the governing SPD, was quoted as saying that we should not talk ourselves into potential international conflicts, such as a possible Russian attack on Ukraine, and that debates about Nord Stream 2 should not be “mixed up” with debates about Russian policy toward Ukraine (FAZ 2022). Only at the end of January, during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, did Scholz for the first time not repeat the “purely economic” argument, indicating a reversal of his position on the matter (Busse 2022).

Despite strong domestic and international concerns and criticism, a second natural gas pipeline (Nord Stream 2) was completed in 2019, running parallel to Nord Stream 1 in the Baltic Sea, which would have doubled the gas transit capacity from Russia. At that time, Germany's share of gas imports reached 65.2% (Statista 2022). Due to Russia's war against Ukraine, which began in earnest in January 2022, the pipeline was never commissioned as part of the sanctions against Russia. Finally, Putin openly used Nord Stream 1 as a political weapon against Germany when he completely cut off gas supplies in August 2022.


The starting point of the article was the question of how to explain Germany's seemingly contradictory foreign policy of simultaneous expansion towards and integration of Russia, focusing on why Germany insisted on Nord Stream 1 and 2 despite strong and widespread security concerns. Aiming to complement the existing mainly economic explanations, I adopted a constructivist approach. Starting from the assumption that collective memory shapes political culture, which in turn influences foreign policy behavior, I first examined the genesis and change of German foreign policy culture, and then closely investigated the policy narratives central to the construction and commissioning of the gas pipelines by analyzing the communicative actions of key political actors.

Post-war Germany's initially deterrence-oriented foreign policy toward the East was transformed into a new Ostpolitik in the late 1960s that henceforth balanced deterrence and détente as a remedial strategy in the face of developments during the Cold War that were perceived as existentially threatening. However, the subsequent successes of postwar European peace and prosperity, German reunification, and European integration were crucial to the development of an “inattentional blindness” on the part of German political leaders that led them to change Ostpolitik once again, now overly tilted toward a détente-oriented foreign policy strategy vis-à-vis Russia. The undiminished support for the two direct gas pipelines between Russia and Germany is a case in point and was analyzed in detail.

The examination has shown, since the dispute over Nord Stream 1 in the mid-2000s, a certain pattern of argumentation has been repeated almost as a mantra by the German political leadership when pressed on this issue. The basis of the argumentation lies in the narrative dimension, in which the Russian pipelines are portrayed as crucial for obtaining the necessary quantities of natural gas to meet consumption demand, for supporting the energy turn, and for energy security through diversification. The claim that ‘we need the Russian gas’ is then complemented by the claim that ‘we have always gotten gas from Russia’, referring to the long history of Russian gas imports since the Cold War. This depiction of Russia's unfailing delivery ‘even during the Cold War’ is the point of intersection with the evaluative dimension, in which it is suggested that it is 'highly unlikely that Russia would betray Germany now'. In addition, by stating that the pipelines are ‘just business,’ and therefore not in the realm of politics disconnects the meaning of the gas pipelines from their political context. Thus, by selecting and deselecting certain past experiences (e.g., omitting recent supply disruptions) and applying qualifiers, Russia is positively portrayed as a reliable supplier and the pipelines as a non-political matter. This provides the pretext to argue consistently in the prescriptive dimension that the issue of secure Russian gas supplies through the pipelines belongs solely to the realm of the self-regulating market that will watch over them (‘Let the market do it’). This allows for the consistent conclusion that because the pipelines do not pose a threat, there is no need for concern (‘Don’t worry.’), and that the government is not responsible (‘Don’t ask us to act.’), justifying government inaction.

This peculiar political narrative almost completely disappeared after Russia's attack on Ukraine and Chancellor Scholz's subsequent proclamation in February 2022 of a turning point in German foreign policy, with a special focus on Russia. Although it may be too early to assess the precise characteristics and success of Germany's fundamental foreign-policy shift, the Zeitenwende proclamation and Germany's (communicative) actions so far allow for the cautious conclusion that Russia's attack on Ukraine provided the necessary shock to Germany's dangerously tilted Ostpolitik equilibrium so that the German leadership finally became fully aware of the gorilla in the room.

There are three general implications to be drawn from this case study. First, it is necessary to guard against foreign policy blind spots as much as possible. To this end, it is important to democratize the foreign policy decision-making process by opening the strategic discourse to a wider range of participants. The exclusivity of the foreign policy discourse, which is mostly limited to a small elite, overly restricts participation, and thus inhibits the checking and balancing of the hegemonic discourse. By making the process more accessible and allowing a wider variety of actors to participate, a form of pluralistic communication is created that naturally inoculates against path-dependent foreign policy dogmas. Policy dialogues should take place frequently in different arenas (e.g., government, parliament, think tanks, universities, and the public) and actively involve a variety of experts across ideological and disciplinary lines, as well as civil society. Therefore, sufficient support and promotion of experts (think tanks, universities, etc.) as well as appropriate civic education is important to foster the necessary capacities. Second, and closely related to the first point, the foreign policy perceptions of other international actors must be taken seriously and reflected in strategic considerations and decisions. In particular, it is important not to ignore or discount what and how other international actors perceive as threats to their security, while not confusing these perceptions with onés own. Considering how the other side understands its position and role in international relations is crucial for comprehending and thus taking into account all possible variables that may come into play in foreign policy encounters. For only by understanding the other sidés reasoning can one respond in a way that best serves onés own security interests and the resolution of conflicts and tensions. Failure or refusal to understand the other sidés motivations and interests risks the opposite. Third, and as a corollary to the previous two points, the baby of appeasement policy should not be thrown out with the bathwater. Based on the claim that cooperative behavior between states is more likely to occur when they have common interests, it can be assumed that as countries become more economically interdependent, they are more likely to engage in peaceful cooperation and resolve disputes through diplomacy, as the costs of conflict become too high. Thus, increased interdependence can lead to the spread of liberal norms and ideas, thereby promoting positive political change. The key to sustainable mutual and even multilateral benefits lies in the relative symmetry of the relationship. Since asymmetry in the sense of excessive dependence of one side on the other, risks deviating from the benign equilibrium by providing opportunities and thus incentives for abuse (see Keohane and Nye 2000).


1 Nord Stream 1 was formerly also known as North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP).

2 This is based on the psychological phenomenon of people failing to notice unexpected or irrelevant stimuli when they are engaged in a particular task, which gained prominence through an experiment called “The Invisible Gorilla” conducted by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in 1999. In the experiment, participants were asked to watch a video of people passing basketballs and count the number of passes made by a particular team. While the participants were concentrating on this task, a person dressed in a gorilla suit entered the scene, thumped his chest, and left. Amazingly, almost half of the participants did not notice the gorilla at all. In this sense, the invisible gorilla phenomenon underscores that our attention is highly selective and limited, leading us to overlook significant and salient details in our environment.

3 By the end of the 1950s, Germany was already importing 700,000 tons of crude oil, 300,000 tons of fuel oil, and 120,000 tons of diesel oil from Russia (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 1959), and these quantities continued to increase in the following years (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 1961).

4 On the whole, the general material equipment of the Bundeswehr is severely criticized in almost every annual report of the Commissioner for the Armed Forces. There are too few functioning weapons, tanks, aircraft and warships. There is a lack of helmets, underwear and usable backpacks. Some of the barracks are in disrepair. The number of unfilled positions in the Bundeswehr is regularly in the five-digit range. Extremism, sexism and abuse of power by superiors have also been the subject of repeated criticism of conditions in the Bundeswehr (RND 2020; Bundestag 2022).

5 Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013.

6 The insensibility is obvious in that Germany clearly did not take into account Russia's perspective or perception, otherwise the invasion of Crimea (2014) and the war on Ukraine (2022) would not have taken it by surprise.

7 Schröder is also well-known for having a particularly strong relationship with Putin on a personal level as well as for the statement that Putin is a “flawless democrat (lupenreiner Demokrat)” (Handelsblatt 2004).

8 Duffield (2009) names Frank Umbach at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (DGAP) and Friedemann Müller at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Bildung (SWP) as representative examples (Umbach 2006; Müller 2005). Heinemann-Grüner (2022) lists Hannes Adomeit, Andreas Umland, Stefan Meister, Uwe Halbach, Roland Götz, and himself (ibid., 364). Similar critical interventions have been made by Koenen (2015) or Schlögel (2015), to name only a few.

9 While it is not completely clear, whether the gas cutoff was mainly politically or economically motivated, it nevertheless demonstrated the potential of Putin’s leverage vividly (BBC 2009)

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