“Nord Stream 2 was a mistake. We simply didn’t listen to the Eastern Europeans.”

An Interview with Atlantik-Brücke Chairman Sigmar Gabriel

Atlantik-Brücke is a non-partisan organisation. And while journalist Martin Klingst conducted this interview with Sigmar Gabriel, the Chairman of Atlantik-Brücke, he also interviewed Mr. Gabriel in his capacity as the former leader of the German Social Democratic Party, the former German Minister for Economic Affairs and Secretary of State.

Mr. Gabriel, are you concerned that Russia’s war against Ukraine could trigger a Third World War?

Sigmar Gabriel: I’m not a fan of panic-mongering, so I don’t like using the term ‘Third World War’. What we really should be concerned about is the possibility of Russia being willing to deploy nuclear weapons. That would have catastrophic consequences – at least for Europe. In fact, it would be no less devastating than a Third World War. Unfortunately, a Russian nuclear strike is a real and present danger.

In the oath he took when assuming office, Chancellor Olaf Scholz swore to protect the German people from harm. So his main priority should be to prevent the escalation of the war and the use of nuclear weapons. Do you agree?

Gabriel: There’s definitely some disagreement on whether the federal government’s communication strategy has been ideal. From my perspective, the federal chancellor quite rightly said two things: On the one hand, Germany will give Ukraine the support it needs to not lose this war against Russia. On the other hand, we have to be cautious that the war doesn’t escalate and possibly even result in the deployment of nuclear weapons. Providing support while exercising caution is a difficult undertaking, and it involves walking a fine line. NATO, the United States, and the United Kingdom are all concerned about the same issue: What can we do to prevent Putin from winning the war and to help Ukraine defend itself effectively? But we also have to be careful not to give Putin a reason to escalate the war because, if that happened, we would all be on the losing side, not just Ukraine.

Does supplying certain weapons to Ukraine implicate the West’s direct involvement in the war, or would that only be the case, as certain international law experts suggest, if NATO troops were deployed?

Gabriel: What constitutes our involvement in the war won’t be decided by human rights activists or legislators: it will be decided by Vladimir Putin. World history isn’t negotiated in court. Also, if international laws were being observed, there would be no war in Ukraine.

Isn’t the West already involved in the war? After all, Ukraine isn’t just defending itself, it’s also defending peace, freedom, and democracy in Europe.

Gabriel: As Europeans, we shouldn’t only condemn attacks on the peace order that are happening on our doorstep and then simply shrug our shoulders when they affect countries further away. This behavior has prompted several countries to accuse us of operating on a double standard. But, of course, Ukraine isn’t only fighting for itself, it’s fighting to uphold the minimum standards of international law. And that means not simply driving tanks into a neighboring country and declaring war. I think, for that alone, Ukraine deserves our support.

Of course, Ukraine isn’t only fighting for itself, it’s fighting to uphold the minimum standards of international law.

We should avoid calling the war a conflict between ‘the West and Russia’ because there are a lot of people around the world who would then see it as a ‘proxy war’ between two former empires that they want nothing to do with. Russia’s war concerns us all. If this breach of international law is successful, it could soon be copied in other parts of the world. In other words, Ukraine isn’t only fighting for its freedom, but also to uphold the international order.

Is Germany too hesitant and waiting too long before offering assistance? It seems as if Chancellor Scholz only responds to pressure.

Gabriel: I think the German chancellor is taking careful and considered action. And that’s important in this kind of a situation. Of course, the federal government could have acted faster and communicated some issues more clearly. Germany hasn’t been showing its best side in recent weeks, to put it mildly. Better coordination and communication within NATO and with the US, as a leading power, would have made a lot of things easier. Still, I prefer a government that considers an issue from all angles to a hot-headed government that reacts without thinking the issue through. After all, we’re talking about a war and, unfortunately, also the risk of a nuclear escalation.

Many politicians have looked Vladimir Putin in the eye. US President George W. Bush said Putin was straightforward and trustworthy, and that he got a sense of his soul. Joe Biden informed him to his face that he had no soul. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder described Putin as a ‘flawless democrat’. When you met Putin as Minister for Economic Affairs, State Secretary, Vice-Chancellor and leader of the Social Democratic Party, what did you see?

Gabriel: I definitely can’t reconcile the person I see today, and his actions, with the person I met five or six years ago. But that could be my mistake, perhaps I simply didn’t see through him. Some believe that he has undergone a process of radicalization in recent years.

I did ask Putin once how he could make common cause with a criminal like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. At the time, I thought his answer was a bit bizarre. He said, “If you want to win a war you have to do it by any means necessary.” He was referring to the war against the Islamic State, and in that war, he didn’t care who his allies were. Basically, he was saying that the end justifies the means. The idea that Putin is willing to use any means to enforce his political doctrine is a pretty chilling thought.

Didn’t Putin tell us who he really was early on? During a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, he said he had not accepted and reconciled himself with the break-up of the Soviet Union and that he wished he could turn back time. Should we have heeded the warning back then?

Gabriel: That’s what Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, the former chairman of the Munich Security Conference, has said. Ischinger thinks we didn’t take Putin’s speech seriously enough at the time. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say. However, many things point to the fact that, in the years after 2007, we underestimated Putin’s ambitions. Or rather, you could say we overestimated our experience and knowledge of of how to deal with the Soviet Union and Russia.

That, I believe, is the problem at the core of German politics and German social democracy: We thought we had found the right formula for our policy of normalizing relations and openness towards the East, or ‘Ostpolitik’.

What formula was that?

Gabriel: How to deal successfully with an authoritarian Russian state.

What was that assumption based on?

Gabriel: Our ‘Ostpolitik’ strategy was very successful. We made our peace with the Soviet Union and Poland after the atrocities of the Second World War, Gorbachev came to power, German reunification happened, the Soviet Union broke up, and the Warsaw Pact was abolished. We thought: We Germans know how to deal with Moscow.

Germany’s general attitude towards Eastern Europeans was pretty arrogant.

That was presumptuous. In fact, Germany’s general attitude towards Eastern Europeans was pretty arrogant. When the Berlin Wall was demolished, we developed a very paternalistic relationship with them. It was as if we were saying: “We understand you see Russia with different eyes. After all, you suffered all those years of Kremlin rule. But we Germans know better”. We genuinely thought we had discovered a universal formula for a successful ‘Ostpolitik’. That was the main problem.

Has the ‘change through trade’ solution failed?

Gabriel: That wasn’t the first East-West détente policy slogan. In fact, ‘change through trade’ is actually a perversion of the original idea. It all started back in the 60s and 70s under former SPD chancellor Willy Brandt and his senior diplomatic advisor Egon Bahr. Their formula was ‘change through rapprochement’. Basically, West Germans accepted the outcome of the Second World War and recognized the new western borders of Poland, known as the Oder-Neisse Line, within the framework of a final peace settlement. In return, Eastern Europeans, particularly Russians, recognized the CSCE Helsinki Final Act and therefore agreed to respect human rights, the territorial integrity of states, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

It wasn’t until later that the slogan became ‘change through trade’. The idea was that stronger links between the German and the Soviet – or Russian – economy would help us more effectively maintain stability and peace in Europe. Then Vladimir Putin arrived, a man who had no interest in economic success and used a different currency, the currency of power. To be honest, we Germans never believed the war in Ukraine would happen, until it did. The success of Germany’s economy and society is founded on successful economic integration and the conviction that the closer the economic ties are, the safer the world will be. That was obviously a gross misjudgment.

After two cruel wars in Chechnya, the war with Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, the war with Eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s military intervention in Syria, how could we possibly continue to believe that Putin could be kept in check by economic ties?

Gabriel: Germans weren’t alone in that belief. The majority of western European nations and the US also believed we could develop some kind of stable relationship with Russia. When President Joe Biden met with Vladimir Putin in Geneva in mid-2021 he said he believed that the US and Russia could build a stable and reliable relationship and negotiate disarmament.

Germany always hoped, albeit mistakenly, that Russia needs us and would make concessions because its economic survival depends on it.

Germany always hoped, albeit mistakenly, that Russia needs us and would make concessions because its economic survival depends on it. Many years that seemed to be true. But, I must admit that my Polish friend Janusz Reiter, a former Polish ambassador in both Berlin and Washington, always warned that Putin follows an entirely different logic and that he doesn’t care about his country’s economic and social situation.

Shouldn’t we finally have heard the warning bells when the annexation of Crimea happened?

Gabriel: In 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Angela Merkel – who was the German chancellor at the time – and French President François Hollande managed to prevent the war from spreading to the rest of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Poroshenko called Merkel and asked for her help with negotiations when Eastern Ukraine was nearing military defeat. Thanks to the successful European intervention it was at least possible to contain the conflict. Had it not been for these efforts, Russia would probably have started a full-blown war with Ukraine back then.

Why did the German government continue with the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – a transit pipeline circumventing Eastern Europe and creating a direct link between Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea – after the Crimea annexation? Why did you, as Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, support a decision that made us even more energy-dependent on Russia?

Gabriel: Nord Stream 2 was approved and construction started back in 2005. The German government didn’t stop the project after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 because we were in Minsk in the process of negotiating a ceasefire in Ukraine. Angela Merkel wanted to persuade Russia to end the war in the Donbass region. It wouldn’t have been a particularly clever negotiation tactic to tell Putin, “We want you to give up and agree to a ceasefire, but we’re still going to scrap your ambitious energy project, Nord Stream 2.”

Today we know that Nord Stream 2 was a mistake. Vladimir Putin didn’t care about the pipeline. I’m sure he was well aware that a war with Ukraine would mean the end of the project. Interestingly, one outcome of the negotiations back then in 2014/2015 is still in place. Back then Ukraine was also using Russian gas supplied via the trans-Ukrainian pipeline that goes to Europe. There was always a risk that Russia would stop the flow of gas to Ukraine, especially with the onset of winter. To prevent that from happening, we agreed with Russia that Ukraine wouldn’t buy the gas directly from Russia, but from the EU. So, when the gas arrives in the EU, the amount that Ukraine needs is piped back to them. That arrangement is still in place today, despite the war. Another part of the negotiation package with Russia was that gas would continue to be transported via Ukraine, even after the completion of Nord Stream 2. So the German government did impose certain conditions in connection with the construction of Nord Stream 2.

The Balts, the Poles, the Americans, and many Ukrainians believed that Nord Stream 2 was a tool Russia was using to extend its power. They warned of the geopolitical implications very early on. Why didn’t we listen?

Gabriel: Again, I can only say that we believed Russia would be just as dependable as the former Soviet Union regarding the energy supply. After all, the Soviet Union had been a reliable supplier throughout the entire Cold War. Even the US was buying Russian crude oil until the war in Ukraine broke out. We simply transferred our past experience with the Soviet Union to Russia and Putin. It was a misjudgment.

And we just didn’t listen to Eastern Europeans. First, because we thought we knew better and, second, because the liberalization of the European energy market meant that the state no longer felt responsible for energy security. That responsibility had been transferred to the private sector in 2002. When the EU decided to liberalize – or in other words privatize – the energy markets in 2002, the task of ensuring security of supply was transferred from the state to the ‘market,’ the assumption was that the market could do it more efficiently and at lower cost. And these ‘markets’ – privatized companies – obviously opted to buy cheap pipeline gas from Russia instead of expensive liquid gas. That’s why the LNG terminals in Europe are only partially in use.

Nevertheless, German ministers – yourself included –met with gas pipeline operators on many occasions and followed the progress of construction. So the project wasn’t entirely non-political?

Gabriel: No, of course not. The government obviously had to negotiate the issue of continuing the gas transit via Ukraine with Gazprom and the Russian government. The European Commission negotiated with Gazprom on the same issue, and Germany was always asked to be involved in these negotiations. Also, it wasn’t just about Ukraine, but also about the supply of gas to Slovakia, Bulgaria, and other countries.

How could leading German politicians, particularly Social Democrats, continue calling Nord Stream 2 a purely economic project with no geopolitical impacts until recently?

Gabriel: I, personally, never said that, and I have always believed that description of the project to be false. The fact that we attached political preconditions to the trans-Ukrainian pipeline shows that Nord Stream 2 was more than just an economic project.

The fact that we attached political preconditions to the trans-Ukrainian pipeline shows that Nord Stream 2 was more than just an economic project.

As Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy you approved the sale of Germany’s largest gas storage facility to the Russian Rosneft Group. Did you consider that the deal might go against German national interest?

Gabriel: No, I admit I didn’t consider it at the time. I also believed it was in Germany’s interest to give German companies the opportunity to acquire property rights in Russian gas fields. Those deals involved an exchange of German companies’ gas rights for Gazprom infrastructure. The German companies asked us for help.

But there were major concerns in Germany about that sale, and about the construction of Nord Stream 2.

Gabriel: Yes, particularly in the Green Party, also for environmental reasons. But there were opponents in the CDU, too, including Norbert Röttgen, who is now Vice-Chairman at Atlantik-Brücke. Nevertheless, the majority of Bundestag politicians and members of various German governments between 2005 and 2021 voted in favor of cheap Russian oil and gas.

Minister for Economic Affairs Robert Habeck believes that German gas storage facilities in Russian hands pose a security risk. Do you agree?

Gabriel: Yes, of course. But that can soon change. The most difficult challenge is to find an alternative supplier to replace Russian gas at short notice. That too, we will achieve, but the price will be higher. And we have to be willing to pay it.

Does the Social Democratic Party — your party — not bear special responsibility for its misjudgment of Russia?

Gabriel: I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a discussion about the successes and failures of the SDP’s Russia policies. Take a closer look and you can see that the discussion is actually representative of what should generally be happening in Germany because the whole country has been shaped by the era of East-West détente policy. Germany’s firm belief in the integrative powers of economic cooperation shaped its own model of economic success and the way companies and civil society think.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a discussion about the successes and failures of the SDP’s Russia policies.

Now we’re embarking on a new and probably very uncomfortable era. The old global order and Pax Americana are gone, but a new global order hasn’t yet emerged. The next decade will be shaped, not necessarily by war, but by uncertainty, unpredictable dynamics, and instability. Adjusting to this new status quo and separating what we did right in the past from our mistakes and learning from them, is probably the most important thing we can do, if we and our partners, such as the US, want to get things right in this chaotic world. The SPD will benefit as a party if it starts that process.


Gabriel: I’m pretty sure that others will follow suit because the Social Democrats have not led the majority of German governments in recent decades. Also, many people’s perceptions of Russia are generation-dependent. The younger generation’s criticism of Russia has become louder in recent years because of the country’s accelerating crackdown on liberal values. Many older people still judge Russia policy in terms of their memories of Nazi war crimes in Russia and the successful ‘Ostpolitik’ and East-West détente policy. And we often forget that people in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States or Belarus experienced the Nazi Holocaust to the same extent as the Russians. These different experiences of different generations are also an issue that we have to discuss. And it’s better if the SPD initiates the discussion.

There is one crucial thing, I think, that the SPD must do. It has to critically examine whether its own narrative about the ‘Ostpolitik’ and East-West détente policy is really true.

What narrative?

Gabriel: Within the SPD and perhaps even beyond the party, the perception is that they were one single policy. In truth, there were two very different phases.

The first phase under SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt was very successful. However, Brandt always made it very clear that West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, must resolutely support NATO. Brandt’s East-West détente policy of the 70s was preceded by a major speech by SPD parliamentarian Herbert Wehner in 1960, in which he explained that the SPD’s negative stance on the Federal Republic’s alignment with the West was wrong. Many Social Democrats believed at the time that alignment with the West and NATO membership would permanently seal Germany’s fate as a divided nation. Wehner explained that an alignment with the West and NATO membership would be a mainstay of social democratic foreign policy. It was no coincidence that this historic turning point within the SPD happened right after the reform party convention in Bad Godesberg in 1959.

It was only because of West Germany’s strong ties with NATO that Brandt was later able to negotiate with the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and announce the first phase of East-West détente policy. Otherwise, the chancellor and West Germany would have been left at the mercy of Brezhnev’s interests.

And the second phase?

Gabriel: That phase has long been criticized, especially in Eastern Europe. When I attempted to criticize this second phase as SPD party chairman on the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Warsaw Pact, many people saw it as an ‘act of treason’ against ‘Ostpolitik’. The second phase primarily focused on building stability in the East-West relationship, so much so, that SPD representatives were reluctant to meet with citizens’ rights groups that were springing up throughout Eastern Europe, including the Polish Solidarność trade union movement. They avoided any close contact with people who questioned the status quo in Eastern Europe, even though these citizens’ rights groups would probably never have existed without the positive outcome of the first phase of SPD ‘Ostpolitik’, namely the human rights package in the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975.

What were those social democrats afraid of?

Gabriel: They were afraid that the human rights activists would cause East Bloc instability and that the Communist regime would use military force to suppress them. Protests in East Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in Prague in 1968 were proof that, if necessary, tanks would be deployed to stop protests. The leading social democrats at the time were united in their fear of military escalation, including a conflict with the West. Their objective was no longer ‘change through rapprochement’, it was only about ‘stability’. Policies were being imposed from the top down without any grassroots input. An underestimation of the power of civil society was the main problem in this second phase of East-West détente policy.

You should always negotiate, including with Russia, but it’s better to negotiate from a position of strength.

What lessons should the SPD have learned from that?

Gabriel: The take-away from the first phase of East-West détente policy is that military and political strength, not appeasement, were responsible for the success of negotiations. You should always negotiate, including with Russia, but it’s better to negotiate from a position of strength. Former chancellor Helmut Schmidt agreed: In the early 1980s he was keen to push through his rearmament program, the so-called NATO dual-track decision, because he was concerned about Russia’s nuclear armament. The SPD refused to support Schmidt at the time.

But Schmidt was also focused on stability and not particularly sympathetic to Solidarność.

Gabriel: To put stability in Europe above everything else was certainly a mistake. But you have to remember that, in those days, the entire world was afraid of a nuclear war between the West and the USSR. I’m not making excuses, I’m simply explaining the reasoning behind some of the decisions that were made at the time.

Aren’t the Gazprom deals that were orchestrated by former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his defense of Putin excellent examples of getting Russia policy wrong? What did you think when you heard that he’d come to Putin’s defense, saying, “Mea culpa isn’t my thing” in a recent interview with the New York Times?

Gabriel: I thought that he shouldn’t have done the interview. But the problem isn’t what he said. The problem is his decision not to publicly distance himself from Vladimir Putin. For me, that’s both a human and a political tragedy.

But we have to be careful and not make Gerhard Schröder the scapegoat for everything that went wrong in order to escape criticism and exonerate ourselves. In the Bible, a scapegoat is, after all, the animal who is symbolically burdened with one’s own sins and which is then sent into the desert to get rid of the sins and reconcile with God. Schröder should certainly share the blame and responsibility, but we shouldn’t forget our own ‘sins’ or pretend that the rest of the country had nothing to do with the mismanagement of our policy on Russia.

It’s obvious that continuing the Nord Stream 2 project was a mistake.

Did you play a part in that mismanagement? And, if you did, do you regret it?

Gabriel: Yes, it’s obvious that continuing the Nord Stream 2 project was a mistake. I think it’s important for politicians to accept personal responsibility, and that involves talking publicly about the decisions we played a part in. That’s what I am trying to do, and I hope I’m succeeding. With the knowledge I have today, I would have acted differently back then. But it’s far more difficult to answer the question of why we didn’t or weren’t willing to see what others were telling us. That’s something I think about a lot, and it’s no use pointing out that the planning and construction of the pipeline started eight years before it became my responsibility in 2013. That would make it sound like I’m trying shirk responsiblity. I’m still processing it.

When the war in Ukraine is over at some point in the future, Russia will still be there, and Vladimir Putin may still be its leader. What could or should the new ‘Ostpolitik’ be when that time comes?

Gabriel: All the sanctions will probably remain in place as long as Putin is still in power. We will have a new iron curtain between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, and there will probably be armed military units on each side, which were not there previously.

I believe Russia will be a shadow of its former self after this war is over.

However, I believe Russia will be a shadow of its former self after this war is over and I hope that, with time, a different Russian leadership will emerge. It won’t be Putin’s direct successor, though, because anti-Western sentiment is still too ingrained in Russia – not just in Putin – for that to happen. Many people in Russia think that the West is the arch-enemy and associate it with decadence. Change will take time.

Will our future relationship with Russia be entirely based on security policy, because we will have decoupled our economic and energy policies?

Gabriel: Russia won’t be another North Korea after this war. The country is too big for that to happen. It has too many natural resources, it is too important from a military standpoint, and, for that reason, it will continue to be a partner to many countries around the world. Of the 141 nations that condemned Russia’s war with Ukraine at the UN General Assembly, only around 30 have actually imposed sanctions on Russia.

Nobody can predict whether the next US president in 2024 will continue to stand at Europe’s side, or whether they will say that our problems have nothing to do with them.

But, to a great extent, Russia will be technologically and economically decoupled from us. So it is true that, ultimately, the only thing remaining is the security policy issue. And the only answer to that will be to build up our defense capabilities as much as we can – and make a stronger Europe. This is important, because nobody can predict whether the next US president in 2024 will continue to stand at Europe’s side, or whether they will say that our problems have nothing to do with them.

Doesn’t this war underscore the importance of the transatlantic partnership?

Gabriel: You don’t have to convince me of its importance. In 2018 I wrote a book with the title: ‘Zeitenwende in der Weltpolitik’ (A Historic Turning Point in World Politics). ‘Zeitenwende‘ or turning point has become a popular term.. In the book, I consider the issue of our Western alliance. There have been calls to leave the nuclear shield of NATO. A French president declared NATO to be brain-dead. And an American president said he wasn’t sure that we really still need NATO. Now, with his war, Putin has made NATO more relevant than it has been in decades.

As I see it, the issue isn’t whether NATO and the transatlantic alliance are needed. That debate was silenced, at least for the time being, when Russia invaded Ukraine. But we cannot be sure whether the next American president won’t turn away from Europe once again.

This task of ensuring that Eastern Europe can defend itself has been shouldered by the US alone up until now. I believe it would benefit European cohesion and transatlantic relations if Germany took on this task.

How should Europe be preparing for that possibility?

Gabriel: The only way to prepare is to make the European pillar whitin the NATO framework – not the European framework outside the alliance – as strong as possible. In 2018, my Polish friend Janusz Reiter and I proposed the two percent defense investment should be divided up, with Germany investing 1.5 percent of its GDP in the federal armed forces and the other 0.5 percent in a NATO defense fund for Eastern Europe. This task of ensuring that Eastern Europe can defend itself has been shouldered by the US alone up until now. I believe it would benefit European cohesion and transatlantic relations if Germany took on this task – with our money and not with US tax dollars.

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