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Germany is in a tough place dealing with Russia given their strong trade relationship


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz heads to Ukraine and Russia this week. Berlin and Moscow are huge trading partners, including in the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. But, as Esme Nicholson reports, the Ukraine crisis is forcing Germany to reassess its relations with Russia.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: In the eastern half of the German capital, Russia is still tangible almost three decades after the Soviets left. Take a walk down Karl-Marx-Allee, and you could be in Moscow. The vast boulevard was built from war rubble 70 years ago. Flanked by grandiose socialist classicist apartment blocks, the avenue, then called Stalinallee, was made wide enough to accommodate Soviet tanks and East German military parades. Sixty-year-old Loria Weisskirchen grew up here and says it's not just the architecture that has left its mark.

LORITA WEISSKIRCHEN: (Through interpreter) When it comes to Russia, us East Germans have mixed feelings. We were taught to believe the Soviets were our friends. It's hard to suddenly stop believing that, but it's clear that Russia, like China, is a world power and potentially dangerous. And yet we can't seem to accept this. We don't want to.

NICHOLSON: This view is not limited to those from the former East. If anything, contemporary Germany's permissive stance on Russia is the legacy of the former West. Reunified Germany has continued the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor in the 1970s, who, in an attempt to foster dialogue and stability, established strong trade ties with Moscow.

JOHN LOUGH: This kind of philosophy has grown up in Germany that if you trade with Russia, you stand a good chance of being able to change the overall situation to mutual advantage. That's how they would see it.

NICHOLSON: John Lough is the author of the book "Germany's Russia Problem." He argues that Olaf Scholz urgently needs to pursue a new Ostpolitik, but stresses that this is as much about emotion as it is the economy.

LOUGH: Germans and Russians have been the best of friends and the worst of enemies. Germans and Russians have what I call a bond of spilt blood. This is a special relationship.

NICHOLSON: But Lough says this special relationship is turning sour, leaving Germany exposed, particularly when it comes to gas, one of the commodities that started flowing West as a result of Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik. The fact that Germany now relies on Russia for more than half its gas supply is partly down to another former SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, who sits on the boards of Nord Stream and Rosneft and is about to join that of Gazprom.

LOUGH: Schroder has become this incarnation of what they call in German the (speaking German), somebody who understands Russia, which is a kind of shorthand for somebody who is an appeaser, who is prepared to do exactly what the Russians want.

NICHOLSON: While Scholz has distanced himself from Schroder in recent days and insists that all options are on the table when it comes to sanctions, he has refused to refer directly to Nord Stream 2, much to the distress of Ukraine and its Eastern European neighbors. Michael Roth, chair of the Bundestag's Foreign Affairs Committee and fellow Social Democrat, says Scholz's perceived reticence is strategy.

MICHAEL ROTH: (Through interpreter) We're not about to discuss the details of potential sanctions in public. Putin would be the only one to profit from that.

NICHOLSON: And back on Karl-Marx-Allee, 70-year-old Helga Ecken says making money is what it's all about.

HELGA ECKEN: (Through interpreter) I'm not a Putin fan, but I'm not anti-Russia either. Sure, we could do without the threats against Ukraine, but Moscow remains an important partner. We profit from them, and they profit from us.

NICHOLSON: But with no sign of tensions easing between Russia and Ukraine, Germany's new government may have to accept that it's time to reconsider the Ostpolitik of old and its relations with Russia if it is to uphold its commitments to Ukraine and the West.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.