Germany’s Annalena Baerbock is right to engage with Poland

March 2024

Hugo Blewett-Mundy

Non-Resident Associate Research Fellow at the EUROPEUM

The aim of Zeitenwende should be to build Poland’s trust in German leadership on the threat of Russian expansionism.

German-Polish relations today are far from straightforward.

Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine exposed how misguided Germany was to pursue energy and economic interdependence with the Kremlin while dismissing long-standing Central European concerns about the expansionist threat Russia poses.

One cannot underestimate the distrust Poland possesses towards Germany and Russia after the destruction Hitler and Stalin inflicted in the Second World War. The experience of being wiped off the map of Europe made Poland doubtful of any form of Russian-German rapprochement. Russia’s denial (Putin 2021) of Ukrainian national identity and Ukraine’s right to statehood reignited the painful memory that all Poles share of the Nazi-Soviet partition in 1939.

That history affects modern Polish politics – Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s nationalist-conservative opposition leader, accused his country’s newly-elected centrist prime minister, Donald Tusk, of being “a German agent” (Minder and Erling 2024) who threatens to liquidate the Polish state.

But Annalena Baerbock is determined to turn a new page. The German foreign minister, speaking alongside her Polish counterpart, Radosław Sikorski, after their talks in Berlin (“Minister Radosław Sikorski meets in Berlin with Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock” 2024) made a concerted effort to restore Poland’s confidence in Germany’s leadership.

German-Polish relations today are far from straightforward.
“A strong Europe, whose center will continue to move eastwards in the coming years, needs more than ever a lively German-Polish partnership, and deep trust between Warsaw and Berlin”, she said.

Meeting Germany’s obligations to Central and Eastern Europe has been a hallmark of Baerbock’s foreign policy since Russia escalated its war against Ukraine in February 2022. The Federal Foreign Office decided to fast-track the publication of the first-ever German National Security Strategy (“National Security Strategy: Robust. Resilient. Sustainable. Integrated Security for Germany” 2023) just one month after the all-out Russian assault.

In her foreword to the unprecedented document, Baerbock stated that the world is “marked by rising systemic rivalry” and called on Germany “to stand up even more for our fundamental values”. The strategy proceeds to name Russia as “the most significant threat” to the Euro-Atlantic area, which indicates a profound shift in Germany’s perception of its security.

Baerbock’s conviction that Germany must tackle Russian expansionism, however, has been met with caution from her Social Democrat coalition partner, Olaf Scholz. It has been reported that the German chancellor delayed (Chazan and Pitel 2023) the release of Baerbock’s security strategy, suggesting that the wording of the document changed at the last minute.

In his own foreword to the strategy, Scholz takes a contrasting interpretation to Baerbock’s uncompromising stance on Russia. The German chancellor writes that “new centers of power are emerging” and “the world in the twenty-first century is multipolar”. But this international system should not come at the expense of multilateralism (“Shaping a multipolar world through “new paths of cooperation” 2022), according to Scholz. This suggests he still sees Russia as an essential European security actor despite its illegal invasion of Ukraine.

The risk-averse reaction from Scholz represents a continuation of the Ostpolitik (“Securing peace and overcoming walls – Ostpolitik and policy on Germany 1955–1989” n.d.) tradition – the West German policy of detente and peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

This should not come as a surprise as the German chancellor made his thoughts clear about what Zeitenwende means from the beginning. In his historic speech (Bundesregierung 2022) Scholz was careful to distinguish Vladimir Putin and his policies from Russia itself, implying that Russia was only a threat insofar as the Russian president remained in power.

Scholz’s cautious approach is frustrating for Central and Eastern Europe as Russia has been waging wars of aggression against the region as far back as the Great Northern War (1700-21) when Peter the Great defeated the Swedish Empire. Yet the hesitancy is understandable from a postwar German perspective.

Ostpolitik made Germany’s reunification possible because it was instrumental in diffusing tensions between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic. Germany feels therefore a strong sense of historical responsibility to Russia for allowing it to return to Europe after the horrors of the Second World War.

“A strong Europe, whose center will continue to move eastwards in the coming years, needs more than ever a lively German-Polish partnership, and deep trust between Warsaw and Berlin”

But February 24th, 2022 is a watershed moment in European history as Scholz himself said and he should follow the lead of his foreign minister on Germany’s responsibilities. The German chancellor’s calculation that Russia only presents a temporary threat is a misjudgement as post-communist Russia does not pose the same security challenge as the Soviet Union.

Years before Putin came to power, the universal Marxist-Leninist ideology that drove Soviet foreign policy was replaced with a hard, realist assessment of Russia’s status as a great power. Russia began to reassert its national interests in its immediate periphery (blizhnee zarubezh’e or near abroad) as early as 1993 and Yevgeny Primakov, who served as Russian foreign minister from 1996 to 1998, rejected unchallenged US primacy in international affairs.

This makes the Ostpolitik tradition that Scholz advocates problematic because it fails to confront the centuries-old force of Russian imperialism, which further fuels Polish distrust.

Germany can no longer afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. It must instead seek to strengthen its political and security cooperation with Poland under the Weimar Triangle (Auswärtiges Amt 2024). The format, which was established in 1991, can push forward a common East-West approach to defence at a European level. In reaching out to Sikorski, Baerbock appears sharper in learning this lesson than the German chancellor.

Russia will remain a threat to Europe for the foreseeable future, even if there is a change in the Russian leadership. Germany’s strategic capacity to work as effectively as possible with its eastern EU allies is needed more than ever.

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is a Russia and Central and Eastern Europe specialist. He works as a Non-Resident Associate Research Fellow at the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague and writes about East European affairs. He holds an MA in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics from the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.


Guy Chazan and Laura Pitel, “Germany’s first-ever security strategy names Russia as ‘greatest threat’ to peace,” Financial Times, June 14, 2023,

“Minister Radosław Sikorski meets in Berlin with Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock”, Website of the Republic of Poland, January 30, 2024,

“National Security Strategy: Robust. Resilient. Sustainable. Integrated Security for Germany,” 2023,

“Policy statement by Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and Member of the German Bundestag, 27 February 2022 in Berlin” Bundesregierung, February 27, 2022,

Raphael Minder and Barbara Erling, “Polish opposition leader accused of contemplating ‘coup’,” Financial Times, January 25, 2024, .

“Shaping a multipolar world through “new paths of cooperation”,” Bundeskanzler, May 26, 2022,

“Securing peace and overcoming walls – Ostpolitik and policy on Germany 1955–1989,” Willy Brandt Online Biografie,

“The Weimar Triangle: Over 30 years of cross-border cooperation between Germany, France and Poland,” Auswärtiges Amt, February 05, 2024,

Vladimir Putin, “Article by Vladimir Putin ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“,” July 12, 2021,

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