By Sarah Marsh and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) – The German government’s hard line on Russia over the Ukraine war is coming under pressure at home amid growing worries about the resulting soaring energy prices and possible gas shortages in Europe’s largest economy when winter comes.
Until now, all mainstream parties – from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s leftist Social Democrats and its junior coalition partners, the Greens and Free Democrats, to the opposition conservatives, had backed the tough Western sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded its neighbour.
In recent weeks though, some conservatives leaders have voiced scepticism about the West’s strategy. And while opinion polls show that more than two thirds of Germans still back sanctions, around half think these are hurting Germany more than Russia.
Around half of German households rely on gas for their heating while gas also accounts for a third of industry’s energy. In recent years half of that gas has come from Russia.
But deliveries from Russia have dwindled in recent weeks due what Moscow is calling maintenance issues and Berlin says is weaponizing of energy, prompting the European Union to agree this week an emergency plan to curb demand.
Germany recorded its first monthly trade deficit since 1991 in May, partly due to inflation running at around 8%.
“Our entire economic system is in danger of collapsing. If we are not careful, Germany could become de-industrialised,” Michael Kretschmer, conservative leader of the eastern Saxony region, told Die Zeit newspaper in an interview printed on Thursday.
“If we realise that we cannot for now give up on Russian gas, then it is bitter but it is the reality, and we must act accordingly.”
Concerns about government policy on Ukraine are particularly widespread in the former communist East, which has stronger ties to Moscow and stands to be more affected by the looming economic downturn as it is already worse off.
Kretschmer, whose state has a population of around 4 million, is calling for the war in Ukraine to be “frozen” and for Europe to push for peace talks.
This would allow both key commodities from fossil fuels to grains to be delivered once more, preventing German economic collapse and famine in Africa, he said. Critics say this would legitimize Russia’s territorial gains and allow it to regroup.
Ukraine’s outgoing ambassador in Berlin, Andrij Melnyk, said on Twitter Kretschmer should stick his own head in the freezer to stop his “Russia fantasies”. Melnyk, who was removed from his post by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier this month, has been outspoken in his criticism of any signs of German wavering over its support for Ukraine.
‘FREEZING FOR FREEDOM’
Friedrich Merz, the head of the conservatives in the Bundestag lower house of parliament, has distanced himself from Kretschmer’s comments, saying they do not reflect a broader change in the parliamentary group’s hard line on Russia.
Kretschmer has long been an outlier on Russia policy – in 2019, he also called for an end to sanctions imposed after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Still, leaders of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Merz’s Christian Democratic Union in the southern region of Bavaria, Germany’s manufacturing hub, have expressed similar concerns.
“Freezing for freedom is not sustainable,” CSU General Secretary Martin Huber told the Muenchner Merkur newspaper, referring to the prospect of possible gas shortages in the coming winter.
“Weapons help Ukraine quicker than sanctions.”
Even within the government there is concern over the knock-on effects of sanctions. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser warned earlier this month of possible radical protests, while Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said a total Russian gas cut-off could lead to “uprisings”.
Scholz this week promised further more welfare support to shield poorer households and help the country get through this difficult phase.
The government has already agreed two multi-billion euro relief packages for households and firms this year as well as measures to reduce energy consumption, for instance by boosting funding for the construction of energy-efficient buildings.
“It’s clear that we will have to fight for sustained support for our Ukraine policy given the difficult supply situation and high inflation,” a senior government official said.
This was one reason Baerbock, one of the government’s most popular ministers, made a 10-day tour of Germany earlier this month, the official said.
The tour however did not take her to Saxony, where the focus of weekly demonstrations on Mondays organized by the “Free Saxony” group – founded in 2021 – has shifted from anger over COVID-19 restrictions to outrage at the government’s energy policy.
“Corona and energy protests unite,” the group wrote Monday on its Telegram channel that has nearly 150,000 subscribers. “We will not freeze for this policy but will rise up. Numerous and together.”
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by Frances Kerry)