As Putin menaces Ukraine, Germany is disarming the West
Berlin’s prevarication emboldens Moscow, weakens deterrence and endangers the European security order
When John F Kennedy faced Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis he rejected the advice of military commanders telling him to bomb the nuclear sites the Soviet Union had placed on America’s doorstep. The US president instead coupled a naval blockade of the island with diplomacy. He offered Moscow a way out by promising not to invade, and agreeing to remove US nukes from Turkey. It worked. The missiles were dismantled, and the world lived to tell the tale.
The crisis triggered by Vladimir Putin’s threat to invade Ukraine for a second time does not bear direct comparison with Cuba. The world is not sitting on the edge of nuclear conflagration. The stakes in the latest crisis, however, reach far beyond Ukraine. And there are lessons from Kennedy’s approach that carry over.
Putin’s goal is to dismantle Europe’s security architecture to restore Russian suzerainty over its near abroad. Great power spheres of influence would replace the solemn commitments to sovereignty, inviolable frontiers, territorial integrity and peaceful resolution of disputes enshrined in the 1970s Helsinki accords.
Joe Biden, like Kennedy before him, has been wise to put aside the advice of the Washington hawks as Russian forces have massed on the Ukrainian border. He has properly drawn a red line around Ukraine’s right to set its own political and military alliances and warned of harsh economic sanctions in the event of a Russian offensive. He has been willing also, however, to humour Putin’s craving for recognition as the leader of a great power and has signalled a readiness to negotiate limits on Nato’s military presence near Russia’s borders.
Biden has understood that it is beholden on democratic leaders to demonstrate to their electorates they have done all they can to defuse tensions and avoid conflict. To have refused to talk to Putin unless and until Russian troops withdrew, as many in Washington advocated, would have fed Putin’s narrative of victimhood. Diplomacy does not have to mean appeasement.
The US administration has also been attentive to the concerns of its European allies in Nato and the European Union. Here, though, America cannot win. When Biden talks to Putin he is accused by many in the eastern half of the continent of negotiating their future over their heads - at the extreme of contemplating another Yalta. When he says a Russian invasion would trigger unprecedented western sanctions, voices in Europe’s west fret about “provoking” Putin.
The first set of critics have half a point, but only insofar as the capacity of great powers to set the rules for smaller nations is built into the geopolitical realities. The bigger danger to European security lies with the prevaricators who refuse to admit Putin’s intentions.
France has always struck an independent pose, while Italy worries about its Russian energy interests. The spotlight shines brightest now, though, on Germany, the nation that sits four square at the heart of the continent.
There are three strands to German reluctance to stand up to Moscow - a reluctance, incidentally, that Olaf Scholz’s SPD-led coalition has carried over from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The first combines the baggage of history - the guilt that flows from the death of 25 million Soviet citizens in the second world war - with those immoveable facts of geography. Germany is in the middle.
The second strand speaks to a persistent refusal on the part of the country’s political elites to admit that the post Cold War dream of an eternally peaceful, rules-based, international order sadly has proved to be just that, a dream. The third speaks to the pursuit of short-term national interest dressed up as conciliation and moderation. It says Germany needs gas and, even allowing for the sanctions it agreed to impose after Putin’s 2014 war, Russia is still a lucrative partner for German business.
The first of these strands is understandable; the second, sadly, is a convenient fantasy that merges too easily with selfish interests. When Mr Scholz and his colleagues say they do not want to commit in advance to scrapping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Putin redraws Europe’s frontiers by force of arms, they are seeking to protect Germany’s narrow economic interests. Likewise their reluctance to endorse a US warning that Moscow could cut off from the global financial system.
The message that this transmits to the Kremlin is that the west is divided at its core - that whatever cost the US seeks to impose for the armed seizure of more Ukrainian territory, Germany, Russia’s second largest trading partner after China, will seek to blunt the reaction. The effect speaks for itself: division weakens the west’s capacity to deter and by extension makes an invasion more likely. As he weighs the cost of his revanchism, Putin can calculate that the US response will be constrained by Germany.
Moscow’s strategic intentions are spelt out its published proposals for a new European security architecture. By re-establishing a Russian “space”, Putin could snuff out any flowering of democracy in Russia’s near-abroad. Seen from the Kremlin, the real threat to his regime comes not from Nato but from “colour revolutions” among its neighbours. Putin’s ambitions, in other words, stand in direct opposition to the core values of the German Federal Republic - democracy, the rule of law, and human freedom and dignity.
The maddening, irony here is that Germany has much more to lose in the long term from the collapse of the present European security arrangements than any short-term gains that could possibly accrue from gas purchases or engineering exports to Russia.
It is impossible to have a conversation in Berlin about foreign policy without hearing ministers and officials stress that the nation’s strategic stability and prosperity rests on the fundamental principles of the Helsinki accords and on its place in the Nato alliance. They are right. Germany’s security is deeply embedded in the very rules-based European and Atlantic order Putin wants to fracture.
Mr Scholz and his SDP colleagues still have time to change course. They could listen more closely to their Green Party partners in the governing coalition. As Annalena Baerbock, the Green party foreign minister put it this week, Germany cannot afford to retreat from “basic principles such as territorial inviolability, the free choice of alliances and the renunciation of the threat of violence”.
The risk of Russian aggression is now palpable, but it is not self-evident that Putin has taken a final decision to invade. Even as Moscow’s military build-up continues, the Berlin government could harden its stance and raise the cost for Russia. That would count as diplomacy. To do otherwise would be to accept that might is right and to disarm the western alliance.