Can the western alliance against Russia over its buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border hold together? It is a question that politicians and diplomats are increasingly grappling with amid fears that Germany and, to a lesser extent, France are in danger of dividing from the US and the UK, not only over how to respond to any future Russian act of aggression in Ukraine, but also in their assessment of the imminence of the threat.
Every effort is being made to minimise the differences within the Nato alliance, including through regular calls such as the one led by Joe Biden on Monday, but they may be impossible to avoid since they reflect not just different short-term assessments on intelligence, but a deep fissure going back decades about what Germany and France, as opposed to the Anglosphere, regard as the best way to handle Russia.
France, looking at the same intelligence provided by the CIA, does not see an imminent invasion, or a gathering of forces equipped to invade in the next three weeks – an assessment shared by the best Ukrainian defence analysts.
In Britain, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has been openly critical of Germany for leaving itself so dependent on Russia for energy, and Berlin’s recent refusal to allow Estonia to send German-manufactured arms to Ukraine. The idea of Germany providing weapons to be used against Russia for the first time since the second world war is anathema. Speaking in Berlin on Tuesday, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, defended the decision, saying it was rooted “in the whole development of the past years and decades”.
In Poland, the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said in a Facebook post that he remained concerned by the block on Estonia.
In the US, the German question is increasingly riling Republicans, leading to commentary in the Wall Street Journal with the headline “Is Germany a Reliable American Ally? Nein.”
The tensions reflect two different interpretations of how, even now, Russia can be prevented from becoming a force hostile to the west, interpretations that have dominated politics after the cold war.
The differing assessments in Berlin, Washington, Paris and London of how to construct something stable out of the rubble of post-Soviet Russia have always been in flux, with different capitals taking different views at different points.
The US under Bill Clinton was as reluctant as anyone to let the four Visegrád countries – the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – into Nato and made his belief about the risks absolutely clear at the organisation’s summit in January 1994, saying the Atlantic Alliance could not “afford to draw a new line between east and west that would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of future confrontation”.
Tony Blair also had to be disabused that Britain could lure Putin into the western camp, and was an enthusiastic supporter of Russia joining the G8. Boris Johnson visited Moscow as foreign secretary in 2017 and, despite the Salisbury poisoning, has been extraordinarily lax about Russian money in London.
France too has blown hot and cold in the wake of Russia’s occupation of Crimea in March 2014. It was only after sustained American pressure that François Hollande cancelled a £1bn contract signed by his predecessor as French president to sell to Russia mistral-class helicopter gunships bound for the annexed Black Sea ports in Crimea.
Emmanuel Macron invited Putin to Versailles alongside an exhibition about Peter the Great in May 2017. Faced by Trump’s isolationism, Macron, in a major speech in 2019, called for an end to the “frozen conflicts” with Russia. In June last year, in conjunction with Angela Merkel, he blindsided other EU leaders by offering Putin a summit. In Berlin on Tuesday, the French president said he was still planning to talk to the Russian leader this week, but only about de-escalation.
However, the central player in Europe’s relations with Russia is Germany, as it has been since unification.
Quite why Germany takes such a stubbornly forgiving, or optimistic approach to Putin fills libraries, and the most recent offering titled Germany’s Russia Problem, written by John Lough, details the full extent of the networks – commercial, political, cultural and intellectual – between German and Russian elites. It also explains how Putin plays on German war guilt and refuses to repay German forgiveness.
The examples Lough raises include how in the wake of Russia’s intervention in Georgia in the summer of 2008, the then German Social Democrat (SPD) foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warned Europe against sanctions that he said would shut doors to rooms it wanted to enter later.
Although Merkel’s response to the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was firm, Steinmeier, sure that the SPD understood Russia better than Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, went to Moscow and proposed an economic partnership with Russia. At the same time, three former chancellors of Germany – Helmut Schmidt, Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl – all warned Merkel not to isolate Moscow. Within a week of the invasion, the chief executive of Siemens was in Moscow. As the diplomatic situation worsened, a group of senior German former officials and politicians sent an emotional letter calling for a return to the policy of detente.
This German-Russian relationship, a recent Chatham House paper argues, has been shaped by two factors. First, Ospolitik, which refers to the “change through rapprochement” foreign policy strategy towards the Soviet Union and its satellite states that was pursued in the 1970s by the Social Democrat chancellor Willy Brandt, and that tried to overcome hard lines by focusing on joint interests. The policy is still considered by many to be the way forward.
Second, the mutual dependence deal between the two countries that dates from the 1970s, when the Soviet Union and Germany agreed to exchange natural gas from the USSR for German pipes and steel. It is premised on the belief expressed by Schmidt that “those who trade with each other do not shoot each other”. By 2018 Germany accounted for 37% of Gazprom sales, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline had been agreed. German exports to Russia rose fivefold between 2000 and 2011.
That remains the dominant thinking inside parts of the SPD. The current economics minister, Robert Habeck, whose ministry is responsible for sanctions, is opposed to cutting off Russian access to the Swift payments system. He told Der Spiegel: “We should think about new areas of business that can help lead both sides out of the confrontational role.”
However, in recent weeks the compromises inherent in Ostpolitik have come under challenge from a younger generation. Michael Roth, the SPD chair of the foreign affairs committee, argued his party had to escape the shadow of Brandt, adding “we cannot dream the world to be better than it is”. Other ministers have insisted that energy, including the future of Nord Stream 2, cannot be removed from the list of potential sanctions, as it was in 2014.
All this leaves Scholz in a different position with his US interlocutors, none of it made easier by his alliance with a Green foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, who wishes to inject values into German foreign policy. The SPD, to avoid a public split, is now going to have a formal party debate about its approach to Russia.
One diplomat pointed to the relevance of a remark by Alexander Solzhenitsyn just as the Soviet Union disintegrated, who warned about how perilous it might prove to manage the breakup of the empire. “The clock of communism has stopped striking. But its concrete building has not yet come crashing down,” he wrote. For that reason, the task ahead was not yet about “freeing ourselves”, but instead “to try to save ourselves from being crushed by its rubble”.