BERLIN — The United States and its NATO allies are set to step up their military commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe as the standoff with Russia over Ukraine deepens.
Denmark is sending fighter planes to Lithuania and a frigate to the Baltic Sea. France offered to send troops to Romania. Spain sends a frigate to the Black Sea. President Biden has put thousands of American soldiers on “high alert”.
And then there is Germany. In recent days, Germany – Europe’s largest and richest democracy, strategically located at the crossroads between East and West – has distinguished itself more by what it will not do than by what what she does.
No European country is more important for European unity and the Western alliance. But as Germany struggles to overcome its post-World War II reluctance to lead security issues in Europe and set aside its instinct for accommodation rather than confront Russia, Europe’s most important country. Europe faltered in the crucial first test for Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s new government.
Germany’s obvious reluctance to take strong action has fueled doubts about its reliability as an ally – reversing the dynamic with the United States in recent years – and added to fears that Moscow could use the German reluctance as a wedge to divide a united European response to any Russian aggression.
President Biden held a video call with European leaders on Monday night, saying it went “very, very, very” well, and beforehand Chancellor Scholz repeated that Russia would incur “high costs” in case of military intervention. But Germany’s allies are still wondering what price she is willing to bear to face a possible Russian aggression.
“Within the European Union, Germany is crucial to achieving unity,” said Norbert Röttgen, a senior conservative lawmaker and supporter of a tougher German foreign policy. “Putin’s goal is to divide Europeans and then divide Europe and the United States. If the impression prevails that Germany is not fully committed to a strong NATO response, he will have succeeded in paralyzing Europe and dividing the alliance.”
As Russia held military exercises near the Ukrainian border on Tuesday, Scholz met French President Emmanuel Macron in Berlin, warning Moscow that “military aggression calling into question the territorial integrity of Ukraine would have serious consequences. consequences”.
But the German government has not only ruled out any arms exports to Ukraine, it is also blocking a shipment of nine Communist-era howitzers from Estonia to Ukraine.
Mr. Scholz and other senior Social Democrats in his government and party have been vague about whether shutting down the controversial Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline between Russia and Germany would be part of a an arsenal of possible sanctions against Russia, insisting that it was a “private – sectoral project” and a “separate one” from Ukraine.
Friedrich Merz, the newly-designated leader of Angela Merkel’s opposition Conservative Party, meanwhile warned against excluding Russian banks from the Swift payment transaction network, which handles global financial transfers, because it ” harm” Germany’s economic interests.
Germany’s confused stance has been particularly troubling for Ukraine and some of Germany’s eastern neighbors. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Berlin of effectively “encouraging” Russian aggression. Others were no less scathing.
“Berlin is making a big strategic mistake and putting its reputation at risk,” Laurynas Kasčiūnas, chairwoman of the Lithuanian parliament’s national security committee, told public broadcaster LRT.
Artis Pabriks, Latvian Defense Minister, said these days that the German deterrent “was not sending weapons to Ukraine, but a field hospital”.
Tension within the alliance came to a head last weekend when the head of Germany’s navy said Russian President Vladimir V. Putin deserved ‘respect’ and that Crimea would ‘never’ be returned to Ukraine. Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach resigned, but the backlash was swift and emotional.
“This condescending attitude also subconsciously reminds Ukrainians of the horrors of the Nazi occupation, when Ukrainians were treated like subhumans,” said Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany.
Washington has worked to publicly underscore its confidence in Berlin, while privately pressuring Mr. Scholz to take a tougher line.
President Biden has sent several emissaries to Berlin. William J. Burns, head of the CIA, briefed the Chancellor on the latest intelligence on Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who stopped in Berlin before meeting his Russian counterpart in Geneva last week, said on Sunday he had “no doubt” about Germany’s determination to stand up to Russia.
“It is telling that the United States must publicly reaffirm its confidence in Germany,” said Jana Puglierin of the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations. “It was a no-brainer.”
The heartbreaking debate over where precisely German loyalties lie is not new. Russian-German relations have been shaped by centuries of trade and cultural exchange, but also by two world wars. The Cold War added another layer of complexity: West Germany became firmly entrenched in the Western alliance while East Germany lived under Soviet occupation.
“Why do we see Russia differently from Americans? History,” said Matthias Platzeck, chairman of the Russian-German Forum and former chairman of Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats. “Germany and Russia have been linked for a thousand years. The greatest Russian tsarina was Catherine the Great, a German, who incidentally made Crimea part of Russia.
“We attacked Russia twice, and the second time was a genocidal war,” he added. “Twenty-seven million Soviets died, including 15 million Russians.”
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
This does not mean that Germany has not resisted Russia in recent years. Germany commands a multinational NATO combat unit in Lithuania and helps monitor Baltic airspace for Russian interference. It plans to send fighter jets to Romania next month to do the same there. (And yes, he’s also sending a field hospital to Kyiv next month.)
In 2014, when Mr Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, it was Mrs Merkel who rallied neighboring countries to the east and west to support tough sanctions on Russia.
But the change in German leadership after 16 years of Ms Merkel has set up a government divided over the difficulty of drawing a line with Russia.
Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats have traditionally favored a policy of collaboration with the Russians. In the 1970s, Chancellor Willy Brandt engineered the policy of rapprochement with Moscow during the Cold War, while the last Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, is not only a close friend of Mr. Putin (he celebrated his 70 years with him) but have been in the pay of Russian energy companies since 2005.
The Green Party’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has been more outspoken in being tougher on Russia. But even she drew a line under sending German weapons to Ukraine, citing “history”.
The arms export policy in many ways embodies the modern German paradox of a nation that knows it needs to take on more leadership responsibilities in the world but is not quite ready to act in this way. way.
“The idea that Germany is delivering weapons that could then be used to kill Russians is very difficult for many Germans to accept,” said Marcel Dirsus, political analyst and nonresident researcher at the Institute for Security Policy of the University of Kiel.
The government is even more divided over Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline owned by Gazprom, Russia’s state energy company, which many fear will give Mr Putin an easy way to exert influence over Europe’s EU allies. America.
Russia is the main European supplier of natural gas. Once Nord Stream 2 is operational, Gazprom will be able to sell additional gas to European customers without paying transit fees to Ukraine.
Worn by Ms Merkel in 2015, a year after Russia first invaded Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 has long set Washington and European capitals ablaze.
While Ms. Baerbock, the Green Party’s foreign minister, has been quick to express her hostility to the project, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Scholz have defended it on economic and energy security grounds and have long ruled out use it as leverage in the sanctions talks.
It was only last week, alongside the NATO secretary general, that the chancellor changed his language, saying that “everything” would be on the table in the event of a Russian invasion.
“Putin has given NATO a new reason to exist,” said Mr. Dirsus of the Kiel Institute for Security Policy. “Who knows, maybe he can teach the Germans once and for all that the world has changed and that they must be willing to pay to defend the peace.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin and Andre Higgins from Warsaw.