During the Cold War, the purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was often summed up as “keeping the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Today, more than a year into Russia’s covert war against Ukraine, the old adage could be tweaked to describe a new reality in Europe: The Russians are in, the Americans on the fence, and the Germans on the up and up.
Germany’s rise as Europe’s preeminent power would make sense based on economics alone. Yet the development was anything but inevitable, given the country’s Nazi past and division after World War II. It took an event as shocking as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine last year for Germans to realize just how much their country — and the world — had changed in the quarter century since the collapse of the Soviet empire.
After 1990, a new generation of Germans came of age thankful to Russia for making the miracle of reunification possible. Many attributed “Ostpolitik” — West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s policy of rapprochement with the Soviet bloc during the 1970s— as laying the groundwork for a peaceful resolution of the Cold War. Successive German governments put a premium on close ties with Russia, for a number of reasons: gratitude for reunification, guilt for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the stubborn hope that the recipe of Ostpolitik — trade effecting political change — would help nudge post-communist Russia toward democracy and make military confrontation impossible.
Putin’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of an insurgency in eastern Ukraine rattled Germany’s political establishment. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Soviet-occupied East Germany, saw her uneasiness about Putin confirmed once and for all. Her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, had a tougher time squaring Putin’s military adventure with the Russia he had wished to see. As a Social Democrat, Steinmeier viewed himself as a political heir to Brandt’s Ostpolitik. He had also worked as chief of staff to Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, a personal friend of Putin’s.
In abandoning their patience for Kremlin shenanigans, Steinmeier and other leading Social Democrats marked a major shift in in Germany’s Russia policy. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats had always been more skeptical of Putin, and the Greens, born out of grassroots political and social movements of the 1970s, opposed the Kremlin’s crackdown on Russian civil society. Only the Left party, a coalition of former East German Communists and disgruntled West German radicals, defend Putin.
Before the fighting broke out in Ukraine, Germany behaved like a big Switzerland, with no obvious interests abroad apart from developing new markets for its export-driven economy. Problems with neighbors were solved through multilateral European institutions. Deployments of German military personnel were made in joint missions with allies. The outdated NATO arrangement of “keeping the Germans down” was comfortable because it absolved Germany of the burden of leadership. As Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski famously said in 2011, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”
Of course, Berlin’s reluctance to lead came from the excesses of German power during the first half of the 20th century. The European Union offered a post-modern continental order that would guarantee peace through member states’ economic interdependency and the partial abdication of sovereignty. Safely embedded in the bubble of Europe, Germany could be the first among equals without having to contemplate such distasteful things as geopolitics or military strategy.
Germans’ pacifism was based on the trauma of World War II and the fear that their country would become the main battleground in the event of a World War III. But Germans were fooling themselves if they believed that the peaceful neighborhood they helped create had somehow transcended the logic of brute force. After the risk of a Russian attack subsided with the Cold War’s end, Europe’s largest economies continued to prosper under the guarantees of NATO membership and the protection of the U.S. nuclear shield. Incidentally, no amount of moral rectitude prevented Germany from occupying the spot as the world’s third-biggest arms exporter until very recently.
Putin’s use of military force to hack away at Ukraine was a rude awakening. Such things weren’t supposed to happen in the post-conflict Europe that Germans had convinced themselves they inhabited. The wars of Yugoslavia’s disintegration were already 15 years past and had never threatened to engulf the rest of the continent. The Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine, on the other hand, seemed to forebode a confrontation between Russia and the West unthinkable since the Cold War.
Suddenly, Russia was no longer the partner that Germany imagined it had had all these years. Even worse, the American response to Putin’s lightning operations in Ukraine was sluggish and dazed. President Barack Obama’s “reset” in relations with the Kremlin had failed miserably, premised on the naive belief that Putin’s protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, was an independent political actor genuinely interested in using his brief presidency to westernize Russia. In another miscalculation, Obama had offended many Europeans with his administration’s “pivot” to Asia. After Putin seized Crimea, Obama snubbed Russia as a “regional power” that acted out of weakness, not strength, and wasn’t the No. 1 U.S. security threat, anyway.
The view from Berlin was somewhat different. Merkel stepped up as the West’s chief negotiator with Putin not so much as an intermediary for the Americans as out of a vital European interest to stop the conflict from escalating out of control. It was an unusual role for a German chancellor, but if Obama thought he had bigger fish to fry, Merkel was the woman for the job. She spoke for hours with Putin in 35 phone calls last year and half a dozen meetings since the start of the conflict. She tirelessly sought new formats for negotiation and arranged Putin’s first encounter with Petro Poroshenko after his election as Ukraine’s president last year. In February, Merkel staked her reputation to save the so-called Minsk peace process in all-night talks with the Russian president.
There is a long historical tradition of Germany and Russia deciding the fate of the smaller nations that lie between them. Merkel brought French President François Hollande into the peace process to demonstrate European unity, and she resisted Putin’s attempts to reach a grand bargain above the Ukrainians’ heads by insisting on Poroshenko’s participation. An unintended consequence of the Russian intervention in Ukraine was that Germany started taking the concerns of its eastern European neighbors more seriously. Berlin is now the first foreign destination for politicians from Kiev, and Ukraine’s embassy in the German capital has become the country’s most important diplomatic mission in Europe, if not the world.
Putin is missing the Russian-German axis from the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when Schroeder openly criticized the administration of President George W. Bush. The Russian president feels so isolated by the current German government that he has reportedly written several letters to former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Merkel’s ailing 85-year-old mentor, to put in a good word for the Kremlin.
Anti-Americanism may be what Putin’s German sympathizers have in common, but it was a mistake if the Kremlin counted on widespread frustration with U.S. foreign policy automatically to translate into support for Russia. Reports about widespread and intrusive intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency on German soil have caused a storm of outrage among the public. But for Merkel’s government, the revelations have mostly been an embarrassment because they reveal the degree of Germany’s dependence on U.S. spy agencies.
For Merkel, it’s convenient to let the United States play the bad cop by threatening to deliver defensive weapons to Ukraine and hatching plans to station heavy arms in NATO countries in Eastern Europe. Germany, meantime, can continue being the good cop by advocating dialog and talking peace. The danger is that the Minsk process has gone nowhere, with the top international negotiator, Swiss diplomat
Heidi Tagliavini, quitting this summer.
The limits of Germany’s leadership will soon be put to the test.