“Without a bayonet; if you encounter porridge, push on; if you get steel, pull back. ” This description of how Russia wants to expand its influence abroad is attributed to Vladimir Lenin. But it could have been created by Vladimir Putin. The Russian president is testing the West’s determination with what US intelligence says are advanced preparations for a possible invasion of Ukraine.
Convincing his allies of the seriousness of the threat, Washington seeks to rally them behind a package of severe sanctions and countermeasures to deter Moscow from any further aggression. While unlikely to deploy their own forces or even provide significant weapons to help defend Kiev, the idea is to underscore the cost of a military intervention to the Kremlin.
Much will depend on Berlin’s appetite for sanctions against Moscow. It took some American effort to convince Germany that there was real intent behind Russia’s mass deployment of troops and materiel along Ukraine’s border. Now it appears that Berlin is on board with the US assessment, the discussion is moving towards deterrence and the potential impact on German economic interests that could follow if Western allies have to pursue a sanctions threat.
Russia’s threat is the first real foreign policy test for Germany’s incoming chancellor Olaf Scholz and his “traffic light coalition” of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals. This will give an early indication of how the new government will deviate from the patient diplomacy and continued involvement of the Angela Merkel years.
“No one in the EU has been as capable of dealing with Vladimir Putin through back channels as Angela Merkel,” said Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
It will also test the arguments put forward by critics of Berlin’s foreign policy that a century of German fears, sentimentality and guilt towards his giant neighbor led him astray over Moscow’s real intentions. “Germany’s historically conditioned reflexes have distorted its view of Russia and continue to inhibit its behavior,” John Lough adds in his new book. Germany’s Russia problem.
The coalition agreement published last month reflects the more faltering views of the Greens (and to a lesser extent liberal) on Putin’s threats to international peace and the restriction of civil liberties at home. Relations with Russia come after expressions of support for the people of Belarus in their fight against tyranny and for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This makes a point of acknowledging the deeper security issues of Germany’s eastern EU partners.
“We will take into account different threat perceptions and focus on a common and coherent EU policy towards Russia,” it said. But it also suggests piety about constructive dialogue and engagement. And it commits Berlin to “addressing the interests of both sides” when it comes to international security – a formulation that bears the fingerprints of the so-called Putin defender, or Putin whispers within Scholz’s party.
There is no question of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, let alone a mandate to stop it, as the Greens would like. Instead, the issue has been handed over to Germany’s network regulator, who can only certify it if it fully complies with EU energy legislation, which requires unbundling of pipeline ownership and price transparency. This has raised hopes for the project’s critics, especially Ukraine’s gas operator, which could lose billions in transit fees if the Baltic Sea pipeline continues. “It will be very difficult for Gazprom to comply without changing its business model,” said Yuriy Vitrenko, head of Ukraine’s Naftogaz.
Ultimately, it is Scholz as chancellor who will speak the shots on Russia and he will have learned from Merkel’s experience, says Clüver Ashbrook. As a former finance minister, he may be better able to withstand business pressure on deeper economic sanctions against Russia. But it is unlikely that there will be a sudden German conversion to the need for a steely deterrent against Russian aggression. “The biggest problem at the moment is that the German population is not experiencing the urgency,” says Clüver Ashbrook. “It does not see the threat potential.”