The Brexit vote not only means England’s departure from the EU; it also implies a power shift toward Germany—and, in particular, a shift toward European foreign policy being crafted in Berlin, even more than has been the case so far, especially with regard to the aggressive Russia of Vladimir Putin. The German-Russian relation will be ever more crucial to European security. The integrity of the EU, especially its eastern flank, depends on a commitment in Berlin to withstand pressure from Moscow. Whether an EU led by Germany after Brexit will maintain a strong defense posture is a question vital to European security.
In light of its own militaristic history, Germany has become an emphatic defender of international law, consistently averse to the use of force. In contrast, Russia, with ambitions to reestablish the preeminence it enjoyed during the Soviet era, has been willing to challenge the same international norms that Germany hopes to uphold. As a result, the German perspective on Russia is always a sensitive political point. Can we expect Germany to be a reliable ally when confronted with an adventurist Russia? Maybe not, as recent events indicate.
To understand the current reemergence of the Russia question in Germany, it would be useful to review some recent history. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent strategy of destabilization in eastern Ukraine elicited harsh international condemnations. These events clearly marked something new in post-World War II Europe: the appropriation of territory by violent means. The egregiousness of Moscow’s disregard for international law as well as the infringement on the particularly European expectation of peace led to the imposition of a set of sanctions on Russia, which remain an irritant for the Putin regime.
Russia’s Ukraine policies were criticized across Europe, including of course by Germany. Yet across the German political spectrum, from left to right, one also found apologists for Putin, eager to excuse or even defend his policies. On the post-Communist left, nostalgia for the Soviet Union produced a sentimental sympathy for the Kremlin. Meanwhile, centrist trade and industrial interests cherished business relations with Russia and were therefore naturally predisposed to oppose sanctions and argue for appeasement. On the far right, the cultural conservatives looked romantically to the Russian East for an antipode to the materialist and democratic influences emanating from the West.
And for many of all political persuasions in Germany, Russia retains the distinct advantage of not being the United States: Sympathy for Putin functions as an indirect expression of latent anti-Americanism. One of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s many achievements involved her success in containing this broad pro-Russian camp, the Putinversteher—those who mounted apologetics for Putin—and in contributing significantly to building the sanctions regime.
The Crimean annexation took place two years ago, but suddenly the debate over Russia has erupted again: How to evaluate the annexation of Crimea? Some commentators are beginning to argue to accept it as irreversible. How to manage the sanctions? Although they have been extended, support is hardly rock solid. How to gauge the Russian threat to other parts of the former Soviet empire and whether another invasion might take place, perhaps in the Baltics? This is at the center of a controversial debate over European security concerns, which has reverberated in the very interior of the German governing coalition. A part of the German political leadership is signaling the need for a policy toward Russia that is less confrontational and more prepared to appease Russian geographical claims. Is Germany growing less supportive of an alliance to withstand Russian expansion? We may be witnessing the erosion of a key component of western security.
It is important note how the Russian challenge remains urgent. Russia continues to flaunt its strength across the region. Not only does it remain ensconced in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but since 2014, it is has conducted at least six major military exercises involving between 65,000 and 160,000 troops, and it regularly undertakes “snap exercises,” showing off an ability to mobilize fighting forces much more quickly than NATO can. In addition, Russian aircraft frequently intrude into Scandinavian airspace, and on several occasions Russian jets have aggressively flown over American vessels in the Baltic Sea at provocatively low altitudes.
In this context, and against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, NATO has just completed a ten-day exercise in Poland, dubbed Anaconda, involving 31,00 troops, primarily from the United States and Poland, and with the participation of 24 nations, to test western capacity. That capacity was found to be worrisomely lacking. In the words of General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. group forces in Europe, “Russia could take over the Baltic states faster than we would be able to defend them.” He noted deficiencies in NATO’s ability to move heavy equipment in from Western Europe, as well as serious flaws in the available communication technology. This all adds up to conditions that could enable a second Crimea.
The response to Anaconda within the German political class has been disturbing. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, and the leading Social Democrat in Christian Democratic Chancellor Merkel’s coalition government, denounced NATO’s so-called “saber rattling and war cries.” The remark seemed out of character, since it was the same Steinmeier who had delivered a harsh rebuke to the Putin apologists in 2014 in the initial context of the Crimea crisis, insisting that Germany would not tolerate the Russian breach of international law. But now, two years later, he has apparently changed his tune, choosing instead harsh words to criticize the show of western force.
The motivation for this shift is transparently political, as attention turns to the 2017 Bundestag elections and prospects for a change of government. By dialing back the confrontation with Moscow, Steinmeier is reaching out to the other parties on the left in order to lay the foundation for a possible future coalition: his Social Democratic Party could potentially form a government together with the Greens and the former Communists. And a Germany under such a “red-red-green” coalition, perhaps with Steinmeier as Chancellor, will certainly not be a reliable ally in defending Eastern Europe against Russian efforts to claw back the Soviet-era zone of influence. On the contrary, in that scenario, a German coalition of the left would likely pursue peace with Putin, no matter what the costs in Eastern Europe.
Steinmeier’s attack on NATO’s “saber-rattling” has a further political implication. As noted, it is not only on the left where one finds sympathy for Russia. The far right, in Germany as well as elsewhere in Europe, such as in the French National Front, has displayed a clear attraction to Putin’s policies and leadership style: his authoritarian demeanor, his aggressive nationalism, and his disdain for liberal democratic values.
In addition, that German far right, particularly the new party, Alternative for Germany, has achieved significant regional electoral successes by drawing voters away from the established parties, especially the Social Democrats. By ratcheting down the critique of Russia, Steinmeier is testing the possibility of winning back voters from the right, which ultimately implies moving toward promoting a policy to normalize a new status quo in Eastern Europe, i.e. accepting the Crimean annexation and Russia’s intrusion in eastern Ukraine. That would be a clear win for Moscow and a signal to the Baltic states that they will not be able to count on Germany, when the Russian army—or its surrogates—comes knocking. Nor can the Baltic states be very confident that NATO or the EU, now weakened by the departure of the UK, would do much either.
A final factor is also at stake. It is obviously troubling that the German Foreign Minister, supported by prominent journalists, appears to be backing off from the expectation that Russia respect international borders. After Brexit, Germany’s importance in the EU has only grown, and if Berlin slides toward a politics of appeasement or de facto “Finlandization,” the future of Eastern Europe will be grim indeed.
Yet this prospect is not only a function of internal European politics. Some of the fault lies in Washington too. The Obama administration’s announced “pivot to Asia” necessarily meant a movement away from Europe, and that has had consequences. Once the United States implicitly backed off from prioritizing the defense of Eastern Europe, no one could plausibly expect a basically pacifist Germany to take on the task. Such is the Obama legacy: a reduced American role with no succession plan in place.
But the prospects for the next administration are not particularly promising. Donald Trump has declared his own sympathy for Putin and is unlikely to want to take him on, while Hillary Clinton, despite her allegedly more hawkish credentials, was after all the architect of the notorious “reset” of relations with Russia. Given the shift to the left in the Democratic Party since then, it is difficult to envision a strong and self-assertive foreign policy from a new Clinton administration, at least not as far as Russia is concerned.
The diminishment of American leadership in Europe, like the United States’ retreat from the Middle East, is leaving disorder in its wake. The German Foreign Minister’s criticism of a major NATO exercise is one hardly subtle sign that we can expect a lot more to unravel unless effective measures are taken to rebuild the western alliance.