Editorial: The Berlin Affliction

After a week where the German Foreign Minister arrived in Kyiv just to publicly announce that Germany would not be providing defensive weapons to Ukraine in the face of an imminent Russian incursion and the German government also accused of blocking Estonia’s bid to transfer ex-East German towed howitzers to Ukraine, capped off by a bizarre incident where the now-former chief of the German Navy felt the need to publicly identify himself as a “very radical Roman Catholic” while claiming that giving Vladimir Putin “respect” was “low cost, even zero cost”, one thing is quite clear: the only worse time to be a German diplomat would be this week, and possibly next week.

Germany’s desire to become more assertive in geopolitics ultimately goes back to the 2016 election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Pundits rallied to call then-Chancellor Angela Merkel the “new leader of the Free World” in response to the boorish and impulsive foreign policy espoused by Trump. According to European leaders, in the absence of stable American leadership and commitment to the past 70 years of transatlantic consensus in particular, it was high time the European nations became a credible independent force in international relations. As the European Union’s largest economy, Berlin seemed like a natural fit to spearhead a European drive for geopolitical credibility, given that Paris is better known for its near perpetual hands-on “management” of its former colonies in Africa. Five years on from Trump’s inauguration, however, the bungled evacuation of German consular staff during the fall of Kabul and now the looming spectre of war in Europe instead show that Berlin has been unable to rise to any occasion that can’t be “solved” by building a barbed wire fence, or paying someone to do so for them.

Diplomacy At A Summit Nobody Else Bothered Attending

German claims that providing weaponry as military aid to Ukraine would not help deescalate tensions make the most sense in the context of German involvement in the Normandy Format peace talks. Alongside France, Germany assists in meditating negotiations between Ukraine and Russia (inadvertently dispensing with the fiction that the Russian backed separatists aren’t ultimately underwritten by, and answer to the Kremlin) on how to end the War in Donbass through implementation of the Minsk Agreements. However, negotiations have stalled despite numerous meetings since 2015, with Russia demanding the implementation of its interpretation of agreement provisions on the federalization of Ukraine, which would provide Moscow with a de facto veto of Kyiv’s desires to build closer ties with anyone other than Moscow. In turn, a rarely-broken streak of daily ceasefire violations, as well as killings and maimings of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians alike by separatist fire mean that Kyiv has little reason to implement the Minsk Agreement as Moscow interprets it, even before what it would portend for the future of an Ukraine that aspires to be more than a puppet regime for Russia.

Sniff Tests? What Sniff Tests?

Berlin’s refusal to supply Ukraine with weaponry desperately sought to defend itself on the grounds that Ukraine is a “conflict zone” also rings hollow due to German arms sales to a variety of nations currently embroiled in proxy conflicts, in particular the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and Qatar. With Turkey and Qatar backing the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, while the UAE and Egypt backed strongman Khalifa Haftar’s ultimately failed bid to overthrow the GNA, Berlin has the dubious achievement of successfully selling to the backers of both sides of a proxy war.

Especially egregious are the sales to Egypt, which in a 2019 Reuters investigation was found to be kidnapping and framing random civilians as “terrorists” before executing them to feign progress in its campaign against the Islamic State’s Sinai Province, while claiming kill counts of IS fighters that only the most naive or credulous could possibly believe. Russian disinformation campaigns accusing Ukrainian forces of atrocities such as the “Crucified Boy” were easily proven to be crude fabrications.

Principles Or Staying Warm, Your Choice

A common refrain from defensive Germans since Nord Stream 2 floated to near the top of the transatlantic diplomatic concerns list is that “you know absolutely nothing about energy politics in Germany”. However, the ongoing European gas supply crisis has laid out the bottom line as clear as day: Deliberate Russian manipulation of natural gas supplies to Europe even before gas flow through the pipeline begins shows just how much leverage Moscow has by being able to decide how affordably European energy consumers can remain warm and productive through the winter, if at all. More particularly, it lays bare exactly what the costs are of Germany’s weaning itself off coal while simultaneously refusing to expand nuclear power investments.

While the desire to dub this a Faustian bargain is a strong one, the deal Berlin has bartered may be worse: Faust bargained his own soul; Berlin is disabusing nobody of the notion that Kyiv will be shoved under the proverbial tank tracks first.

Warmth and Riches – For One Man 

It is quite impossible to discuss German energy policy in the context of the current crisis without discussing the legacy of one Gerhardt Schroeder, former German Chancellor turned chairman of Russian state-controlled energy giant Rosneft. In perhaps the most blatant display of a “revolving door” in Western politics in some time, Schroeder approved the original Nord Stream pipeline in his final days as Chancellor, and shortly afterwards accepted an appointment by Gazprom to serve as the head of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG, overseeing the implementation of a project he had advocated for and then approved during his time in government.

Despite outcry from inside and outside Germany at the blatant self-interest of his actions, Schroeder has since been tasked with overseeing Nord Stream 2, and has thus far managed to avoid sanctions levied on Russia’s energy sector following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Similarly, despite his lobbying for Russian interests, he is still treated in Germany as an elder statesman worth looking up to, even after the events of 2014.

Don’t Mention The War

One of the more bizarre defenses of the Nord Stream 2 project, presented by current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier no less, is that German atrocities in World War Two necessitate the completion of the pipeline. While the Wehrmacht’s horrendous conduct on the Eastern Front is not up for debate, the reductionist view of events posited by Steinmeier plows straight into the realm of absurdity, implying that Russia is the sole successor state of the Soviet Union and that the suffering of Ukrainians during the war is irrelevant as a result.

More common, however, is skepticism in Berlin of the merits of military power, not helped by high-profile fiascos involving sympathies for the extreme right in the Bundeswehr. While modern German society has no shortage of justified reasons to be skeptical of those advocating the ultima ratio regum due to the history of the Federal Republic, a refusal to stand firm in the face of blatant bullying is hardly a show of moral integrity.

Lead, Follow, Or Get Out Of The Way

Ultimately, while Germany’s current “traffic light coalition” can credibly claim that it was dealt a poor hand by the legacies of previous governments, this is far from an excuse for the sheer ineptitude seen of late. Even if the best case scenario comes to pass and there is no major war and no massive waste of youth and treasure on the frozen fields of Eastern Europe, the world at large will be, and has been, taking note of Berlin’s omnishambollic performance. If Berlin wishes for its expanded geopolitical aspirations to be treated credibly instead of being viewed as a bunch of empty posturing “underwritten” by lazily sailing a single frigate around the eastern Pacific and calling it proof of commitment, a lot of soul searching will be in order. The problem, of course, is that a lot of money, political capital and, most importantly, lives ride on Berlin’s decisions.