Ukraine’s success depends on Biden bolstering the Germans
What a celebration it was in winter, when Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered his “Zeitenwende” speech. A transformation of German foreign policy was afoot; the leader of a party addicted to détente suddenly promised $100 billion for defense. But Scholz made his pledge only three days into the Russia-Ukraine war, and no one in Germany or elsewhere, for that matter, expected the conflict to drag on.
Now, six months into Russia’s invasion, the Germans are jittery. Winter is coming. Anxiety over inflation and talk of recession are in the air. Watch for the German Chancellery to support phony peace plans and partition of Ukraine if Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly sues for peace.
If Berlin abandons the Ukrainian cause, we have a transatlantic nightmare. The Biden administration must help stiffen its backbone.
Germany has already been dragging its feet on military aid for Kyiv. Since Scholz’s February speech, the term “Scholzing” has become a common expression in Ukraine: It means promising something repeatedly without delivering on the promise.
Bigger picture: Germany has always had an Eastern European blind spot. Since the 1970s, Berlin has often prioritized Russian interests over Central and Eastern European concerns. The old West Germany made itself dependent on Soviet gas, arguing that pumping money into Moscow coffers would somehow democratize the totalitarian state.
The Nord Stream pipelines have been a continuation of this deeply flawed premise. “Trust but verify” has never been part of the German policymaker’s DNA. “Even in the darkest hours of the Cold War, Russia respected its contracts,” Germany’s then foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said just after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine — though Russia turned off gas to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009. He also overlooked that Germany’s Disneyland fantasies about Kremlin behavior affected other Eastern European partners and their energy needs, too.
German politics is wired to favor accommodation and appeasement. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who’s been doing Putin’s bidding at Nord Stream, Rosneft and Gazprom, is still welcome in the Social Democratic party. In June, Scholz’s foreign policy adviser, Jens Plötner, argued for improving relations with Russia (and China, too). Not the best ear for timing. But Plötner served as chief of staff to current President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, another Social Democrat, who was Schröder’s right hand for many years.
Oh, and Gabriel — another Schröder protégé — now chairs the prestigious think tank Atlantik-Brücke, charged with promoting “German-American understanding.” There’s a vibrant pro-Russian network in Berlin.
Enter industry and Germany’s energy conundrum. Germans find themselves in a predicament of their own making: They’re starting to see the consequences of energy dependence on Russia. Jittery Germans, anxious about a winter that can start as early as October, have been dimming street lamps this summer and have ceased illuminating important monuments.
In Kyiv, October is expected to bring daytime highs in the 50s with overnight lows in the low 40s. German cities are but a tick behind. Germany has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with five other European Union countries (all in Central and Eastern Europe) for intensive cooperation in the event that Russia precipitates full-on blackouts this year. Of course, Germans could revert to nuclear power. Alas and bewilderingly, no German party supports such a step at this time.
If the German economy — Europe’s largest — goes into freefall, the rest of Europe is toast. (EU inflation is at 8.9%.) Deutsche Bank is warning that the country is on the brink of recession. The Handelsblatt, Germany’s leading financial paper, says recession is not a matter of “if” but “for how long.” Jobs will be lost, companies will be hammered, consumers will be hurt. Next in the chain is politicians who go wobbly.
If our goal is to help Ukraine recover its territorial integrity and sovereignty, losing Germany means losing Europe. And a transatlantic break will be a regime-saving gift for Vladimir Putin.
So Germany has dragged its feet on military assistance, and for this Germans have earned our scolding. But let’s keep our eye on the ball. Germany is a military dwarf but an economic giant with considerable diplomatic sway in Europe. Strengthen German resolve now or pay dearly when spooked and misguided German politicians plead for pragmatism and bad peace deals later.
Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, DC, and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”