To date, Berlin and Paris have preferred to keep a low profile on the Ukrainian crisis. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is unwilling to postpone the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and French President Emmanuel Macron is running for re-election in a country where pro-Russian sentiments run deep. However, U.S. pressure on Scholz and Macron in the post-Merkel era has pushed both leaders to be more vocal and united. Will the E.U.’s tougher stance help defuse the crisis?
Until a couple of months ago, Germany was run by Angela Merkel, who had Putin’s respect. Scholz, Merkel’s successor, is not as charismatic, and has been timid and passive on the Ukraine crisis. Scholz was summoned to Washington earlier this month, where officials complained that “Scholz has switched to mute.” Germany’s refusal to deliver weapons to Ukraine is causing frustration in Kyiv and among NATO members. After their White House meeting, Biden and Scholz tried to show a united front. Yet Scholz refused to refrain from activating the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline should Russia invade Ukraine.
Under Merkel, by contrast, Germany was tough on Putin and acted swiftly. When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, Merkel convinced all E.U. members to impose sanctions on Russia. Together with France, Germany established the so-called “Normandy format,” which included Russia and Ukraine.
Back then, Europe had a seat at the negotiation table. Today, Putin talks directly with Biden, over the Europeans’ heads. Putin sounded dismissive after meeting with Macron in Moscow last week, and suggested that his only real interlocutor was Biden. This is, of course, part of Russia’s old practice of divide and rule when dealing with NATO. But Putin would not have ignored Merkel the way he has so far ignored Scholz.
For Putin, Scholz is a more convenient interlocutor than Merkel because he lacks her authority and gravitas and is a member of the Social Democrats (SPD). Having grown up in East Germany, Merkel had no sympathy for Russia. Further, she was also strongly Atlanticist like the rest of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The Social Democrats, by contrast, have historically been more favorably inclined towards Russia. Since Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in the early 1970s, the party has sometimes been dubbed Russlandversteher, or “a Russia understander.” Moreover, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a member of the Social Democrats, has been very sympathetic to Russia and has been on Putin’s payroll for years, chairing the consortium that built Nord Stream 1 and 2.
In addition to chairing the Nord Stream projects, Schröder joined the board of Russian gas giant Gazprom. Moreover, Schröder has recently accused Ukraine of “saber-rattling.”
True, Schröder is no longer chancellor, and Brandt sounds like ancient history, but concerns about Germany’s new government with regard to Russia are not unfounded. Recently, the government fired Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, the head of the German navy, for saying that the West should show Putin respect and recruit Russia as an ally against China.
Although Schönbach was fired for his comments, he expressed a sentiment shared by many decision-makers in Germany. Indeed, the concept of Russlandversteher has been updated with that of Putinversteher—those who understand Putin.
From its refusal to supply weapons to Ukraine to its insistence on building Nord Stream 2—that increases E.U. dependence on Russian natural gas and which was opposed by the United States—Germany is seen as undermining a united Western front.
Nord Stream was built under Merkel, and therefore the Social Democrats are not the only ones to blame for Europe’s dependence on Russia’s natural gas. The European Union could impose stricter sanctions on Russia, but Putin could close gas pipelines to the E.U. in response. The consequences would be unmanageable, especially in the winter, since the European Union imports about a third of its natural gas from Russia (on average, though countries like Austria and Finland import all their natural gas from Russia).
Of course, turning off the gas tap would also be costly to Gazprom, and tough Western sanctions would hurt the Russian economy. Nevertheless, Russia would be able to hold on for quite a while, thanks to $600 billion in reserves sitting in its central bank. And so far, Gazprom has made quite a lot of money thanks to the higher gas prices produced by the crisis. So it could be that maintaining the situation without war is good enough for Putin.
Germany poses a problem for the European Union with regard to natural gas because it consumes a quarter of the E.U.’s gas supplies. Moreover, it has become more reliant on natural gas since it decided to shut nuclear plants following the Fukushima disaster.
Germany, however, is not the only reason Putin is hardly facing a united European response. France is part of the problem, too.
There is no French equivalent for the German expression Russlandversteher, but there is a French equivalent for the attitude. Indeed, former French premier François Fillon was recently added to Putin’s payroll, joining the board of Sibur, Russia’s petrochemicals giant.
Unlike their German counterparts, French conservatives are not unanimously Atlanticists—far from it. Fillon, who ran for president in 2017 as a Gaullist candidate, is a Russophile. Gaullist foreign policy was always about reducing French reliance on the United States. Hence, Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO’s military command in 1966.
During the 2003 Iraq crisis, former French president Jacques Chirac (himself a Gaullist) had criticized the governments of eastern Europe, which were about to join the European Union, for daring to show support for the United States. France had built a united front against the war in Iraq with Russia and Germany.
Macron is no Gaullist, although the Gaullist tradition inspires his foreign policy. He has hardly contributed to showing a united front vis-à-vis Russia. On the contrary, he described NATO as “brain dead” and called for “dialogue” with Russia two years ago.
Just like Chirac two decades ago, Macron has been floating the idea of a European army, something the Americans have consistently opposed as an idea that risks undermining NATO.
Macron talks somewhat confusingly about a “strategic autonomy”—a typical French way of using code language. But Eastern European countries oppose the idea as much as the United States does. Moreover, Macron’s declarations and views of NATO have played into Putin’s divide and rule tactics.
As Scholz was in Washington, Macron flew to Moscow and Kyiv. While Macron’s efforts to defuse the crisis are genuine, his diplomacy is not unrelated to France’s upcoming elections. France’s presidential elections will take place in April, and Macron cannot afford to go against French public opinion, which is split, with strong Russian sympathies that transcend right and left.
The presidential candidate for the center-right, Valerie Pecresse, is a moderate conservative committed to NATO. However, other contenders with clear-cut views, both from the right and left, sympathize more with Russia than with the United States. This includes Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour on the right and Jean-Luc Melanchon on the left. All three have committed to pulling France out of NATO.
Putin knows he can count on French public opinion. Yet things are likely to look different after the elections. According to The Economist’s election model, Macron has a 79% chance of re-election. If re-elected, Macron will likely get tougher on Russia, whether Putin invades Ukraine or not.
Despite all this, however, there are signs that Europe’s stance on Russia may be hardening.
At the beginning of his term, five years ago, Macron tried to impress Putin by inviting him to the Palace of Versailles and establishing a personal relationship at his vacation home on the Mediterranean coast. But Putin has mostly ignored Macron. Macron has also been angered by the deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to Mali, where French troops are under pressure.
Macron now calls Russia a “destabilizing power” for attacking former Soviet republics with hybrid attacks, thus endangering Europe’s security. Macron now warns of “serious consequences” if Russia invades Ukraine. He no longer wants to be accused of being too soft or even complicit with Moscow, or of dividing the European Union and NATO. Besides the threat of economic sanctions, Macron has also deployed French troops to Romania to strengthen NATO’s presence there.
On Feb. 8, the day after the Putin-Macron meeting in Moscow and the Biden-Scholz meeting in Washington, a trilateral meeting was held in Berlin of the leaders of France, Germany and Poland. The E.U.’s two heavyweights finally showed a united front with Poland, an E.U. and NATO member that shares a border with Russia (the Kaliningrad exclave).
Finally, Scholz issued a strongly-worded statement on Ukraine, stating: “A further violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine is unacceptable and would lead to far-reaching consequences for Russia, politically, economically and surely strategically, too.”
This new European front and tougher talk coming out of Berlin will hopefully convince Putin to compromise on Ukraine’s relations with NATO and the European Union. Europeans surely remember what happens when you let an autocrat get away with grabbing territories hoping that this bite will be the last one. And if Putin gets away with conquering Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping will feel confident about taking control of Taiwan.
One possible explanation for Putin’s behavior is that he is using the Ukrainian crisis, which he created, to lift the economic sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. If the situation manufactured by Putin boils down to the lifting of sanctions, a compromise might be at hand.
On the other hand, if he is serious about his revisionist agenda in Eastern Europe, the crisis will likely last and even escalate.
Dr. Emmanuel Navon is an International Relations expert who teaches, at Tel Aviv University and at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), and at the IDF academy. He is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and at the Kohelet Policy Forum, as well as Senior Analyst for i24news.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.