Russia misread Germany’s growing influence
(CNN) — Two years ago, Moscow viewed the confrontation between the United States and Germany over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as a litmus test of transatlantic power.
Russia had invested heavily in the more than 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) undersea gas pipeline linking it to Germany and wanted to increase global sales and increase its economic leverage over Europe and its energy-hungry heavy industries. Germany, one of the main consumers, agreed from the beginning. washington no.
The United States did not want the new high-capacity submarine supply to replace the old land lines that ran through Ukraine, providing vital income to Kyiv’s increasingly Western-oriented rulers.
Russia reasoned that if Washington blocked Nord Stream 2, as it eventually did, it would show that European power no longer flowed through Berlin, but through the White House.
Two years later, reading that transatlantic dynamic after Angela Merkel, and in particular after President Vladimir Putin’s failed invasion of Ukraine, has become one of the most pressing political questions for the Kremlin.
Rare moment of iron leadership
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s refusal to “let himself be pressured” to send solo tanks to Ukraine — instead of standing his ground and demanding US President Joe Biden join him in the venture, risking Putin’s wrath—has shown that the transatlantic power dynamics have changed.
Europe has been slow to react to the deep fissures in US policy and the uncertainty that another Trump-style presidency could cause its allies. Decades of reasonably unshakeable, if not total, confidence in the United States have been replaced by stubborn European pragmatism, and Germany leads the way.
Former Chancellor Merkel was Europe’s moral compass. Scholz has found an unexpected metal in his powerful governing coalition, often a stop/go/wait traffic light, and on Wednesday of last week he won thunderous applause in the German Bundestag for displaying a rare moment of steely leadership.
At their summit in March last year, NATO leaders agreed to equip, arm and train Ukraine to NATO standards. It would not be a member, but the message to Moscow was unmistakable: Ukraine would look and fight like it was in NATO for years to come.
Ukraine’s current metamorphosis from inherited Soviet force to NATO clone has not consisted solely of the mechanics or even diplomacy of procuring battle tanks, combat vehicles, air defenses and artillery, but of attracting the almost one billion inhabitants of NATO member countries together with their politicians. Scholz insisted on this on Wednesday in Parliament.
“Trust us,” he said, “we won’t put you in danger.” He explained how his government had already managed Russian aggression and how fears of a freezing winter and economic collapse had not come true. “The government coped with the crisis,” he said, adding: “We are in a much better position.”
The applause at every step of his carefully crafted speech spoke as loud as his words. In short, Scholz got Germany right, bringing with him a population typically averse to war and projecting its own power, and deeply divided over how far it should help Ukraine kill Russians and potentially anger the Kremlin.
Does Putin cool down with the escalation?
But if in Europe Scholz seems to have wrested some vestige of influence over the United States in the war in Ukraine, in Moscow they don’t think his new vigor will change much.
Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian Council for International Affairs, says that in Moscow “most people believe that Biden rules the roost.”
Indeed, rather than Germany gaining more influence, he says, “American leadership seems stronger than ever.”
Nevertheless, Russian diplomats have been making public their animosity towards the West on both sides of the Atlantic.
Russia’s ambassador to Germany called Berlin’s move to send tanks “extremely dangerous” and accused Scholz of refusing to “acknowledge his historical responsibility [de Alemania] before our people for the horrible crimes of Nazism.” Meanwhile, his counterpart in Washington accused the White House of “blatant provocation” and Biden of being hell-bent on the “strategic defeat” of Russia.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and vice president of its National Security Council, has said that Russia would never be defeated and would use nuclear weapons if threatened.
Interestingly, closer to the Kremlin, the statements are less bellicose, indicating that Putin may be cooling off in the face of a nuclear escalation.
Responding to Biden and Scholz’s decision on the tanks, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it adds “stress to the continent, but cannot stop Russia from achieving our goals.”
Berlin wants hands on the controls
The mixed messages have confused some Muscovites CNN spoke to after the Biden and Scholz announcements about the tanks. Some said Russia would win regardless, lumping the United States and Germany together as the losers, but a significant proportion were worried about the war, appalled by the high death toll and frustrated that Putin ignored their concerns.
It is not clear to what extent Scholz is aware of Putin’s fading popularity or whether he considers it relevant at the moment, but his actions now, sending in tanks, may help ease Putin’s tight grip on power.
The pragmatist Scholz, slow to acknowledge the Russian threat, reorient Germany, revitalize its army and increase arms supplies to Ukraine, has now signaled that Germany is very interested and indeed wants a hand in the controls. He said Germany would “coordinate” supplies of the Allied Leopard 2 to Ukraine, a power vested in it under German law that prevents any buyer of the country’s war material from ceding it to a third state.
With Scholz at the helm of diplomacy, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could see his territorial ambitions of restoring sovereignty to Ukraine as a whole, including Crimea, limited before peace talks with Putin. Germany’s chancellor has been at the forefront of friendly leaders who want a speedy end to the war and the restoration of economic stability in Europe.
Longer discussions about the next military moves in Ukraine could be ahead, likely signaling to Zelensky that arms supplies will be more in the hands of Germany and less unilaterally directed by Washington.
This shift in power dynamics may not change the way war is waged, but it could influence the contours of a final deal and shape a lasting peace when it arrives.