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The EU's 'unforgivable failure' over Ukraine

Germany's strange ambivalence is at the heart of this diplomatic travesty

Ukrainian servicemen from the 25th Air Assault Battalion are seen stationed in Avdiivka, Ukraine on January 24, 2022
A Ukrainian paratrooper stationed near the Donbas area this week Credit: Anadolu Agency

Sometimes you have to be blunt in international affairs. If Vladimir Putin takes Kiev it will be in large part because the German political and economic establishment is complicit, notwithstanding the efforts of the Green foreign minister to change course at the last moment.

The German elites have signalled by their actions and body language that there will be no serious consequences, whatever Mr Putin does with his Blitzkrieg forces and armoured divisions on Ukraine’s border.

The rest of core Europe is going along with what can only be described as a diplomatic travesty. Brussels has been briefing journalists that invasion talk is breathless Anglo-Saxon chatter. The European Commission has pointedly taken the decision not to withdraw embassy staff from Kiev, the tell-tale behaviour of a power that considers itself neutral.

France’s Emmanuel Macron has chosen this moment to call for a new strategic partnership between the EU and Russia, separate from the Americans, to the consternation of those EU states on the front line that depend on America for their national survival.

Fiona Hill, White House Russia strategist during the Obama years, says Mr Putin’s real objective in this conflict is to force the Americans out of Europe once and for all, inflicting the same humiliation on them that his country suffered with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Brussels-Paris-Berlin triangle is helping the process along, and playing with fire.

Piotr Buras from the European Council on Foreign Relations calls the episode “the EU’s unforgivable failure”, a malady of wishful thinking, posturing, incompetence, and lack of follow-through.

“The European security architecture is in tatters. Institutional arrangements that have been vital to the Continent in the post-Cold War era now exist only on paper. On arms control, military arrangements, and other security issues, the EU has almost nothing to bring to the table. So, Russia can simply ignore it,” he said.

“The EU has not only failed to confront Moscow with substantive measures it would apply in response to a Russian attack. It has also neglected to engage in the internal preparations that would allow it to find a consensus on the matter."

Mr Buras said the European Council asked the Commission’s foreign policy team to come up with a sanctions package six months ago but no paper appeared. “This is a devastating indictment of European diplomacy at a time when it faces its most serious test,” he said.

At the heart of this paralysis is the strange ambivalence of Germany, sustained by the undying belief that it has a unique understanding and appreciation of Russia. The national faith in Ostpolitik survives every provocation by Mr Putin.

It is partially a way to camouflage self-interest and commercial advantage, but it is also a genuine cultural pathology. “They cannot get the illusion of a strategic partnership with Russia out of their heads,” said Professor Hannes Adomeit from the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University.

He is one of 73 German historians and experts on Eastern Europe who have written an open letter accusing the Berlin establishment of contributing to the unfolding disaster with systematic misjudgments, doggedly pursuing the doctrine of Annäherung durch Verflechtung (rapprochement through interdependence), and determined to keep believing that Mr Putin would be even less controllable if it were not for German engagement.

“They think that the siloviki (crony strongmen) around Putin are not so different from the old Brezhnev and Gorbachov crowd. But Putin is much more dangerous because he is less constrained by the collective wisdom of the Politburo, and he carries a chip on his shoulder,” he said.

The German political elites argue - understandably, and honourably - that the country owes a moral debt to Russia as atonement for the Second World War, but over time this degenerates into diplomatic nihilism, and even duplicity. The equivalent moral obligation to the Ukrainian people is swept under the rug. “Proportionately, Ukraine suffered a far higher rate of Nazi casualties,” said Prof Adomeit.

A new argument is emerging to replace this depreciating pretext. Matthias Platzeck from the Deutsch-Russisches Forum is calling for the end of all residual post-Crimea sanctions in order to soothe the Kremlin, arguing that it is now a strategic imperative to peel Russia away from Xi Jinping’s China. Or as the ex-German navy chief put it a little too candidly, Mr Putin only wants respect… and deserves it.

Mr Platzeck is a former Social Democrat (SPD) premier of Brandenburg, one of so many SPD grandees who have ended up directly or indirectly enlisting for team Russia. Ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroder is to this day chairman of the Nord Stream pipeline. The nexus of Kremlin influence is a core theme of Germany’s Russia Problem, a new book by John Lough from Chatham House.

The upshot of German appeasement - yes, it is the right word - is that Russia will not be expelled from the SWIFT system of global payments even if Mr Putin takes Kiev and erects his puppet government.

Friedrich Merz, the new leader of the Christian Democrats, said it was too dangerous to activate this financial nuclear option. It would risk blowing up the European capital markets and triggering a banking crisis, devastating the European economy. He seemed to suggest that sanctions against a few oligarchs would be a sufficient response.

Mr Merz is in a sense correct. German companies have continued to invest on a large scale in the Russian economy since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and are therefore hostage, rather as the City of London continued to fund Hitler’s regime as late as 1938, all the while lobbying furiously for peace on Berlin’s terms.

There will be no embargo of Russian exports of energy and strategic minerals. Key leaders of the SPD - including the defence minister and the secretary-general - continue to think that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline should go ahead even if Mr Putin extinguishes Ukraine.

Berlin has refused to sell Kiev defensive weapons systems and intervened to stop the Baltic NATO states from shipping old East German howitzers from their military stocks to help stiffen Ukraine’s resistance.

In short, Germany will not take any step that threatens its special relationship with Moscow or jeopardises its long-term economic interests. It is conceding the Kremlin an imperial droit de regard over its near abroad. Moreover, it is doing so even though Mr Putin is demanding a buffer zone of emasculated neutral states across a swath of the EU itself, including Finland and Sweden as well as the old Warsaw Pact states and the Balkans.

Wolfgang Ischinger, veteran head of the Munich Security Conference, said the reluctance to issue clear warnings to the Kremlin is a fundamental failure of deterrence and increases the likelihood that Mr Putin will try to overthrow the European strategic order. SWIFT should be front and centre on the table.

“We have to instil in the Russian mind the thought that the price to be paid for an invasion is so high that it is not worth it. If we are helpless bystanders and neither help Ukraine with weapons nor threaten massive economic sanctions we’ll repeat what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s when 300,000 people had to die before the US came in and sorted it all out,” he said. This time the stakes are an order of magnitude higher, and the US cannot sort it out once it is allowed to happen.

Mr Ischinger said few in Berlin’s political bubble seem to understand the damage being done, both to the credibility of Germany and to the integrity of the EU itself. It is NATO that is coming through for the beleaguered East Europeans, not Brussels, which has been heroically useless.

Professor Adomeit said Germany had still not learned the Balkan lesson. “The reason why the Bosnians were slaughtered at Srebrenica was because they could not defend themselves. Germany refused to lift the arms embargo,” he said.

But he thinks the better parallel for Ukraine is what happened in the Spanish Civil War when the French and British piously refused to supply weapons to the legitimate government, while Mussolini sent a whole army and Hitler famously sent the Nazi Condor Legion - the bombers of Guernica - to help Franco’s Fascist forces.

There are still optimists. Charles Grant from the Centre for European Reform says Germany will fall into line and back draconian sanctions if Mr Putin actually attacks. “Deep in their bones, the German political class are Atlanticist,” he said.

So we wait with tense foreboding as the ground freezes hard enough for Russian tanks and artillery, and we ask the question: what will remain of the EU if Mr Putin smashes the European security architecture over the next six weeks?

Will it evolve into the ‘Lotharingian’ Franco-German condominium of Mr Macron’s dreams, or will it be the start of a de facto Russian-German condominium that is far less congenial to Brussels, Paris, and the West?