Prior to the recent U-turn in German foreign policy, commentary had portrayed Germany in recent weeks and months as a dangerously cowardly country, delaying a united European front against Russia. They highlighted Germany’s extensive economic ties with Russia and its reluctance to supply arms to the Ukrainian side.
In fact, however, Germany has been the main power supporting Ukraine’s realignment with the West and trying to prevent Russia from invading the country from the start. The misunderstood German method is even the key to dealing with Russia.
When the Cold War ended in success for the West, Western countries had not displayed overwhelming military capabilities – as many would have liked them to have in recent weeks and months. Nor were they prepared to confront Soviet power militarily wherever it tried to reassert its power. The balance of military forces during the Cold War created an impasse in resolving the conflict.
The Cold War ended for the same reason that there has been a difficult situation in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005: the pull effect of European liberal institutions on Central and Eastern European countries. The urge to join the vast open European market drove millions out of the Soviet bloc, precipitated the collapse of Soviet-controlled governments, and cemented the post-Cold War status quo through prosperity. economy of former Soviet satellites and republics. . The fact that Ukraine gravitates towards the West did not come for any other reason.
Who mainly supported these liberal institutions which exerted such an effect of attraction on the countries of central and Eastern Europe? Neither France, nor the United States, nor even the United Kingdom. In European integration, France has never really promoted liberalisation. He instead requested numerous side payments from Germany in the form of interventionist programs to mitigate the perceived cost of free markets to its subsidized industry and uncompetitive monopolies.
The United States played only a minor role in the development of Europe’s open market architecture – what Ukraine now wants to join is the European Union, not the OECD. As for the United Kingdom, it has always demonstrated a hesitant strategy vis-à-vis European cooperation bodies and is no longer a member of the EU.
Germany is the true supporter of the European liberal order, so attractive to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The very fact that Ukraine has turned to Europe rather than Russia over the past two decades is largely a German achievement.
When it comes to NATO, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe joined not for fun, but to protect their realignment with the German-led European free market order. American military capabilities and guarantees were certainly useful, but not essential.
So, even if Germany has been the main power drawing Ukraine to the West, has its role changed so much recently to justify the recent condemnations of German policy? The answer is no. On the contrary, Germany has been the main power trying to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine.
What was the main Western threat against Russia in the event of an invasion? Not a real military response led by the United States, but massive sanctions cutting off economic exchanges between Russia and Europe. Germany was Russia’s second largest trading partner after China. It is therefore the Western country that has the most influence on Russia. Notably, Germany is geographically closer than China to Russia’s nerve centers, making Germany a vital partner.
The first economic sanction on the table was cutting off the gas trade. Germany did not subscribe to the Nord Stream project out of weakness vis-à-vis Russia. Rather, this project was a major German instrument to increase the costs to Russia of an invasion of Ukraine.
Cutting economic ties between Russia and the West before Russia invaded Ukraine would only hasten that invasion. Only the prospect of substantial trade between Europe and Russia could have made the post-Cold War order acceptable to Russia.
Germany supplying arms to Ukraine before the invasion would not have deterred Russia either. On the contrary, it would have confirmed the Kremlin’s thinking that it was in a zero-sum game with the West, and with Germany in particular.
Vladimir Putin is aware of this situation. His calls to denazify Ukraine testify to his obsession with Germany. He also chose the transfer of power to the German chancellery to trigger the crisis, thinking that the new German government might be more prone to miscalculations.
In a word, to condemn Germany’s alleged cowardice is misplaced. Now that Mr. Putin has scorned offers of economic cooperation, he will suffer the consequences, but it is only through their liberal architecture that Europe and the West can prevail again.
Emmanuel Comte is Senior Researcher at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and Lecturer at the Vienna School of International Studies (Diplomatische Akademie Wien).