Amidst the heavy criticism of Germany’s lack of commitment in the Ukraine crisis, the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock argued in a speech to the German parliament on Thursday that alliance systems were a bit like a football team. ‘You don’t need 11 centre-forwards who all do the same thing; you need 11 players who get on with one another and who, most importantly, have the same game plan in mind.’
In other words, western alliance systems such as Nato should assign different roles and responsibilities to member states that are best suited to their individual strengths and weaknesses – horses for courses, to stay within the sporting imagery. The US and the UK were therefore wrong to demand that Germany step up to the mark by shipping weapons to Ukraine. The fact that the UK and US are in favour of using strong words backed up by shipments of defensive weaponry should not oblige Berlin to do the same.
For those who were wondering which position Germany played in the Nato All-Stars, Baerbock added that ‘our special role is as one of the most powerful economic and industrial nations in the world.’ Specifically, Berlin had sent the most monetary support to Ukraine for years, and a further loan of €150 million would be made available as soon as possible. In addition, there was German support for Covid vaccination, economic development and political liberalisation in Ukraine. Militarily, too, Baerbock argued, there was plenty of support for Ukraine in the form of training and an €8 million cash injection through the Nato Trustfund since 2014. The message: some countries may be best suited to the role of brutish goalhangers, but Germany is playing the long game with strategic vision.
There are a number of things wrong with this analogy, beginning with the idea that Germany steps onto the field of diplomacy as a single player with a coherent game plan. In reality, there are a number of conflicting ideas present in Berlin and the contradictions they cause are there for the opposition to see and will hardly inspire fear and caution.
Baerbock herself and her Green party colleague Robert Habeck, the Vice Chancellor, are well-known to have critical views of both Russia’s wider policies in Eastern Europe and Germany’s Nord Stream 2 project specifically. Both have issued strongly-worded criticisms of the latter in the past and have pushed for it to be on the table regarding sanctions. Baerbock even went as far as to mention it explicitly in her speech to the Bundestag: ‘In the case of renewed aggression, we have the whole bandwidth of responses available, including Nord Stream 2’. However, she operates in a political context that does not allow her to go as far as her American allies want. The US state department’s spokesperson Ned Price had tried last Wednesday to bounce Germany into issuing an outright threat by telling National Public Radio: ‘I want to be very clear: if Russia invades Ukraine one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward.’ Berlin has still not confirmed this outright.
Baerbock asserted that ‘our unity is our greatest weapon, if one even wants to use this word,’ but then openly admitted that the more hawkish course on Russia that she and Habeck would prefer, would mean a ‘180 degree turn’ from the last few decades of German foreign policy. Baerbock has already come under fire from ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder who accused her and Ukraine of ‘sabre-rattling’. As the instigator and chairman of Nord Stream 2 as well as of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft, he speaks on behalf of a powerful German business lobby with financial ties to Moscow. The fact of the matter is that there is no unified German gameplan when it comes to Berlin’s foreign policy in Eastern Europe. The few hawkish voices are drowned out by the raucous pro-Russian chorus of lobbyists and politicians.
Even if you accept Baerbock’s analogy of Germany as a solely economic player in the western team, you would still expect it to pull its (significant) weight. But Berlin hasn’t come off the bench yet. Even putting Nord Stream 2, Germany’s most powerful sanctions option, aside, it has ruled out excluding Russia from the Swift system, and Baerbock’s argument that the delivery of 5,000 helmets was a prompt response to Ukraine’s security needs falls apart when you realise that the country had asked for 100,000.
If anything, Baerbock’s analogy reveals a worrying lack of understanding of the fundamental issue at stake. A football team normally wants to win a match, not to persuade the opposition to concede. Deterrence is key. It is unclear how a delivery of 5,000 helmets and long-term investment into the Ukrainian economy is supposed to help achieve this. The former Commanding General of the United States Army Europe told LBC on Saturday that he thinks there is an 80 per cent chance that Russia will actually invade parts of Ukraine. ‘The only thing that is going to stop it is if Germany and the rest of Europe are 100 per cent force-squared against what Russia is doing. Germany is the key.’
If Germany has come out of its dugout at all, it’s playing the wrong game. Baerbock was right, there is a financial role here for the world’s fourth-largest economy and Russia’s second largest trading partner. But helmets and vaccines won’t deter Vladimir Putin – only the prospect of real economic and political pain can do that. Berlin needs to step up to the mark. At the moment it is letting the side down.