Wolfgang Münchau

In the pipeline: would Germany side with Russia in a conflict?

In the pipeline: would Germany side with Russia in a conflict?
Text settings

If Russia were to invade Ukraine, would Germany side with the Russians? For most of our post-war history, that would have been an absurd question, but things are changing fast in Europe. In the wake of recent events, it would not be irrational for Vladimir Putin to bet that if push came to shove, he could count on German neutrality — or even support.

The Ukraine crisis continues apace, with up to 100,000 Russian troops now gathered near its border. The obvious question is: what would happen if Putin were to invade? It would split the EU, exposing its energy dependence on Russia, ruin what is left of transatlantic relations and force Germany to choose sides. Officials in Kiev are convinced that this choice has already been made and that Germany is actively colluding with Russia, as witnessed by the construction of the massive Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

This new pipeline — built, but not yet approved — can transport 150 million cubic litres of gas from Russia to Germany every day. It also allows Russia to do what it likes in Ukraine without worrying about interrupting supply to Europe’s gas markets. In Kiev, it stands to reason that the Russian threat intensified soon after the 760-mile pipeline was completed. But in Germany, there is denial — and no sense of crisis.

The general tone in the German media is one of bewilderment that foreigners even take an interest in this pipeline. One of the few journalists who has raised concerns is the Swiss Mathieu von Rohr at Der Spiegel, who argues that the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) has a ‘Russia problem’. That is a polite way of putting it. It’s more the case that parts of the party — former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, for sure — are firmly on Team Putin. Christine Lambrecht, Germany’s Defence Minister, is one of the countless other SPD politicians who insist that Nord Stream 2 has nothing to do with politics.

If Russia did move against Ukraine — or any Nato member — one of the obvious forms of retaliation would be economic. Excluding Russia from the Swift system of international money transfer would be one of the very few effective tools at the EU’s disposal. So it has been intriguing to see Friedrich Merz, the likely next leader of Germany’s opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), declare that such a move should not be contemplated.

Ganging up against Moscow in this way ‘could be an atomic bomb for the capital markets and also for goods and services’, Merz said. ‘We should leave Swift untouched.’ Merz may not be in power, but Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new Chancellor, probably agrees with him. In German politics, not upsetting Russia is a strategy that enjoys bipartisan support.

The Americans too are notably sanguine on the issue. The US Senate recently fell five votes short on even administering a slap on the wrist to Russia over Nord Stream 2: those opposed said that doing so would break ties with Germany. So America is silent, and the Europeans are likely to block any additional sanctions that go against their own interests. Putin has nothing to fear, then, at least in terms of financial repercussions. This sends a message: that the West (and Germany in particular) now regards Ukraine and Belarus as part of the Russian geopolitical sphere. And if Putin were to invade? It would be a ‘local border dispute’, as one German diplomat put it.

The question Europeans have to ask is that, if Putin starts to gobble up parts of Ukraine, where will he stop? Will he close the Suwalki gap, the land border between Poland and the Baltic states? In the south, he might try to cut a bridge to Transnistria, the Russian-speaking eastern province of Moldova. This would isolate the Baltic states from the rest of the EU and give Russia total control over the Black Sea.

If the West were serious about stopping Putin’s expansionism, Germany would be having a public debate about what they are going to do. Instead, we hear only what is not going to happen. We have a public commitment by Joe Biden that the US would not, under any circumstances, deploy troops. Germany tells us that it would not, under any circumstances, exclude Russia from the Swift payment system.

The signal that the West, therefore — and Germany in particular — is sending to Russia is that Ukraine and Belarus are already considered part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Eastern Europe is becoming once again a major source of geopolitical tension. Russian troops are not only moving towards the border with Ukraine, there are also movements into Belarus, fairly evenly spread through the country. Russia has medium-range nuclear missiles stationed in Kaliningrad which can reach Berlin, yet the Germans are now talking about removing themselves from America’s nuclear umbrella. It’s an odd decision. Is Putin really such a reliable ally?

It is easy to forget that the post-1989 political order in Europe is extremely fragile. Nato expansion to eastern Europe — and high-speed economic liberalisation — was always a high-risk strategy. It gave rise to systems of unstable crony capitalism, which in turn led to the rise of authoritarian regimes. Russia has now reasserted itself as the main European power, an astonishing feat, given the country’s slight economic weight. Its economy is about the size of Spain’s — but no European country has managed to make such strategic use of its economic power. Russia is in the ascendant, and the western-led order is in retreat.