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Weakest Link on Ukraine

By David L. Phillips – Vladimir Putin is fomenting a crisis in Ukraine to undermine Euro-Atlantic institutions and drive a wedge between the US and its allies. Germany is the crucial link. Historical, cultural, and economic relations with Russia make the new German coalition government, led by Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party, especially vulnerable to Russia’s influence.

David Phillips (Courtesy photo/author)

David Phillips (Courtesy photo/author)

German policy towards Russia is shaped by history. World War II still influences the worldview of many Germans. Pacifism is engrained at the core of German identity.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day was on January 27. The day falls on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps. Holocaust education is mandatory in Germany. Most Germans are profoundly contrite for the systematic slaughter of Jews, Romas, and others in Nazi death camps.

The national anthem, Haydn’s Deutschland Über Alles (Germany above all else), is one of the few vestiges of nationalism in Germany today. Except for the radical right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which opposes the European Union (EU) and immigration to Germany, most Germans abhor crimes of the Nazis committed in their name. The decision of Chancellor Angela Merkel to take in one million refugees in 2015 was motivated by more than economic considerations. It put Germany on the right side of history.

Germans are reconciling the country’s heinous past with its current character, which is multicultural, tolerant, and progressive. Only recently have German youth waved the German flag at sporting matches. Young Germans remember the past but look to their European future, proudly describing themselves as “Europeans.”

NATO was formed in 1949 with the US, UK, and France leading on security matters. Militarism and aggressive nationalism remained taboo in German society. Germans are focused on economic issues. A peaceful, prosperous, and united Europe is central to Germany’s foreign policy.

Germany provided the primary financial backing for the bailout of the Greek economy beginning in 2015. Germany feared damage to the EU, should Greece crash out of the Eurozone. German support for European unity grew stronger after Brexit.

The German government strongly supported the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), before Donald Trump canceled the proposed trade agreement. Beyond economic benefits, the TTIP set progressive standards on labor and environmental rights. It reflected the core German commitment to international cooperation as the basis for building a community of democratic nations with shared values.

Germany’s pro-Western orientation has not prevented extensive economic cooperation with nearby Russia. The German-Russian Year of Economy and Sustainable Development was launched in 2020. Intersocietal cooperation involved language and literature, youth exchange, municipal and regional partnerships, university collaboration and research, as well as economic cooperation.

Germany is Russia’s second-largest trading partner with more than 4,200 German businesses operating in Russia. The energy sector is a major focus. The EU imports nearly 40% of its natural gas from Russia, which is essential for power generation and home heating in central and eastern Europe.

Nord Stream 2, recently completed for $11 billion, is a gas pipeline connecting Germany directly to Russia via the Baltic Sea. Owned by Gazprom, the Russian state energy company, Nord Stream 2 could be worth more than $15 billion a year.

Leading Members of Congress demand that the Biden administration delay certification of the pipeline. The pipeline would bypass Ukraine, boosting Russia’s influence in Europe.

Germany and other European consumers of Russian gas worry that Russia could weaponize its gas exports to retaliate for their participation in sanctions proposed by the Biden administration.  Including Nord Stream 2 in a package of sanctions would limit supplies of liquified natural gas and drive-up costs. Germany is energy-dependent. Its coal supplies are depleted and its nuclear plants have been closed. Germany has set a goal of independence from fossil fuels by 2050. Until then, it is dependent on Russian and other sources of gas.

Secretary Antony Blinken is working to build multilateral support for sanctions, should Russia attack Ukraine. Without Germany, sanctions would be porous and ineffective. Other countries in Europe are monitoring German actions to calibrate their participation in the US-led pressure campaign.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic see Putin as a bully who wants to divide NATO and break up the EU. Sophisticated diplomacy, requiring an understanding of German interests, is necessary. Getting Germany on board and maintaining German cooperation is a major challenge given the range of historical, cultural, and economic reasons binding German and Russian interests.

Mr. Phillips is director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He worked as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations including an assignment with the Bureau for European and Canadian Affairs.

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