AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
With Russia and Ukraine reportedly on the verge of war, and the Biden administration currently unsure whether an “incursion” counts as an invasion, or what the U.S. response should be in either case, Germany is suddenly at the center of geopolitics. Many in the foreign policy establishment are claiming that Germany has undermined Western efforts to support Ukraine, either by supposedly denying the use of its airspace to British flights shipping weapons to Ukraine (it is unclear if the U.K. requested the usage of German airspace), or by outright refusing to allow Lithuania to ship German-supplied weapons to Ukraine. The German “betrayal” has become a rallying cry both for those neoconservatives and neoliberals who wish to fight for “democracy” in Ukraine, as well as those who believe Donald Trump was right that America’s allies are unreliable.
In both cases, Germany’s recent behavior is cited to prove the case, either that we must take a greater role ourselves, or that America should look out for itself.
Looking out for itself certainly appears to be what Germany is doing. The Germans have been forced to adopt an independent line looking out for their own interests, not least because German leaders feel that the Biden administration has no interest in doing so. The Biden administration has treated German economic and strategic concerns the same way the White House treated Joe Manchin’s worries about inflation and coal miners in West Virginia. They have expected the Germans to pay the entire cost of a policy without explaining how it benefits them.
Germany’s recent behavior comes after the perceived pro-Russian tilt of Angela Merkel’s long tenure and is no doubt influenced by the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a direct energy link between Russia and Germany. The project would greatly reduce the price of Russian energy in the German market. It is clear why Russia and Germany would want this – by rendering pipelines traveling through Ukraine or Belarus redundant, Russia and Germany would both be able to avoid paying transit fees to either power. It may or may not increase Europe’s already heavy dependency on Russian gas. But without a doubt, Nord Stream would enrich Putin and impoverish Ukraine at a time when Russia is directly threatening Ukrainian autonomy.
The pipeline debate is important for understanding the divergence between American and German policy toward Russia. It illustrates two motivations for German actions. One is the ungenerous and corrupt influence of Russia and dependence on Russian energy supplies. The other is a realpolitik conviction that the U.S. is pursuing a policy under Biden where the U.S. expects Germany to pay the lion’s share of the costs of a certain policy (in this case, higher energy costs), but leave all the decisions about the objectives of that policy to a Biden team which inspires little confidence.
There are multiple reasons why German politicians are pursuing their current policy with regard to Russia. Among those reasons is, without a doubt, the vast economic influence Russia holds over substantial elements of the German elite. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder—the only Social Democratic Party Chancellor between the fall of Helmut Schmidt in 1982 and current Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ascension in 2021—infamously sits on the board of Gazprom, the Russian state energy corporation. While Schroeder’s influence is often overstated to the point of caricature, for a generation of Social Democratic politicians he was the only Chancellor they ever knew, and they entered politics inspired by his example or under his patronage. Some of that influence has been diminished by how transparent his sellout to Putin has been, but not all.
Nonetheless, it is worth differentiating between Putin’s influence over German politicians, especially Social Democrats through Schroeder, and Russian influence over Germany through economic links. If it were merely a matter of Schroeder, then one would expect the current German government to be more pro-Russian than its Christian Democratic predecessor. Yet Merkel’s government argued that Nord Stream 2 was purely an economic matter. By contrast, the new coalition, while being equally resistant to suggestions that Nord Stream is subject to Western/NATO/American input, has accepted that Nord Stream is political, paused certification, and has indicated that it is open to killing the project if Russia were to invade Ukraine.
The actions of the current German government in opposing the arming of Ukraine and favoring conciliation, therefore, have to be understood in a wider context. In the view of the German government, the policy that the West has been pursuing, of backing an anti-Russian government in Kiev, has benefits for Ukrainians, and perhaps even for the position of the United States as a superpower. Yet the costs of that strategy fall not on the U.S. but on Germany. The U.S. has declined to send troops to Ukraine, and Joe Biden and his team have said that under no circumstances will U.S. troops will be dispatched. America’s mechanism for pressuring Russia comes in the form of economic sanctions, and those sanctions are “paid for” not by the U.S., which has few economic ties with Russia, but by Germany. It is Germany which is asked to sanction its companies or force them to pay billions in cancellation fees for contracts. It is Germans who are being asked to pay more for heating or even suffer shortages so that the United States can achieve a geopolitical “win” over Russia and one group of Ukrainian politicians can maintain control over a series of provinces of little economic or strategic value to Germany.
This is selfish only insofar as it is also “selfish” for Americans to be concerned about high gas prices and inflation. The arguments the Biden administration makes to millions of Americans telling them that inflation is not real, or that they should put up with shortages and higher prices for the sake of “climate change” are exactly the same arguments it is assumed Germans should accept about how they should abandon economic ties with Russia on behalf of “democracy” in Ukraine. Their opposition to such arguments is not betrayal. It is a response to the legitimate and rational interests of their own population.
It is plausible that in this case, the short-term interests of Germans are different from their long-term ones. But again, this is the argument Biden and other Democrats make with regards to abandoning coal and oil. Expecting these arguments to work requires a willingness to share the burden of costs more equally.
The Biden Administration appears to recognize the Nord Stream problem in isolation, namely that German politicians are not behaving irrationally based on some “left-over trauma from World War II” but rather engaging in a cost-benefit analysis. Yet rather than trying to shift that cost-benefit analysis, whether coercively through sanctions or by compensating the Germans financially (or even by consulting the Germans about what precise objectives the administration expects them to freeze to death in order to achieve in Ukraine), the administration offers words of empathy and no action. No sanctions, no compensation. No effort to define objectives. Just the expectation that Germany will willingly shut down its energy supplies on demand whenever the Biden Administration needs that to fulfill a threat.
So yes, Germany is looking out for themselves. But the Biden Administration has given them no reason to do anything else. Not with the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, and not with the current handling of the Ukraine crisis. They are treating Germany like some sort of mixture of Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin – in other words, as a servant who should take orders, be available to support whatever policy Biden decides upon, and should not express independent views, much less expect them to be taken into account. It is that sort of attitude that has managed to turn Sinema, a former Green Party member, into a determined opponent. And if Germany is being driven out of the Western alliance, at least part of the blame comes down to the way Biden has treated her.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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