This week in Germany was not like last week. This week, both the popular mood as well as the political messages sent signals that Germans have had enough from Vladimir Putin. This week, the political leadership in Berlin across party lines, the voices of industry, and the polls said that they were ready to impose consequences (read: sanctions) on Russia for its actions and attitudes—finally. And the leadership of other EU states met in Brussels to ratchet up the pressure on Putin to stop supplying terrorists in eastern Ukraine with weapons and destabilizing the country.
The Tipping Point: MH17
The crash of a commercial airliner, brought down by rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons supplied by Moscow, followed by their barbaric behavior at the crash site extended the agony of loved ones of the victims and highlighted the event as a senseless, reckless act of mass murder.
Yes, it took a while to assemble a consensus in Germany to react to the actions of Russia in Ukraine over the past several months. The concerns about imposing sanctions on Russia in the business community were loud, sometimes awkward, if not downright cynical. But the impact of seeing the wreckage of that plane strewn across the fields with rebels blocking those seeking to bring both care and dignity to the tragedy, aiming at them with loaded weapons, turned people’s stomachs and political attitudes in an instant. The continuous lies in Moscow about its involvement echoed the lies that Putin told about the mysterious green men in the Crimea. It was a pattern that led those in Berlin, who had been trying to keep a communication channel open with Putin—the Chancellor and the Foreign Minister in particular—to realize that time had run out on Vladimir. It was indeed time to act forcefully and in unison to send a clear signal that there are things worth protecting against thugs.
The fact that the cover of Der Spiegel appeared with three words in bold red—Stop Putin Now—with the background of pictures of the MH17 victims was a metric of the mood spreading in Germany.
German Opinions Shift toward Sanctions
The unfolding of Germany’s debate was critical to the blowback against Moscow. The linkages between Russian and German politics, energy, and business are extensive. So are the historical ties. Angela Merkel has been seen as the primary interlocutor for Europe in dealing with Putin. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has invested efforts in both his terms in his Ministry in trying to strengthen ties with Russia. There is a lot at stake in that relationship. Supplying a third of Russian imports, Germany has the largest economic exchange with Russia within the EU. Russia supplies over a third of Germany’s gas and oil supplies and a large amount of metals. Germany’s strong Mittelstand companies have large stakes in the Russian market for their exports. Experts frequently reference the over 300,000 jobs in Germany connected with that export link.
And yet, the last few days have seen top German corporate leaders back Chancellor Merkel on the sanctions. The head of the Federal Association of German Industries, Ulrich Grillo, stated that while German industry might suffer from sanctions in the short run, its commitment to the rule of law and rejection of the authoritarian steps Russia has taken at home and outside its borders will be in the long-term interest of both Germany and its economy. Consequences for recent Russian behavior require sanctions. That said, the hope is that there will be a time frame calculated into this position which might relieve the need for sanctions. But that will depend on Putin.
The current sanctions aimed at squeezing the Russian economy are likely to be the more effective pressure on Putin. The notion of using the weapon of energy resources on either side of this clash would probably be less palatable in Europe. Replaying the Iranian sanctions is a lesson to be considered for better and for worse. But if Putin’s power base has been rooted in supplying wealth to his network, weakening that base is a plausible weakening of his political future. On the other hand, his current use of the nationalist card seems to be working and could continue to be an asset even if Russia descends into a recession.
Given its lead role in Europe, Germany has been heavily criticized in some U.S. circles for being slow to react to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and for getting Europe to speak with one voice.
Coordinating a Transatlantic Position
But while there is an office and a person who is assigned to representing the EU on behalf of foreign policy matters, it does not always transfer into consensus or coherence. The continuing debate about who should be appointed to that job in Brussels underscores its weakness.
The French decision to move ahead on its deal to sell war ships to Moscow was seen as an illustration of this divisive situation. The continued presence of a great deal of Russian money in London undermines the tough talk coming out of Downing Street. Italy is equally focused on its energy dependence from Russia and has shied away from harsh sanctions. And then there is Hungary’s populist president, who defends Moscow’s moves in Ukraine while predicting that the era of liberal democracies might be coming to an end.
Getting the EU 28 to rally around a common agenda of sanctions will not be any easier, especially if they are to be held in place for a long period of time. Not knowing whether Putin will lash out against sanctions with more intervention in eastern Ukraine or elsewhere in the region may require years of commitment to confronting his regime.
Of course that has happened during the decades of the Cold War. But commitments to Europe’s security held up on both sides of the Atlantic despite the ups and downs in those relations.
The Historical Importance of a Continued Partnership
While a renewed Cold War is in no one’s interest today, there are lessons to be drawn from that experience. We must leave openings for reducing conflicts and confrontation. But that takes willingness on all sides to pursue them. Sanctions alone will not work against Putin. There needs to be a door open to Russians to see their own stake in the future of Europe. But the challenge now is to see what it takes to forge that vision given the hostility to it in the Kremlin.
Of all the countries in Europe, Germany profited from staying the course during the Cold War, resulting in its peaceful unification. Amid this current crisis, we will soon be marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was the reward of staying a steady course. We should be hopeful that new walls are not going up now further east. Germany is the country that represents that purpose most clearly.
Some argue that Putin has, ironically, reminded Europe and the United States why they need each other. Despite their frictions and clashes—the NSA affair is certainly one burdening it now—the crisis in Ukraine is a reminder of the key question we need to ask. What is it about the Europe of 2014 that needs to be sustained? What has made it a magnet to the many countries who have wanted to become a part of it—including Ukraine? What is the United States’ role today as both a partner and a stake holder in Europe’s future? How do we secure both?
There are clear answers to these questions. Sustaining the democratic, rules-based international order built up in Europe and shared within the western alliance over sixty years is one of them. The ability and opportunity for countries to become a part of it, providing they abide by those rules is another. Challenging that is clearly part of Putin’s plan. But meeting that challenge is a significant opportunity for the EU and the United States to test our respective commitments. It must not necessarily be measured in the metrics of military force alone, although that will be an important part of sustainability. And it is not just about this current crisis. It is about those that may still lie ahead—and not just in Europe.