There is a growing sentiment among analysts that Germany’s new government, after a shaky start, has found its footing on the European stage. The story, in this telling, is one of redemption. In the early stages of the Ukraine crisis, Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, appeared taciturn and equivocating. But when it mattered most during trips to Washington and Moscow this month, Scholz delivered convincing, at times emphatic, performances. In the span of a few weeks, so the narrative goes, Scholz steadied his image and that of his government. “Germany is back,” announced one headline last week.
Alas, while Germany has gone back, the world has moved forward. After three decades, the post-Cold War era of globalization, underwritten by American power, has given way to a confrontation of competing blocs, most jarringly between Russia and the West. By now it is plain to see that Russian President Vladimir Putin views himself in an advanced stage of conflict with the West.
That conflict is defined at present by hard power. Putin has issued a military challenge of Europe, and in the process has caught Berlin mostly unprepared. For all its economic strength and multilateral ideals, Germany has proven unwilling to exert leadership in the area that now matters most: the defense of Europe.
Traditionally, the United States has assumed this responsibility. But Russia is not the only challenger the West faces today. The rise of China is occupying more American attention by the day, making it urgently necessary for Germany to relieve the United States in Europe. If U.S. defense capabilities needed to deter China in Asia must be diverted to check Russia in Europe, Washington will be stretched thin. As the most influential, prosperous, and powerful country in Europe, it is up to Germany to take the baton.
To date, however, Germany has been slow to grasp that it is in the midst of a conflict. The new government has framed a further invasion of Ukraine as a choice between war and peace, as if Putin has not already made his decision. After the invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea, conflict in Donbass, blockade of Ukraine, intervention in Syria, and manifold hybrid attacks across the West, including the use of chemical weapons in the United Kingdom, can anyone honestly say that Putin is interested in partnership or peace?
In fact, Russia’s stated demands in the present crisis are so outlandish that they are best understood as a pretext for invasion. Indeed, the steady stream of Western leaders, Scholz included, who have traveled to Moscow in recent weeks have not met a counterpart interested in problem-solving or off-ramps. Instead, Putin has exploited the attention to extol himself as a leader without peer while seizing on their desire for de-escalation to weaken Kyiv. Only since his military buildup began, for example, have Western leaders so regularly and publicly made clear that NATO membership for Ukraine is off the table for the foreseeable future.
The grim reality is that the next act in Putin’s war against the West is coming to Ukraine. The U.S. and Germany should be levying widespread sanctions against him now, not waiting until after military operations have begun. Instead, the U.S. national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, recently briefed congressional leaders that Germany requires regular “coaxing” to stand strong on the current sanctions package—measures which will only come into effect after an invasion anyway.
No matter how the coming days and weeks unfold, Putin’s absorption of Belarus alone should give NATO leaders pause. Just as it makes little sense to wait until after Russia launches a further incursion into Ukraine to sanction Putin, it is foolhardy to wait for the encirclement of Kyiv or Odessa to contemplate the upgrading of NATO’s presence in the Bucharest 9 states of Eastern Europe. The greatest deterrent to Putin is strength. It is the only message that can truly stop war.
Olaf Scholz and the traffic light coalition took power with ambitious plans to modernize Germany in discrete areas, from digital policy and climate change to the global minimum tax, which the chancellor personally negotiated while still finance minister. Vladimir Putin has now shot a hole through those plans. For the sake of the West, Scholz will have to lead Germany into a more confrontational posture toward Russia, including by upgrading Germany’s military. That will take much more effort than any press conference or television interview in Washington or Moscow. If he succeeds, however, Scholz would go down as a chancellor very much worth celebrating.
Read in Atlantik-Bruecke