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Putin Targets Germany, NATO’s Weakest Link
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a video conference with close allies on the situation in and around Ukraine on January 24, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a video conference with close allies on the situation in and around Ukraine on January 24, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

Putin Targets Germany, NATO’s Weakest Link

Peter Rough

As the world wonders if Vladimir Putin will invade Ukraine, the battle for the West is already under way. Without firing a shot, Mr. Putin has attacked the trans-Atlantic alliance at its weakest link: Germany. When Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits the White House on Monday, it will be the most important meeting between a U.S. president and a German leader since before the Iraq war.

President Biden’s embrace of Mr. Scholz is only the latest act in the U.S. administration’s courtship of Germany, but the chancellor will arrive with one eye trained on Moscow. Mr. Scholz, who took office in December, is no Putin crony like Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s chancellor between 1998 and 2005. But both are part of the Social Democratic Party, which sees ties to Russia as central to its identity and essential for Germany. To justify their outreach, SDP leaders regularly cite their Cold War mantra, “America is indispensable, but Russia is immovable.” Mr. Scholz has either ignored Mr. Putin’s threats against Ukraine or, when pressed, mused on the value of engagement.

The chancellor’s passivity reflects ingrained German attitudes toward the use of force. Not only do the majority of Germans view military power as antiquated, but they draw a red line around actions that could lead to Russian deaths. Any war with Russia, German historical memory teaches, will lead to ruin.

Mr. Putin, a fluent German speaker who was stationed with the KGB in Dresden during the Cold War, likely understands German views better than Mr. Biden. Separating the most important country in Europe from America is never far from his mind. By escalating over Ukraine, Mr. Putin has driven a wedge between Germany and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Despite being the most influential country in Europe, Germany has contributed a mere 5,000 helmets and a field hospital to Ukraine’s defense. Worse, Berlin recently blocked NATO ally Estonia from supplying weapons to Ukraine. Germany’s naval chief, Adm. Kay-Achim Schönbach, argued for giving Mr. Putin “the respect he wants, and probably deserves”—a statement which led to his resignation days later. Allied confidence in Germany had so deteriorated by last month that the U.K., for fear of overflight denials, circumvented German airspace to fly defensive weapons to Ukraine.

Mr. Putin is plotting next steps. He will structure any war in Ukraine to hasten Germany’s slide toward neutrality. If Mr. Putin attacks Odessa or encircles Kyiv, Mr. Scholz would defer to Washington in levying sanctions. After the initial shock, however, Germany would be vulnerable to calls for de-escalation and rapprochement. The 2014 annexation of Crimea didn’t prevent Germany and France from mediating between Russia and Ukraine, and another attack on Ukraine wouldn’t spell the end of Germany’s outreach to Russia. The Kremlin’s ongoing absorption of Belarus and militarization of Kaliningrad makes this more likely. Mr. Putin is betting that voices in Berlin will eventually clamor for accommodation, effectively accepting Europe’s transformed security environment as the new normal.

Germany’s decision to exit nuclear power this year and phase out coal over time has proved an economic windfall for Mr. Putin. Today, one-fourth of Germany’s energy comes from natural gas, half of which is imported from Russia. The recently completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline will increase that dependency. What German officials say is interdependence that keeps the peace, Mr. Putin will exploit as an asymmetric weapon in the event of war. To counter sanctions, Mr. Putin may shut down Europe’s gas supply.

It’s up to Mr. Biden to counteract Mr. Putin and reach a new understanding with Germany. For starters, the Biden administration should announce a major initiative to secure alternative gas supplies for Europe from around the world, starting at home, to lessen Germany’s vulnerability to Mr. Putin and Nord Stream 2. In this and all Russia-related endeavors, the U.S. should promise close consultations in return for German opposition to a separate European negotiating track that Mr. Putin could exploit.

Instead of merely embracing Mr. Scholz, Mr. Biden must also lean on him. This is essential if Germany is to rebuild its relationships with Eastern Europe. Germany sees itself as an economic power, and it must commit to answering Russian aggression with sweeping sanctions coordinated through the European Union. To make the case, Mr. Biden can point to similar efforts underway in Congress. While Germany may balk at rebuilding its army and supplying Ukraine with weapons, it can finance the development of allied militaries and support the permanent basing of coalition troops in NATO frontline states.

Germany’s temptation to watch from the sidelines or, worse, to referee disputes, has grown stronger over time. This is in part because the Biden administration has looked the other way amid Germany’s dalliance with Russia. Mr. Putin’s threats against Ukraine should give even the most besotted Russophile pause. Mr. Biden should make America’s ally choose, starting Monday at the White House.

Read in the Wall Street Journal

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