Germany’s geostrategic myopia

Germany: we have a problem. Due to the size of Germany’s economy, importance of its exporting power, its geographic position in Europe, and its assumed leadership role in the European Union (EU), it is continental Europe’s indispensable nation. Unfortunately, the German political and business elite is suffering from strategic myopia. 

There has been considerable public recanting by Germany’s politicians, across the political spectrum, of the past failings in the country’s policy on Russia. This is of considerable importance as an exercise in resetting the German approach, but the contours of Germany’s new Russia policy remain unclear. ‘Wandel durch Handel’ [‘change through trade’] has had such a grip on Germany’s approach to foreign policy since the 1970s that it is difficult to envision what idea might take its place.

Germany’s response to Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine has largely been an exercise in the avoidance of leadership. Germany has developed five packages of sanctions with its European Union (EU) partners. These have, however, been crafted in a manner that allows Germany to retain[↗] around 25% of its oil supply and 40% of its gas purchases from Russia, seeing it contribute[↗] a significant amount to the $1 billion (£770 million) per day in remittances from the sale of hydrocarbons which supports the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine. Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Foreign Minister, made clear[↗] on the 20th April that German oil imports from Russia will be curtailed by the end of the year. There is no fixed date for an end to Russian gas supplies.

The phasing out of Russian oil and gas is being framed[↗] by Germany as a joint European task requiring a roadmap for a collective exit. At the same time, Germany has also unilaterally decided to maintain[↗] the timetable for the shutdown of its three remaining nuclear power plants by the end of this year, further increasing its need for coal and gas to fuel power generation.

In mitigation of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Germany has supplied financial support and military equipment to Ukraine bilaterally, and multilaterally through the EU. However, the scale and scope of this military aid to Ukraine has been underwhelming for a country of Germany’s size, wealth and military-industrial capacity. Even where Germany appears to be taking a more decisive line, such as the increasing of its ertüchtigungshilfe [‘training aid’, in the form of funding[↗] to strengthen military forces in other countries] to €2 billion (£1.66 billion) for the express purpose of benefiting Ukraine, it is undercut by the public obfuscation of Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, on what equipment Germany has available to give the besieged nation.

Germany’s allies are aghast at this lack of leadership. They are increasingly willing to publicly criticise German inaction. Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, this week chided[↗] Germany’s ‘fence sitting’ and ‘token support’ during a press conference with his German counterpart.

There are voices in Germany’s parliament and policy-influencing communities which are pushing for more strident national action. But Germany’s response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine to-date have been characterised by a willingness to draw itself into the collective responses initiated by partners. It is a challenge to identify instances of German leadership, or point to it demonstrating innovative approaches, in supporting Ukraine.

Germany’s much vaunted zeitenwende [‘turning point’],announced[↗] by Scholz in February, seems to have descended into a German political inner monologue. It is not yet being leveraged to provide greater confidence for Germany’s allies that the country really will deliver a boost in its contribution to the defence of Europe. The German Government may have committed[↗] to an eye-catching €100 (£83 billion) billion catch-up spend on defence and to boost its defence budget to 2% of gross domestic product, but its stock of political credibility on defence and security has been severely reduced.

The German Government’s arguments that it cannot pursue a tougher approach towards Russia due to hydrocarbon dependency could also plausibly function as excuses to soft pedal in response to Russian encroachments on the security of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies and EU partners. Can Germany’s allies place full credence in the idea that they will share the same interpretation of the level of response required to any Russian actions that impact on their collective security? Russia’s war on Ukraine suggests not.

There have been marked differences in interpretation and the conclusions drawn on the response required by Ukraine’s neighbours in the Baltic states, central Europe, the UK, and the United States (US), from that of Germany. The security guarantee enshrined in NATO’s Article 5 commitment is not predicated on the degree of difference currently being demonstrated between Germany and its allies regarding Russia and its actions in Ukraine.

There is also a question as to what would be the threshold that Germany envisages as being appropriate for action taken by Russia against an EU member state that could be interpreted as falling under the mutual assistance obligations provided for under Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union[↗].

If the degree to which energy dependence on Russia has been uncritically accepted by Germany’s political and business elite has impacted on limiting its response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, a far greater strategic myopia has operated over the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

As with the growth in dependency on Russia’s hydrocarbons, the PRC’s rise to become Germany’s largest[↗] trading partner for goods was embraced largely uncritically. The especial importance of the PRC for Germany’s automotive, clothing and chemical sectors and the key source of raw materials for German manufacturing, such as polysilicon and rare earth elements, was embraced as an unproblematic economic interdependence. It is of much greater significance for Germany’s economy than the embrace of Russia as a key energy supplier.

As key allies diverge from the PRC, notably the US and UK, the German debate on Germany’s dependence will probably be pushed further and faster than the German Government would like. Germany’s response is going to need to be more adroit than it has so far demonstrated on Russia.

Prof. Richard Whitman is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

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