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[M]: Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool Photo via AP; Sergey Pivovarov / REUTERS

A War of Nerves Germany Has Little Maneuvering Room in Ukraine Conflict

The U.S. wants to impose harsh sanctions on Russia invades Ukraine. But the German government is putting on the brakes out of fears over the economic consequences and what punitive measures could mean for energy supplies for a country that gets much of its gas from Moscow.

To a certain degree, the visit was a conspiratorial one. No photo, no press release – and the first meeting was a small one. William Burns, the head of the CIA, first attended a meeting last week with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his chief of staff Wolfgang Schmidt at the chancellor’s behest. Later, they were joined by Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, and staff members from Scholz’s Chancellery. The head of America’s foreign intelligence agency told them bluntly that if Russia attacks Ukraine, the pressure on Berlin to take a clear stand against Moscow will increase.

Despite the friendly tone among the participants, it was by no means an easy meeting. Germany and the United States have been far apart on the issue of Russia for the past several weeks. Burns brought a trove of intelligence with him on troop movements and sabotage units to convince Berlin of the U.S. view of the Russian threat.

U.S. President Joe Biden also wanted to talk to the Germans – and offered Scholz a personal appointment in Washington at short notice. It would have been Scholz's inaugural visit to the U.S. and, more importantly, an opportunity for the two leaders to closely coordinate joint steps in the acute threat of war.

But Scholz reportedly declined, saying the next few days are already planned with travel and important meetings. Both are now looking for a new date. It’s possible the meeting won’t take place until the beginning or middle of February.

It’s rather difficult to fathom: Russia is building up the biggest threat since the end of the Cold War, deploying around 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, stationing tanks, artillery and rocket launchers, and the German chancellor is unable to clear his schedule to accept an invitation from the American president.

NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg during a visit with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin

NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg during a visit with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin

Foto: Hannibal Hanschke / dpa

What else must happen to trigger a greater sense of urgency in Berlin? Is it not enough that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to blackmail the West, issuing ultimatums and threatening military consequences if NATO doesn’t rule out Ukrainian membership in the alliance?

As if Putin hasn’t already shown the world with the occupation of Crimea that he doesn’t much care about international law. As if the Baltic states' worries were unfounded that they could face a similar situation to that of eastern Ukraine, where Russian leaders, with the help of loyal separatists, have been sabotaging the sovereignty of the government in Kyiv since 2014.

Western intelligence agencies and military officials believe the possibility of a Russian invasion is real, but the parties united in the coalition government in Berlin have shown a recent preference for emphasizing what leverage they are not interested in using against Moscow. Excluding Russia from the SWIFT international payment system? Not a great idea, they say, because it would also affect the German economy. Weapons deliveries to Ukraine? Purportedly incompatible with German arms export guidelines. Putting a stop to Moscow’s prestigious Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that could increase direct Russian gas exports to Germany and Europe? It shouldn't be "lumped together" with Russia’s Ukraine policy, says Kevin Kühnert, the secretary general of the chancellor’s center-left Social Democratic Party.

DER SPIEGEL 4/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 4/2022 (January 22nd, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

It’s true that no one knows exactly what Putin's goal is right now – whether he’s trying to gain ground diplomatically with the help of military threats or if he is planning a military operation under the pretext of a lack of concessions from the West. Within Chancellor Scholz’s SPD, there is a strong tendency to downplay the threat of war. Many within the SPD, but also within the Green Party, share the Kremlin’s opinion that Russia had been deceived during the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union.

Still, the Germans’ wavering course weakens the strategy of Berlin's Western allies – a strategy aimed at driving the price of a military attack "as high as possible," as one EU official puts it. And the window of opportunity to deter Putin could close soon, one senior NATO diplomat told DER SPIEGEL. Once Putin had made the decision to attack Ukraine internally, he would hardly be able to back down without weakening his domestic political position, the diplomat says. That’s why it is crucial for the EU, the U.S. and NATO to act as united and resolutely as possible. Any hesitation could be interpreted by the Russian president as a signal that he can take the next step.

The message from Washington, meanwhile, is that deterrence only works if you don’t take any options off the table. The Americans’ view is that those options include arms deliveries to Ukraine and the threat of maximal sanctions. But the German government is tapping the brakes on both fronts.

On Monday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock traveled to Kyiv. Since taking office, Baerbock says, nothing has taken as much of her attention as Ukraine's security – before once again ruling out arms deliveries of any kind to her Ukrainian hosts. For now, Baerbock isn’t prepared to break with Green Party principles in the way that Green Party éminence grise Joschka Fischer did back when he was foreign minister and dared to back the German military deployment to Kosovo. Germany’s restrictive arms policy is well known, said Baerbock, who is also co-chair of the Green party. "I don't change my position based on where I am at the moment," she said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock during her inaugural visit with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Reception House in Moscow.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock during her inaugural visit with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Reception House in Moscow.

Foto: Russian Foreign Ministry / imago images/ITAR-TASS

It’s an issue that divides the party. On the one hand, the Greens arose out of peace movements – it’s part of their founding myth. On the other, you have a Green politician like Robert Habeck who was calling for defensive weapons deliveries to Ukraine as far back as May. "I think it is hard to deny Ukraine weapons for defense, for self-defense," the party co-chair told German public radio station Deutschlandfunk at the time. He had reportedly coordinated his comments with other key foreign policy politicians

But resistance was strong. Jürgen Tritten, a veteran Green member of parliament, said the proposal would contradict the principle of not delivering weapons to war zones. Trittin has since become the foreign policy point man for his parliamentary group, but nothing has changed in terms of his categorical rejection of arms deliveries. He told DER SPIEGEL that the "entire German government” considers arms deliveries to Ukraine to be a mistake. Moreover, he says, there is no distinction between defensive and offensive weapons. "You shouldn’t fool yourself or others about that."

Hannah Neumann, a Green member of the European Parliament, on the other hand, argues that supplies of protective equipment could definitely be negotiated in the event of a Russian attack, but "before we discuss defensive weapons, we first need to know what Ukraine specifically wants," she told DER SPIEGEL. Sergey Lagondinsky, also a member of the European Parliament from the party, is more forceful. "We can’t be the neutral arbiter when one country unilaterally threatens another," he says. "The only way to avoid military escalation is to credibly demonstrate that there will be consequences. You can do that with help for self-defense, such as with defensive weapons."

Russia’s threats have also triggered a debate within the other junior government coalition partner in Berlin, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). As recently as Jan. 11, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the FDP chair of the Defense Committee in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, attempted to skirt the thorny issue by pointing to the coalition agreement of the previous government, led by the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). In that agreement, the coalition parties agreed to rule out weapons deliveries to crisis areas, and "Ukraine is one of them." Now, though, fewer than 10 days later, Strack-Zimmermann no longer sounds quite as firm. She is now calling for the consideration of "defensive weapons" for Ukraine.

Still, there isn’t yet a clearly discernible position within the FDP. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the party’s foreign policy expert in parliament, says weapons deliveries are prohibited by the War Weapons Control Act. He also has difficulty with the concept of defensive weapons. If you look at the history of military conflict, he points out, these weapons could also be used for other purposes as well. He does say, however, that he supports deliveries of protective vests, helmets and night-vision equipment to Ukraine.

"A realistic foreign policy also includes putting all options on the table."

FDP General Secretary Bijan Djir-Sarai

But another FDP foreign policy expert, Bijan Djir-Sarai, who recently became the party’s designated secretary general, wants to at least discuss the possibility of arms deliveries. "A realistic foreign policy also includes putting all options on the table," he told DER SPIEGEL.

The strongest calls for arms deliveries come from the conservative CDU. It’s a little strange, though, considering that the Christian Democrats proved quite reserved on the issue when they were still the governing party until late last year. Johann Wadephul, the party’s deputy whip in parliament, says the previous position of rejecting arms deliveries to Kyiv is no longer tenable in view of the situation. The CDU’s foreign policy expert, Jürgen Hardt, believes Germany needs to send "more than just bandages."

Even incoming CDU party chair Friedrich Merz advocates giving consideration to arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers fire an anti-tank missile during training in the Donetsk region.

Ukrainian soldiers fire an anti-tank missile during training in the Donetsk region.

Foto: HANDOUT / AFP

Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, who has long conveyed his government’s arms requests to Berlin, is pleased with the direction the debate in the German capital is taking. "We welcome the CDU/CSU’s change of heart on this vital issue for Kyiv, as well as initial calls to break taboos within the (government coalition), especially in the FDP," Melnyk says. The supply of protective equipment alone would be "merely a symbolic gesture.” What Ukraine urgently needs, he says, are "robust defensive weapons" for "effective defense against a large-scale military attack by Russia and as the only serious deterrent to Putin."

Despite the debate among the Greens and the FDP, the German government has so far shown no inclination to respond to Kyiv’s demands for weapons. This is mainly due to the SPD. Arms deliveries could be seen as contributing to the escalation, says Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesman for the SPD parliamentary group, "not to mention the historical implications, in which German weapons would be used against Russia for the first time since World War II."

But Germany’s allies aren’t going to allow Berlin to get off that easily. With the chancellor having ruled out a quick trip to Washington, Biden dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Berlin on Thursday. Like the CIA director before him, he brought along an unmistakable message: If Berlin is going to take a special path and not supply weapons, then the Germans should at least participate in tough financial and economic sanctions if Putin strikes.

Russia has a choice between "two paths ," Blinken said at an event held by the Atlantik-Brücke, a think tank that promotes trans-Atlantic dialogue. One is a path to diplomacy that can lead to peace and security. The other is a path of "aggression that will only lead to conflict, severe consequences, international condemnation."

Publicly, the German government emphasizes close coordination with the United States. If Russia takes military action against Ukraine, it will pay a high price, Foreign Minister Baerbock says to almost every camera. But there are differing opinions among allies about what that price should be. Financial sanctions must be closely examined, Baerbock said during her American counterpart’s visit. She said it wasn’t a question of finding the sanctions that sounded the toughest, but about those sanctions "that then really have an effect, and not against oneself, but against Russia."

For example, the allies are discussing the possibility of excluding Russia from the SWIFT international payments system, a move that would virtually cut Moscow off from the global market and was originally proposed by the U.S. and UK. "This is the ultimate economic sanction,” German Economics Minister Robert Habeck told DER SPIEGEL in an interview. He said it would hit Russia hard, but also Germany - a point that experts in his ministry have not tired of pointing out.

Excluding Moscow from SWIFT would bring all payments between Russian and German companies to a halt. This includes loans that companies service with banks in the respective countries. But what worries Berlin the most is the possible loss of energy supplies to Germany, payments for which are also made via SWIFT. That eventuality would further increase the already high prices for the fuel. It’s also questionable how quickly alternatives could be found. Russia covered 55 percent of Germany’s natural gas needs in 2020.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin on his re-election in 2018.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin on his re-election in 2018.

Foto: Alexei Druzhinin / dpa

In theory, Germany could also obtain supplies of liquified natural gas from the U.S., Africa or the Middle East. There is gas is available, but there are no German port terminals where the LNG tankers could dock. It would have to go through plants in the Netherlands, Poland or Italy. Besides, there are massive environmental doubts about gas that comes from fracking, and it is also very expensive.

As far as sanctions are concerned, Berlin is under economic constraints and its room for maneuver is narrow. This is probably one of the reasons that Economics Minister Habeck, whose ministry is also responsible for sanctions, is opposed to cutting off Russian access to SWIFT. Habeck also doesn’t want to put the emphasis on confrontation. Instead, Habeck told DER SPIEGEL, "We should think about new areas of business that can help lead both sides out of the confrontational role."

What the economics minister has in mind is economic cooperation, also with Russia. "Naturally, Russia has potential for hydrogen, for wind power," Habeck – who is also vice chancellor in the new government – said, with an eye to supplies of green hydrogen. "It should be clear to the Russian regime: Russia has a lot to lose by going to war, and it can win by withdrawing its troops and de-escalating," the vice chancellor said.

Such an approach would provide a pathway for Russia to continue earning money from energy exports even if Germany, as it aims for climate neutrality, was to cease purchases of natural gas in the coming decades. It seems doubtful, however, whether such a long-term economic project is enough to get the Kremlin to abandon its short-term plans for Ukraine.

Germany’s coalition government also hasn’t reached agreement on Putin’s prestige project, the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. The Greens and the FDP have long been opposed to the pipeline, but the SPD has consistently defended the project in the face of criticism from the U.S. and numerous Eastern European countries. In the coalition agreement, the parties elected to merely refer to European energy law and to leave the decision up to certification authorities. But there likely isn’t enough time left for that route. The situation on the Ukrainian border with Russia is forcing the German government to make a decision.

The U.S. is insisting that the pipeline be part of any package of sanctions, with Washington invoking an agreement made last summer between then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Joe Biden. "Gas is not flowing through Nord Stream 2 yet, which means that the pipeline is leverage for Germany, the United States, and our allies – not Russia," said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a Thursday press conference in Berlin following a meeting with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock.

But prominent Social Democrats are trying to thwart the arrangement, a discussion triggered by SPD General Secretary Kevin Kühnert at a press conference last week, where he insisted that it is time to finally put an end to the bickering over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Speaking of a "certain obsession," held by some to cancel projects "that have always been a thorn in the side," he then said he was deeply opposed to "fueling " potential international crises through overwrought rhetoric.

That was the moment that the SPD found itself facing a serious communications problem alongside the challenges of arriving at a common position. Pragmatists within the SPD were appalled by Kühnert’s naïveté, while those further to the left in the party, such as Ralf Stegner, warned of "saber rattling." And the debate in the party just kept going. The only ones who didn’t contribute were party co-leaders Lars Klingbeil and Saskia Esken. The scuttlebutt in Berlin is that neither was particularly pleased by Kühnert’s comments, but they didn’t say so publicly.

The debate is especially sensitive for Klingbeil. He only took up his leadership role in December, and one might think the debate over Russia would be an excellent opportunity for him to raise his profile. But he’s not entirely unbiased on the issue. He is friends with both ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is chairman of the board of the company that operates the already finished Nord Stream 1 pipeline, and with Kühnert. If he were to support Kühnert, it would be an affront against Chancellor Scholz, and vice versa. So, he has hardly said anything at all, with the exception of a podcast that he recorded with Kühnert about two weeks ago. "I simply have no desire for war," Klingbeil said flippantly. He’s not one to defend the Russian approach, he said, adding that he "strenuously rejects" it. "But it’s simply not enough to just say: Everything the Russians do is stupid."

The party is now planning on discussing the issue internally, and there is talk of working groups and coordination committees. But there likely isn’t enough time for such a process. Essentially, Social Democrats, who have been proud of ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union for decades, have to decide what is more important: their tradition or the realization that in the current crisis, far more severity is apparently needed with Moscow.

For the chancellor, the ongoing debate within his party is rather awkward. He has not even been in office for two months and he’s already facing his first significant foreign policy test. Scholz has to display strength without derailing the negotiations. And he has to find his role in Europe without losing sight of the debate back home in Germany.

Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and others at the ceremonial opening of the first Nord Stream pipeline that delivers gas directly to Germany from Russia at the landing site in Lubmin, Germany.

Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and others at the ceremonial opening of the first Nord Stream pipeline that delivers gas directly to Germany from Russia at the landing site in Lubmin, Germany.

Foto: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Thus far, Scholz has consistently tapped the brakes when demands have surfaced to put a stop to Nord Stream 2. Just recently, he answered a question as to whether the Russian-German pipeline was a "private economic venture" with "yes." In doing so, he was supporting a position that his predecessor Merkel had realized was untenable.

More recently, though, Scholz has changed his tone and warned Moscow of a severe European response should Putin elect to launch an offensive. The chancellor specifically mentioned the agreement between Merkel and Biden that the pipeline under the Baltic Sea could only go into operation if Ukraine continues to be a transit country for Russian gas deliveries to Europe. "We are committed to all aspects that are part of that. Including the fact that there will be a high price to pay and all options will be under discussion in the event of a military intervention in Ukraine."

Pressure from the U.S., it would seem, is beginning to have an effect. CIA Director William Burns apparently asked Scholz to cease referring to the pipeline as a "private economic venture" ahead of his meeting with the U.S. president.

"If Russian aggressions become a reality, Nord Stream 2 is no longer defensible."

Bernd Lange, a member of the European Parliament with the SPD

And other members of the SPD have taken a significant step back from the pipeline. "If Russia attacks Ukraine, all options must be put on the table, including Nord Stream 2," said Katarina Barley, vice president of the European Parliament and the SPD’s EU intermediary, in comments to DER SPIEGEL. "We have to keep this bazooka available."

Bernd Lange, an SPD member of European Parliament from Hannover and chair of the lawmaking body’s Committee on International Trade, agrees. "If sanctions against Russia are to have an effect, the energy sector must be targeted. If Russian aggressions become a reality, Nord Stream 2 is no longer defensible," he says.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht of the SPD, who just last week said that "Nord Stream 2 should not be pulled into this conflict" is now warning against ruling out the pipeline as a possible lever against Putin. "If Russia launches a war in the heart of Europe, there must be and there will be serious consequences," Lambrecht says. "That includes all political, diplomatic and economic alternatives."

Perhaps military reconnaissance played a role in focusing the mind of Germany’s new defense minister. In the middle of December, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Tod Wolters asked member states to focus all of their surveillance abilities on the Ukrainian-Russian border. All findings, Wolters urged, must be quickly shared within the alliance, adding that every detail mattered.

Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, quickly responded. Military intelligence developed a taskforce and began rolling, 24-hour evaluations of satellite images and of information collected by allies. They monitored the border area on a daily basis, in part through the use of an armada of surveillance planes. In the middle of this week, the fleet was joined by a P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft. The plane, crammed with surveillance technology, normally flies over the Mediterranean, but now it has redeployed to the Baltic Sea just off Kaliningrad.

The knowledge won by the German effort largely confirmed what the U.S. has been saying. Thus far, according to senior military officials, Russia isn’t yet prepared to invade Ukraine and hold onto the territory won, despite the massive troop buildup. But the situation will change once support arrives, and it can be clearly seen that such support is currently heading toward the Ukrainian border from all across Russia.

Sources in the Defense Ministry say it will become clear in the first half of February what Putin really wants. Sounding not unlike climate researchers, military leaders have begun talking of a tipping point.