It has been said of the Russian president that he picks out his opponents’ weaknesses and then attacks them. Putin once let his Labrador Koni roam free so it could have a sniff of Angela Merkel, who is afraid of dogs. And when the former chancellor traveled to Moscow to bid farewell in August, Putin stood for most of the visit, possibly with Merkel’s recent shaking attacks still fresh in his mind.
When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited the Russian president on Tuesday, Putin refrained from such blatant nastiness. On the contrary. During the four-hour conversation, in which the two leaders spoke freely and without staff present aside from interpreters, Putin, who was stationed in Dresden for several years as a KGB agent, repeatedly switched to almost accent-free German. Was it pure politeness? Or did the Russian head of state want to demonstrate his superiority to his guest, who is still inexperienced on the foreign policy stage, by leaving the safe ground of his mother tongue despite the sensitivity of the issue?
Scholz obviously wasn’t deterred by this display of superiority – indeed, he seemed inspired by it. In the press conference that followed, he displayed an unusually clear tone, even loud by his standards. He didn’t shy away from criticizing Russia’s decision to strip German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle of its broadcasting license and forcing the closure of its Moscow bureau, branding the conviction of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny as unlawful or expressing his incomprehension regarding the ban on the human rights organization Memorial, which had been around for years. He contradicted Putin on several points and joked about a possible end to the Russian president’s term, accompanied by a broad grin that Markus Söder, Bavaria’s governor, once called "smurfy.”
However, he did fail to directly contradict Putin when the Kremlin leader began reeling off fabricated claims about a purported "genocide" against the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. Western observers have long feared that Putin might use such an invention as a pretext for an invasion. But at the next press conference with German journalists, Scholz immediately made up for that omission. The "serious accusation" Putin had made, he said, was "wrong.”
Scholz’s trip marked the finale of a flurry of diplomatic activities by German politicians last week that sought to convey the message that the new chancellor doesn’t shy away from confrontation with warmongers and autocrats and even considers it possible to make a significant contribution to easing tensions in the face of an acute threat of war.
Scholz, it seems, has woken up from his hibernation. And it was imperative that he do so. Through his long restraint in crisis diplomacy, his repeatedly vague statements on possible sanctions and his weeks-long refusal to utter the words Nord Stream 2, Scholz had given some the impression that Germany isn’t a reliable partner of the West in the conflict with Russia. The fact that the chancellor’s party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), expressed understanding for Putin made his situation even more difficult.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week in Moscow.Foto: Kay Nietfeld / dpa
Scholz’s entry into the diplomatic game came late, after months of ceding the stage to others – especially United States President Joe Biden, who had already met with his Russian counterpart last year in Geneva; and French President Emmanuel Macron, who, although in coordination with his NATO partners, telephoned with Putin several times and was the first to meet him at the long Moscow table.
Looking at it through the lens of the end of the week, Scholz’s trip to Moscow coincided with a moment of apparent relaxation. To be sure, it came after last week’s dramatic warning from the U.S. that a Russian invasion could start on Feb. 16, but the situation then calmed somewhat before Scholz’s visit.
On Monday, in a theatrical production in front of cameras, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov advised his president to continue negotiations. Then, on Tuesday, the announcement came of a partial withdrawal of some of the up to 150,000 Russian soldiers deployed at or near the Ukrainian border, along with some heavy equipment. There suddenly seemed to be room for diplomacy – and Scholz appeared to be in the right place at the right time.
But on Thursday, the mood tipped again when Moscow delivered its official response to the answers provided by the U.S. for the security guarantees that had been requested by Russia. And it wasn’t particularly vague. Moscow accused the Americans of ignoring Russia’s core concerns. The response said that Russia would "implement measures of a military-technical nature," but that no "Russian invasion" of Ukraine is planned.
U.S. President Joe Biden has issued several warnings of an imminent Russian attack.Foto:
Shawn Thew / epa
It also reiterated the Russian demand that the U.S. withdraw all troops from NATO member states in Eastern Europe and cease all arms deliveries to Ukraine. And demanded a guarantee that NATO will not expand further to the east. Russia made clear that it would only accept full compliance with its demands as a basis for negotiations – demands that cannot be fulfilled from the Western point of view, as Putin well knows.
It soon became apparent that the troops Russia had pledged to withdraw had not, in fact, been withdrawn, but merely moved. The unanimous consensus of analysis from Western intelligence agencies is that Russia is exchanging troop units, but that the overall military presence is growing. The U.S. is claiming that an additional 7,000 troops have been deployed to the Ukrainian border in recent days. Biden even warned there was a "very high" risk that Putin will attack in the coming days.
Western intelligence agencies are observing with increasing concern that Russia is moving a large number of fighter jets and helicopters into the border region, along with drones and supply craft. They claim that Russia has even set up a command post for supplies – something that isn’t necessary for mere military exercises. The experts agree that there certainly aren’t any indications of the partial withdrawal the Russians had announced.
There was "no sign of significant removal of additional security forces deployed to the Ukrainian border," reads a situation report issued by Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, on Thursday morning. On the contrary, it stated that "more forces are likely in transit from eastern Russia toward Ukraine."
Russian military equipment loaded onto a train for transport.Foto: EPN / Newscom / ddp
The forecast for the coming days is gloomy. According to the situation report, Russia "continues to maintain a military threat posture." A posture that was reinforced, the report noted, by the exercises in Belarus and a planned naval maneuver in the Black Sea.
Currently, the assessment states, "all military conditions remain in place for Russia to engage in military activities against Ukraine at any time and with almost no warning." The only thing missing, it says, is the "order from the political leadership."
The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, reported similar information to German parliamentarians on Wednesday. BND Vice President Wolfgang Wien, a general in the German military, presented his agency’s assessment in a closed-door session of the Defense Committee. Even if the BND didn’t have much new to add, committee members listened intently as Wien shared with them numerous details about the mobilized Russian troops and their weapons systems.
On Thursday, Estonia’s foreign intelligence service released a short study which initially seemed to confirm what everybody already knew: that Russia would be prepared to go to war in the second half of February. But the Baltic spies also provided a handful of new details, including the fact that they have observed this winter an increase in the activity of Russian special forces and intelligence agencies when it comes to specific strategic targets in Ukraine. In addition to militarily relevant facilities like command headquarters and air bases, they apparently are also interested in oil refineries and nuclear power facilities.
A Real Danger or a Maskirovka?
There are competing estimates regarding the precise timing of a possible invasion. Whereas the U.S. believe an invasion in the coming days is possible, European security officials are more reserved. A source in one agency says that it could also be a classic "Russian military feint," or maskirovka.
The goal of this tactic, which has been part of the Russian arsenal since the 20th century, is to leave their opponent in the dark as to their true intentions. Analysts see the Russian president as a master in the art: "Putin has made unpredictability into a constant of his actions," says one senior official.
The ultimatums issued by Moscow, the ongoing troop mobilization, and the shrill Russian warnings of an alleged "genocide" or a Ukrainian offensive in eastern Ukraine: All these indicators seemed to once again point to escalation. Or to an impasse. Then again, the entire situation might – intentionally or not – spin out of control.
Thursday saw an acrimonious clash at the UN Security Council in New York, where – even though the body has been losing influence for years – such crises should be the focus of sober debate. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held no punches. He admitted that the U.S. has made mistakes with intelligence in the past, including the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. "But let me be clear," he went on. "I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one." He said he would even welcome it were he proved wrong and Moscow backed down, that he would be happy to accept the criticism.
Step by step, he went down the list of ways Russia could start a conflict: "Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack," he said. "This could be a violent event that Russia will blame on Ukraine or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government." He reeled off a number of examples: A fabricated terrorist attack in Russia, the invented discovery of a "mass grave,” a staged drone strike against civilians, or even an attack using chemical weapons.
They were drastic warnings, but the examples of "false flag" attacks all sounded quite plausible – even if nobody knows the source of the U.S. intelligence information or how reliable it is.
The most decisive question is whether Russia really wants to launch a largescale war in Europe – or is merely building up a credible threat to achieve its geopolitical goals.
Germany’s New Role
Following his appearance, Blinken flew to Germany ahead of his appearance at the Munich Security Conference this weekend with Vice President Kamala Harris. Fifteen years ago, Vladimir Putin held an aggressive speech at the conference which heralded his confrontation with the West. Until then, NATO had seen Russia as a partner, but in Munich, Putin complained that the U.S. was intending to establish a "unipolar world." He launched a vicious attack on Washington, which was followed by the wars in Georgia and eastern Ukraine. Now Putin hopes to install a new security order in Europe.
French President Emmanuel MacronFoto:
Irina Yakovleva / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO
On Wednesday, Scholz and Biden spoke on the phone, and on Thursday, EU heads of state and government met in Brussels for the EU-Africa summit, during which Ukraine was a major focus.
Assuming the guns stay quiet and the talking continues in the coming weeks, Germany has a significant role to play on issues such as NATO’s influence and the relationship between Ukraine and the Western military alliance. Germany’s voice is most important, though, when it comes to the tough negotiations over the Minsk peace process between Moscow and Kyiv. Speaking in front of Russian and German journalists at the Kremlin, Putin recently said he is relying on the influence of Germany and France to ensure that the provisions of the Minsk Agreements are finally implemented. Chancellor Scholz demanded that all involved must now "do their part."
At the second press conference in Moscow, Scholz was again asked about NATO membership for Ukraine. The problem is no secret: Ukraine cannot abandon the goal of NATO membership since it is anchored in the country’s constitution. Putin is demanding a binding guarantee that Ukraine will never become a member of the alliance. NATO has promised Ukraine nothing but can’t slam the door shut because doing so would amount to discarding principles pertaining to the sovereignty and the rights of nations to self-determination. Three actors, three conflicting positions and an apparently unsolvable dilemma.
"It is now our task," Scholz says, "to find a way forward that is OK for everybody." There is no "computer program" that can come up with such a solution, but "it can be worked out in a political process, and that is the task at hand."
Even this statement briefly caused an international kerfuffle. Does Scholz view Ukraine’s non-accession to NATO as a bargaining chip? Does he seriously intend to formalize such a compromise and thus capitulate to Putin’s demands?
That’s not what Scholz said, and it is not likely a message he wished to send. But it is certainly possible that he has such a solution in mind. And he wouldn’t be alone. French President Emmanuel Macron also seems to be considering the possibility of "neutralizing" Ukraine. The problem, though, is that would require an extremely delicate tightrope walk to avoid such a deal looking like a betrayal of Ukraine – and the demands from the Russian side have long since expanded.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaking to reporters on the return flight to Berlin from Moscow.Foto: Kay Nietfeld / picture alliance/dpa
Among Scholz’s strengths, as pretty much everyone who works with him agrees, are his negotiating skills and his particular, un-ideological brand of pragmatism. Scholz is always perfectly prepared, people say, sometimes in awe, sometimes in annoyance. And that was true this time as well. Ahead of his trip to Kyiv and Moscow, the chancellor spent days speaking with Russia experts both in Germany and abroad. He spoke with Merkel at length and worked his way through Putin biographies and the 2015 Minsk Agreement.
Confidants say that Scholz is usually a step ahead. He can be patient for extended periods, allowing others to drone on and on. And then, once everyone else is exhausted, he’ll unexpectedly pull out a new proposal. Scholz has been negotiating his entire career. And he is self-confident enough to believe that he could find success on the international stage as well. In the most important European negotiating duo, Scholz’s role is that of the cool-headed pragmatist, while Macron prefers to draw up grand schemes. They complement each other well in that regard. Whereas the Americans and British sketch out horrific, worst-case scenarios, the Germans and the French search for concrete solutions.
NATO and the East
The dispute over NATO’s influence in Eastern Europe is hardly a new one, with the alliance’s last major eastward expansion coming 18 years ago. Why Russia has decided now to call for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Eastern Europe – including Poland, Romania and the Baltic States – cannot be explained by any recent development.
The possible entry of the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia was negotiated at a NATO summit in Bucharest back in spring 2008. Then U.S. President George W. Bush was pushing for the expansion, while France and Germany expressed strong reservations. Merkel, the German chancellor at the time, believed it would be a big mistake to promise those nations future NATO membership. The negotiations ended with a compromise: NATO accession was established as a possibility for the two countries, but a "Membership Action Plan" as demanded by Bush was not pursued. Still, it was enough to anger Russian leadership, and since then, Moscow’s relationship to the Western military alliance has been seriously strained.
It is surely no coincidence that Russia has embroiled those two states – Georgia and Ukraine – in border conflicts that make their entry into NATO unlikely in the long term. And at the same time, Ukraine has oriented itself ever more strongly toward the West and the EU since the Russian annexation of Crimea and since the Moscow-backed war in the Donbas. The support in Ukraine for the country’s entry into NATO and the EU has never been so high.
Ukraine is slipping further and further away from Russia, quite independently of the question of NATO accession. There is much to suggest that this is the reason for Russia’s threatening moves in recent weeks. Putin’s goal is likely that of regaining political influence in Ukraine.
A joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise.Foto: Russian Defense Ministry / AP
His problem, though, is that he has achieved the opposite in Europe of what he wanted. NATO, which Emmanuel Macron described just a few years ago as "brain dead," has been revitalized during the crisis. Thousands of additional troops have been moved to its eastern flank at the request of member states. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the current crisis a "new normal in Europe."
Moscow, Stoltenberg says, has made it clear that it is prepared to challenge the basic principles of European security with the use of force. According to the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Berlin, Paris and Warsaw are threatening to cancel the NATO-Russia Founding Act in the event of a Russian invasion. The agreement regulated NATO’s relations with Russia and promised not to position any substantial combat troops or nuclear weapons in the new NATO member states.
A Dispute over Breakaway Regions
On top of the NATO issue, another question is important to Putin when it comes to Ukraine: the discussions surrounding the Minsk agreements. Just last week, consultations in the so-called Normandy format ended without any resolution.
Since 2014, the Germans and French have been trying to implement this peace agreement between Kyiv and Moscow. After pro-Russian separatists seized the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, European mediators were faced with the challenge of returning control of these regions to the central government in Kyiv while simultaneously taking into account the interests of the Russian-speaking population.
The 2015 Minsk agreements paved the way for a compromise. Russia would allow elections in the separatist regions, which, in exchange, were to receive a special status. But the two sides soon fought over who should take the first step. Moscow and the separatists wanted the special status first, while the Ukrainian government insisted on general elections. The dispute still hasn’t been resolved. Ukraine sees the Minsk Agreements as concessions forced at the barrel of the gun.
Representatives from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine recently engaged in nine hours of negotiations in a villa outside of Berlin – without success.Foto: Thomas Trutschel / picture alliance / photothek
For nine hours last Wednesday, Russia’s Ukraine envoy Dmitry Kozak and Ukrainian presidential advisor Andriy Yermak negotiated over the details of the Minsk agreements at Landhaus Borsig, a manor in Berlin’s Tegel district, together with high-ranking advisers to the German chancellor and the French president. Kozak refused to back down from his maximalist demands. Several one-on-one conversations and countless packs of cigarettes didn’t help. In the end, unlike in Paris in January, the parties couldn’t even agree on a joint declaration. Nevertheless, they expressed their intention to meet again soon.
For the German government, the Normandy format is not just about settling the war in eastern Ukraine. Rather, Berlin sees it as a decisive lever to prevent further escalation.
On Tuesday, Putin himself fed this hope when he pointed out that former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is now the country’s president, had actually come up with a possible way to resolve the conflict. There’s even a name for it: The Steinmeier formula.
It was Steinmeier’s attempt to interlink the two steps: The law establishing the special status of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions was to come into force provisionally on the day of the local elections, and it would then only become permanent once it became clear that the elections had been carried out according to the standards of the OSCE and Ukrainian law.
On Nov. 28, 2015, the formula was put to paper, and on Oct. 19, 2016, Moscow and Kyiv agreed to it in writing. It has, however, not yet been implemented.
Moscow has invoked the formula to avoid having to implement its obligations under the Minsk agreements – which includes the removal of heavy artillery used by the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Skepticism of the formula had always been far greater on the Ukrainian side. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko once even went so far as to say that Steinmeier’s idea must have come from the Kremlin. Poroshenko’s successor, Volodymyr Zelensky, briefly tried to implement it, but had to bow to domestic political pressure. Last Monday, he sent a signal that he wanted to try again.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr ZelenskyFoto: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office / AP
Scholz traveled to Kyiv on the day before his meeting with Putin, on which occasion Zelensky assured the chancellor that his government would soon present draft laws on the special status, on changes to the constitution and on a reform of voting rights. Scholz then took this message to Moscow. So far, however, Zelensky has not yet announced the steps publicly.
Even though a breakthrough is still a long way off, there is still some hope that something can be achieved with the Steinmeier Formula.
As it happens, Steinmeier himself recently took part in some last-minute diplomacy. The German president traveled to Latvia, where he sought to dispel doubts about German solidarity with Ukraine and learned just how far the fear of Russian aggression now extends. Steinmeier spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Riga, ostensibly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Lithuanian constitution. Latvia, like Ukraine, shares a border with Russia and currently feels like it is under threat.
German President Steinmeier in Latvia on a mission to remove doubts about Germany's solidarity with its allies.Foto: Bernd von Jutrczenka / dpa
After Steinmeier’s conversation with Latvian President Egils Levits at his official residence, the German president was faced with the task of justifying to a Latvian reporter why Germany is happy to export arms to a number of countries, but not to Ukraine. Steinmeier squirmed a bit, spoke of a determined and joint response and said that an "endless number of discussions" on weapons deliveries were being held. But, he concluded, there were "different views" on the issue.
Despite his uneasiness in that exchange, though, it became clear in Riga that Steinmeier quite enjoyed his role as Germany’s alternate foreign minister. He has plenty of diplomatic experience, having spent eight years as head of Germany’s Foreign Ministry in a previous Merkel government, and is comfortable name-dropping big foreign policy concepts and historic buzzwords – Yalta, Helsinki – with the satisfaction of someone who knows what he is talking about.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier
At the Yalta Conference in 1945, he intoned, Europe was divided into spheres of influence, arguing that this is now what Putin wants to do as well. At the Helsinki Conference, he went on, which ran from 1973 to 1975, countries agreed on a concept for shared security in Europe. Helsinki enshrined the national right to self-determination: Each country should be allowed to choose its own alliance partners – the counter-model to Putin’s neo-colonial push for zones of influence. In the latter scenario, every country near Russia would automatically be under Moscow’s thumb, Steinmeier noted. If Putin were allowed such influence, the sovereignty of countries like Poland, Estonia and Slovakia would also be harmed, the German president said.
On Sunday, following his re-election as German president, Steinmeier – sounding almost as though he actually were still the German foreign minister, or even chancellor – took Putin to task. In blunt language, he said that Russia was responsible for the crisis and announced there would a firm response. He said that anyone who attacks democracy "will have me as an opponent."
Nord Stream 2 as a Bargaining Chip
The recipe for confronting Putin seems to be a combination of diplomacy and toughness. For Germany, the most important weapon is likely the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
The project is seen as an instrument of power for the Russian president because it bypasses Ukraine and leads directly to Germany beneath the Baltic Sea. Germany is dependent on Russian gas, which supplies 55 percent of its needs – a problem given Germany’s dangerously empty gas reserves. In the fall, Putin made it clear that the massive decrease in gas deliveries would only be reversed if the pipeline was put into operation. From the German perspective, however, Moscow needs the pipeline more than Germany does, because Germany’s natural gas needs can theoretically be supplied through existing infrastructure.
The German government is also supporting the construction of at least two liquefied natural gas terminals on the German North Sea coast to further reduce dependence on Moscow. The idea is to now use Nord Stream 2 as leverage against the Kremlin. The fact that the new pipeline has not yet been approved plays into the Germans’ hands. The Federal Network Agency, which temporarily halted the process in December, is responsible for its approval. In order for the pipeline to be given the green light, it said, the operating company and gas supplier could not be one and the same. And the operating company, the agency said, had to be based in Germany.
The Nord Stream consortium is controlled by Gazprom, which has its headquarters in Switzerland for tax reasons. After numerous attempts at legal action, the company is now establishing an independent German firm. Once that process is completed, the Federal Network Agency will once again decide whether to approve the project.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visiting the Ukrainian town of Shyrokyne in the Donetsk region of Ukraine earlier this month.Foto: BERND VON JUTRCZENKA / AFP
The decisive question for approval is whether Nord Stream 2 represents a danger to a reliable supply of natural gas to Germany, due to the significant reliance on a single supplier country. The German Economy Ministry had always insisted that the pipeline did not represent a danger, on the strength of which the Federal Network Agency would likely have granted approval. But Economy Minister Robert Habeck is now tending towards the opposite position, pointing to the Ukraine crisis and the empty gas reserves. This would kill the project and exempt the government from paying compensation to the pipeline’s primary investor, Gazprom. The scenario is currently being discussed between the Chancellery and the Economy Ministry.
It is likely for this reason that Scholz is more aggressively wielding the pipeline – the name of which he avoids saying in public – as a potential bargaining chip. At the press conference in the Kremlin, the chancellor said that everyone knows what is going on with Nord Stream 2. It is no secret at this point that the project would be dead from Germany’s point of view if Russia were to invade Ukraine.
There are many voices currently suggesting that Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) are embracing a more realist approach to dealing with Moscow, after decades of emphasizing détente with the country. "Russia has seen how determined Germany, France and the other Western countries have been pushing for a peaceful solution to the conflict. And how coordinated and united we are acting," says SPD party chair Lars Klingbeil. "The announcements from the Kremlin on de-escalation must now be followed by verifiable actions, so that there is nothing impeding serious negotiations. We are not letting up on attempts to find a diplomatic way out. But we are also very closely observing the situation: Should it come to further escalations, Russia will face tough sanctions."
Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, also of the SPD, sees the tense situation as a wake-up call for Germans’ views on their country’s long-term global political role. Lambrecht told DER SPIEGEL: "The threatening situation at the border of Ukraine has once again made it clear to us how important it has unfortunately once again become to have a significant deterrent. We also need to draw conclusions from this when it comes to the financing of the German military."
She said that that the armed forces’ core tasks are to defend the country and the alliance. "For this, they must be equipped in the best manner possible," Lambrecht said. "And that also means that the defense budget must keep increasing." The previous budget had planned for another decrease in defense spending. Not everybody in her party will welcome this new tone.