Fifteen years ago, I watched a television screen in Bloomberg’s high-tech office in Moscow as Vladimir Putin rocked the world with a speech harshly attacking the United States. Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.
Next week, this year’s Munich conference will open with Russian Navy warships blockading almost all Ukrainian seaports. Fortified by six newly arrived landing ships from Russia’s Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea blockade will coincide with “manoeuvres” by 30,000 Russian army troops in Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor. An independent nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus is now, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Russia’s Western Military District.
With Putin bent on a re-Soviet Union, the most effective tool to block a full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine would be a clear commitment from new German Chancellor Olaf Schulz to link the opening of the new Russia-Germany Baltic gas pipeline. $11 billion to peace in Ukraine. Last Monday, at a joint press conference in Washington, President Joe Biden warned that if Russia advances towards Ukraine: “There will be no more Nord Stream 2. We will end it…this just won’t happen. But Scholz declined to mention the gas line by name, saying only, “All necessary steps will be done by all of us together.”
Leader of a new faltering coalition, Scholz leads the German Social Democratic Party. In the party’s glory days of the early 1970s, Willy Brandt led West Germany in the “Ostpolitik” policy of economic engagement with the Soviet Union. But half a century later, that face of Ostpolitik is the former chancellor of the SPD, Gerhard Schroder. President for five years of the Russian oil giant Rosneft, Schröder must now sit on the board of directors of Gazprom, the Russian gas giant which built the gas pipeline.
As Putin races to invade Ukraine, the world will watch Scholz’s keynote address next weekend at the Munich Security Conference. After trips to Moscow and Kiev this week, the leader of Europe’s most powerful economy may find his voice to stop what looks like a train wreck in Eastern Europe.
Don’t hold your breath.
Ahead of the Munich security meeting, Kyiv hosted a series of foreign leaders: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Britain, Poland and Ukraine forge a three-way “alliance”. The Turkish leader signed a free trade agreement with Ukraine and finalized a deal for Ukraine to manufacture Turkish armed drones.
In contrast, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Moscow, met Putin and then said his security demands on NATO and Ukraine were reasonable. French President Emmanuel Macron flew to Moscow, met Putin and then reported that the Russian leader had promised not to escalate. Within days, Putin was sending landing craft to the Black Sea and troops to Belarus.
Meanwhile, Germany sent 5,000 helmets to Ukraine. A friend in Kiev misunderstood and exclaimed “5,000 Helmuts!” No. Helmets, but no Helmuts. Germany prevents Estonia from transferring eight Soviet-era howitzers to Ukraine. When Britain sent anti-tank missiles and British Army trainers to Ukraine, Royal Air Force transports had to fly over German airspace. In the face of criticism, Germany adds a field hospital to the helmet deal.
German officials say they cannot export lethal military equipment to Ukraine, which is a conflict zone. Last week, Deutsche Welle reported that Germany’s global arms exports jumped 61% last year to nearly $11 billion, a record high.
Germany says it doesn’t want to send arms to Ukraine out of respect for the Soviet Union’s war dead. Much of this war debt belongs to the Ukrainian people. On Ukrainian territory, Nazi soldiers and their allies killed 4 million Ukrainian civilians and 1.4 million soldiers of the Ukrainian Red Army. Before the war started, Hermann Goring, founder of the Gestapo, offered to kill all Ukrainian men and then send in the SS to repopulate the country.
This war guilt has morphed over the decades into NATO-protected pacifism. Germany, with the world’s fourth largest economy, has an army, the Deutsches Heer, of 64,000 – slightly larger than the California National Guard. Thousands of non-commissioned and officer positions are not filled. Germany spends 1.4% of its GDP on defence, well below NATO’s target of 2% and a third of Russia’s.
The Russian armed forces total 1 million men and women, more than five times the size of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Germany has less than 200 main battle tanks. Russia has 20,000.
A Mars analyst might conclude that Berlin prefers a million-man parade to a million-man army. Protected by the defense umbrella of NATO, the Germans allow themselves the luxury of rolling their eyes at “American militarism”. But the era of American cops for hire protecting Germany operated in a power vacuum after the end of the Cold War.
Since then, Putin has rebuilt his army and nurtured a deep victim complex among his people. Now he wants to avenge the humiliation of his nation’s defeat in the Cold War.
Sound familiar, Germany?
And don’t expect journalists to succeed. On February 10, 2007, when I was Bloomberg’s Moscow bureau chief, the reporter covering the story sniffed that what Putin had said was not news. Today it is recognized as a turning point for Putin against the West.
James Brooke of Lenox has traveled to over 100 countries for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.