The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Germany has become a weak link in NATO’s line of defense

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at an event in Berlin on Jan. 20. (Bernd Von Jutrczenka/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Bernd Von Jutrczenka/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Katja Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian and journalist, is the author of “Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.”

On Wednesday, President Biden gave a news conference — and admitted something he shouldn’t have: “There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens.” Though this was a serious diplomatic blunder that undermined efforts to deter his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Biden was correct in his assessment — and especially in respect to one country. Germany cannot be depended upon when it comes to imposing sanctions on Russia.

While the United States and Britain have sent defensive weapons to Ukraine, neither has committed to direct military action to deter Putin from using the 100,000 soldiers he has amassed at the Ukrainian border. Economic sanctions are the way to go. But they will deter Russia from invading only if they appear sufficiently painful.

So everything depends on Berlin. Germany is Moscow’s second-biggest trading partner (after China), relying heavily on Russian raw materials such as crude oil and natural gas. If Germany continued to trade with Russia while other NATO nations applied sanctions, the economic bite would be much reduced. That would force Germany’s Western allies to either escalate the situation with military intervention or to step back, allowing Putin yet another land grab.

Germany’s deep dependence on Russian gas supplies is well documented. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock even openly admitted as much during her visit to Moscow this week. German gas storage levels are dangerously low as the country is phasing out its nuclear reactors in the midst of a global energy crisis.

Putin has recognized the political potential in this and is delivering less gas than he could, driving European energy prices up. Meanwhile, Germans are already paying the highest electricity prices in Europe, and this is putting political pressure on the new German government.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to smooth things over in his meeting with the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in Berlin. “It’s fair to say that the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany,” Blinken declared. But while the smooth mask of diplomacy has stayed in place, so have the tensions behind it. Scholz is no more willing to shoulder a share of the weight of collective Western security than his predecessor Angela Merkel was.

Consider the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which, once completed, will further deepen Germany’s dependence on Russia. When the German media asked Blinken if Scholz was willing to make any concessions on the project, Blinken could refer, somewhat helplessly, only to a statement Scholz had made two days earlier — clearly not in the meeting with him. “Everything is up for discussion if there is a military intervention against Ukraine,” Scholz had said vaguely on Tuesday when asked about the pipeline.

Seen in that light, Biden’s offhand remark in his news conference that a “minor incursion” into Ukraine by the Russians would meet with a different response from NATO compared with a full-on invasion suggests that Washington and Berlin have been discussing how to handle minimal German support for economic sanctions. Rifts in the alliance were there for all to see.

Germany is finding tacit support for its desire to appease Moscow from French President Emmanuel Macron, who has suggested that the European Union should lead its own talks with Russia to keep the peace — implying that Brussels would follow a different strategy from the United States. This further undermines the idea of a united NATO front and might indicate that France is willing to compromise when it comes to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

Macron is gearing up for the first round of the French presidential elections in April, and his campaign hinges on making France the leading power within post-Merkel Europe. He wants to be the strong man leading a newly proud France and E.U. back onto the world stage. That is music to Germany’s ears, because officials in Berlin have been pushing for a renewal of the so-called Normandy format talks involving Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia.

Some have suggested that Blinken might offer Germany a way out of its energy-political corner by increasing the amount of liquefied natural gas the United States delivers to Europe on ocean tankers. But doing so could never make up for lost Russian gas should Putin shut down Russia’s supply. European ports can take only 830 million cubic meters more than they currently do — hardly enough to replace 1.7 billion cubic meters of Russian gas. Norway, which currently supplies a third of Germany’s gas, says it has maxed out production and can’t provide any more.

Biden was right: Divisions within NATO run deep. While he need not have informed the world of that fact at a news conference, his Russian counterpart already knew it. With Germany hesitant and the United States seemingly resigned to compromise if the scale of the Russian invasion allows it, Moscow might well think it’s worth the gamble. If it does, the escalation in eastern Europe will be not in small part due to Berlin’s urge to look east rather than west. Germany has become a weak link in NATO’s line of defense.