Two years ago, Moscow eyed a US-German standoff over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as a litmus test of transatlantic power.
Russia had invested heavily in the 750-mile undersea pipeline linking it to Germany and wanted to increase global sales and ramp up economic leverage over Europe and its power-hungry heavy industries. Germany, a leading consumer, was on board from the get-go. Washington was not.
The United States didn’t want the new, high-capacity subsea supply to supplant old overland lines that transited Ukraine, providing vital revenue to the increasingly Westward-leaning leadership in Kyiv.
Russia reasoned that if Washington blocked Nord Stream 2, which it ultimately did, then it would show that European power no longer flowed through Berlin, but actually via the White House.
Fast-forward two years, and reading that transatlantic dynamic post-Angela Merkel, and particularly post-Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failing invasion of Ukraine, has become one of the most pressing political questions vexing the Kremlin.
Rare moment of steely leadership
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s refusal, in his words, “to be pushed” to go it alone in sending tanks to Ukraine – instead standing his ground and demanding US President Joe Biden join him in the venture, risking Putin’s wrath – has shown the transatlantic power dynamic has shifted.
Europe has been slow to respond to the deep fissures in US politics and the uncertainty another Trumpian-style presidency could wreak on its allies. Decades of a reasonably unshakable reliance, if not complete trust, in the US, has been replaced by stubborn European pragmatism – and Germany leads the way.
Former Chancellor Merkel was Europe’s moral compass. Scholz has found unexpected metal in his ponderous, often stop/go/wait traffic-light governing coalition and won thunderous applause in Germany’s Bundestag on Wednesday as he flashed a rare moment of steely leadership.
At their summit in March last year, NATO leaders agreed to equip, arm and train Ukraine to NATO standards. It wouldn’t be a member, but the message to Moscow was unequivocal: In the coming years, Ukraine would look and fight like it was in NATO.
Ukraine’s ongoing metamorphosis from legacy Soviet force to NATO clone hasn’t just been about the mechanics or even diplomacy of getting tanks, fighting vehicles, air defenses and artillery, it’s been about bringing NATO member states’ near-billion people along with their politicians. Scholz made that point in parliament on Wednesday.
“Trust us,” he said, “we won’t put you in danger.” He spelled out how his government had already handled Russia’s aggression and how fears of a freezing winter and economic collapse were not realized. “The government dealt with the crisis,” he said, adding: “We are in a much better position.”
The applause at each step of his carefully crafted speech spoke as loudly as his words. In short, Scholz got it right for Germany, bringing with him a population typically averse to war and projecting their own power, and deeply divided over how much they should aid Ukraine in killing Russians and potentially angering the Kremlin.
Putin cooling on escalation?
But if in Europe Scholz seems to have wrestled some vestige of influence over America in the Ukraine war, in Moscow they don’t believe his new vigor changes much.
Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, says that in Moscow, “most people believe Biden calls the shots.”
Indeed, rather than Germany having more leverage, he says, “the American leadership looks stronger than ever.”
Nevertheless, Russia’s diplomats have been shoveling their animus toward the West into the public arena on both sides of the Atlantic.
Russia’s ambassador to Germany said Berlin’s move to send tanks was “extremely dangerous” and accused Scholz of refusing “to acknowledge its [Germany’s] historic accountability to our people for the horrific crimes of Nazism.” Meanwhile his counterpart in Washington accused the White House of “blatant provocation” and Biden of being intent on the “strategic defeat” of Russia.
Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and deputy chairman of its national security council, has said Russia would never allow itself to be defeated and would use nuclear weapons if threatened.
Oddly, closer to the Kremlin, statements are less bellicose, signaling that Putin is perhaps cooling to nuclear escalation.
Responding to Biden and Scholz’s decision on tanks, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it adds “tension to the continent, but it cannot prevent Russia from reaching our goals.”
Berlin wants hands on the controls
The mixed messaging has some Muscovites CNN spoke with after the announcements by Biden and Scholz on tanks confused. Some said Russia would win regardless, and lumped the US and Germany together as the losers, but a significant proportion were worried about the war, dismayed at the heavy death toll and frustrated that Putin ignored their concerns.
How much Scholz is aware of Putin’s softening popularity or whether he believes it relevant at this moment is unclear, but his actions now, sending tanks, may help ease Putin’s iron grip on power.
From being late to recognize Russia’s threat, reorient Germany, reinvigorate its military, and ramp up weapon supplies to Ukraine, the pragmatist Scholz has now signaled Germany is very much in play – and, indeed, wants hands on the controls. He said Germany would “coordinate” supplies of the Leopard 2 from allies to Ukraine, a power invested in him by German legislation preventing any purchaser of the country’s war-fighting hardware to pass it on to a third state.
With Scholz shouldering his way to the diplomatic helm, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may find his territorial ambitions to restore the entirety of Ukraine’s sovereignty including Crimea, before peace talks with Putin, constrained. The German chancellor has been at the forefront of friendly leaders wanting a speedy end to the war and the restoration of economic stability to Europe.
Longer debates about the next military moves for Ukraine could be coming and will likely signal to Zelensky that weapons supplies will be on more of a German leash, and less unilaterally led by Washington.
This shift in the power dynamic may not change the way the war is fought but could impact the contours of a final deal and shape a lasting peace when it comes.