ANGELA MERKEL’S personal detestation of Vladimir Putin has long been a source of comfort to the countries who feel threatened by Russia. But the dawning and gloomy realisation among policy-makers in those capitals is that Mrs Merkel’s personal views are not Germany’s, Edward Lucas writes in the European Voice.
The polls are quite clear. Even the shock of the Crimean land-grab has not changed Germans’ fundamental unwillingness to see any confrontation with Russia. 36% oppose sanctions (as opposed to 23% of Britons and 15% in Scandinavia). Fully 49% of Germans think their country should adopt a “middle position” between the West and Russia, and only 46% want to be in firm alliance with the West.
These sentiments are not just those of lefties from the bit of Germany once run by a Soviet puppet government. Nor do they come from the self-interested types from corporate Germany whose business or other interests make them hum the Kremlin’s tunes. None other than the former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has termed Mr Putin’s actions “absolutely understandable”. Germans should think about history before condemning the Kremlin, he said, while also belittling Ukrainian statehood and backing the bogus Russian case to a historical claim on Crimea.
The German government, to its credit, does not fully share this odd mixture of Realpolitik, guilt and naiveté. Some politicians have been notable critics of the Putin regime. Few politicians of any stripe retain their enthusiasm for projects such as the Medvedev-era “Partnership for modernisation”. A new report by the OSW think-tank in Warsaw highlights a dominant German sentiment of “fatigue and frustration” with Russia. On economic matters, Germany has long been willing to stand up firmly to the Kremlin (for example over the sanctions on Polish meat in 2006). Indeed Poland has narrowly overtaken Russia in importance as a trading partner for Germany.
But on defence the government is constrained by public opinion. Germany tried to block the extension of NATO contingency plans to the new member states. It opposed the deployment of American missile-defence systems to the region. It tried to weaken the Steadfast Jazz exercise in Poland and the Baltic states last year. Now it is trying to stop NATO’s plans to reinforce the alliance’s vulnerable north-eastern flank.
For countries such as Poland, which have invested huge amounts of diplomatic capital in building strong relations with Germany, this is a pretty poor return. They do not doubt Germany’s sincerity in believing that dialogue, not confrontation, is the best approach. But they do not agree with it. They want hard security, right now, not soft words. They believe that unless Russia is swiftly constrained and deterred, it will continue to destabilise, manipulate, and perhaps annex its neighbours.
They are too polite to point out that German guilt is strangely selective: it is unwilling to confront Russia because the Third Reich was first allied with, then the aggressor against, and finally the defeated victim of Stalin’s Soviet Union. But Germany is strangely numb to the historical obligations many feel it should shoulder towards the security of the countries who were the completely innocent victims of that era. They are now paying the price for democratic Germany’s solipsism.
The result of Germany’s semi-neutralism is to erode NATO’s effectiveness. Vulnerable countries are losing faith in the alliance’s formal structures. They are thinking of national and regional defence plans, and about their bilateral alliances with the United States. For its part, America is beginning to question whether the alliance’s second-largest member is fully dependable. All that, of course, is hugely to the benefit of Mr Putin’s Kremlin, which likes nothing better than the chance to play divide and rule.