The Russian-German Relationship Is in Free Fall

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen meets soldiers during a visit to Kaserne Hochstaufen (mountain infantry military barracks) in Bad Reichenhall, southern German

The vital Germany-Russia relationship is badly adrift and European security is imperiled as a result.

The critical Russia-German relationship has been in free-fall, more or less, since the onset of the Ukraine Crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel might be given some credit for both helping to reach the Minsk Accord—thus taking the crisis back from the brink of all-out war in 2015—as well as bravely standing against reckless proposals to arm Kiev against Moscow. Yet otherwise, Berlin has permitted the issue to languish without any resolution in sight. While the people of Ukraine suffer in a protracted civil war, Eastern Europe drifts toward ever more precarious polarization, NATO and Russia gird for high-end warfare in the Baltics, and the major economies of Europe and Russia are weighed down by sanctions, Germany’s leaders seem to seem to be content with offering bromides like promoting a “rules-based order.” How is that working out? It’s well past time for a more pragmatic approach in Berlin—one that delivers for Germans, for European security and for all the many suffering people in Eastern Europe (and beyond), who are the victims of the latest cycle of East-West rivalry.

I am usually reluctant to offer advice to countries other than my own, but the urgent world situation suggests the need for definite reforms to Berlin’s approach and, contrary to conventional wisdom, these reforms do not actually require Germany “to spend more and take necessary risks.” Rather than counting on Washington to solve problems in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Berlin must chart a new path. First and foremost, Germany should now actively prioritize the common European defense entity over NATO. Pentagon bureaucrats should not determine how much Germany spends on defense, and Germans are right to bristle at Washington’s ripostes on this issue. To state the obvious, Europeans are best able to understand European security and thus NATO should form just a “hedge” for very low probability scenarios rather than the main thrust of German (or European) security policy. On a related note, German support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan should be curtailed since stabilization efforts there have failed. Germany neither requires attack helicopters and snipers to fight Afghan insurgents, nor masses of tanks and fighters to take on Russia. Present outlays are quite sufficient.

That leads us to the second major reform, which should be a new and more mature approach to dealing with Russia. Such an approach recognizes above all that Germany does and will always carry the enormous weight of responsibility for assuring peace between Germany and Russia after the devastation and aggressive war it pursued 1939–45.

While some German policymakers had evidently hoped that a “sanctions approach” could be contrasted and enacted instead of a more militarized approach, the concept that severe economic pressure could be brought against Moscow without ratcheting up extreme national-security tensions has proven to be a fool’s errand. I will not rehash the details of the Maidan events in spring 2014, but no doubt the crisis partially resulted from European hubris that followed hard upon the NATO hubris of waves of NATO expansion that wise observers like George Kennan knew would fuel a new Cold War. Let’s not cry over spilt milk, but Berlin must urgently adjust its approach on Crimea as the key that will immediately ease tensions throughout Eastern Europe.