"Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" goes an apocryphal quote attributed to Henry Kissinger. During the 2014-15 war in Ukraine, the answer to Kissinger's question for the United States was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since she left office last year there isn't an obvious answer to the question.
There is currently no unifying European leader and the standoff over Ukraine is revealing divisions in the transatlantic alliance. The United States and United Kingdom have pushed for stronger sanctions against Russia and arming Ukraine, while Germany has dragged its feet over sanctions and France has used the crisis to advance its own diplomatic goal of pursuing an EU security pact.
This disunity may be precisely what Russian leader Vladimir Putin is hoping to trigger by amassing hundreds of thousands of troops on Ukraine's border. A world where European powers are split and the United States only has the post-Brexit United Kingdom as an ally is a far more manageable world for Putin. In that world, Russia could compete, but in a world where the United States and Europe are joined, Russia is no military, economic, or diplomatic match.
Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas, no country has changed its posture as much as Germany. During that time, Merkel led European nations in successful efforts to sanction Russia. Merkel biographer Kati Marton wrote in her 2021 biography, "The Chancellor," that she "rallied the twenty-six other European Union member states to stay solidly united behind these same sanctions." Although Putin thought that Merkel might blanch at sanctions due to German banks' business interests in Russia, the former German chancellor went ahead anyway and additionally rallied recalcitrant nations like Hungary and Italy to join in sanctions.
Now, the new German coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz is behind the curve on sanctioning Russia. Bloomberg reported that the German government pushed for an exemption for the energy sector if there was an effort to block Russian banks from dealing in U.S. dollars. Germany has only said that it would not rule out including the Nord Stream II pipeline -- which would roughly double the amount of gas flowing from Russia to Germany -- in future sanctions. It has not gone as far as the United States, which has said that it would stop the pipeline from opening if Russia launches another invasion of Ukraine.
In keeping with longstanding policy originating with repentance for starting World War II, Germany is refusing to send arms to Ukraine. Germany sent 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, which prompted outrage from Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klischko. He said it was a "joke" that left him "speechless." "What kind of support will Germany send next?" he joked. "Pillows?" In addition, Germany is holding up an arms shipment from Estonia because the weapons originated in Germany.
Risking transatlantic unity, French President Emmanuel Macron has pushed ahead with his plans for a European Union security pact. In a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg earlier this month, Macron gave a vision for "an independent Europe that has given itself the means to decide its own future and not rely on the decisions of other major powers," a not very subtle reference to the United States. The desire for an EU-wide security agreement has been a longstanding goal of Macron; however, the timing of his speech was conspicuous given the standoff over Ukraine with Putin. Macron has trashed NATO before, saying it was experiencing "brain death" in 2019 by relying on the United States.
France, in addition to Germany, has become more wary of relying on the United States for its security since former President Donald Trump repeatedly trashed the NATO alliance — and Trump may return as soon as 2025. France's relations with the Biden Administration are frosty -- it recalled its ambassador from the United States a few months ago over Australia bailing on a submarine deal with France for a partnership with the United States and United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom has joined the United States to become the first major European power to send arms to Ukraine. It sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine by air -- on planes that avoided German territory. However, Britain is not as strong as it once was -- it is outside the European Union and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been weakened by the scandal of his partying during coronavirus lockdowns.
There are signs, though, that Germany may be coming around. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is visiting the White House on February 7. The United States and European Union released a statement on January 28 saying that they were working together on getting alternative sources of natural gas to Europe in the event of a Russian shutoff -- a key concern of Germany. Advisers of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia are meeting in Berlin in two weeks for new talks -- a sign that Europe may be taking a lead in providing a potential diplomatic offramp for Russia.
Without firing a shot, Russia has already succeeded in its goal of sowing divisions within the transatlantic alliance. There's still time, though, for the alliance to stumble towards unity.
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