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What do you do when there are no good options? That is the question now facing Germany as the ‘New Cold War’ between Russia and the West enters a new and more dangerous phase.  

Two years ago, Germany had a clear answer to the problem of Russian aggression in Ukraine: EU sanctions intended to discipline its eastern neighbour. Now its politicians are having their doubts. In the last few weeks, the Foreign Ministry has called for sanctions against Russia to be gradually lifted, the Defence Ministry has called for ‘strong cooperation’ with Russia and the Chancellor has declared that Ukraine’s bid to join the EU, the original bone of contention, is off the agenda.

This back-peddling comes in response to the new political reality in Eastern Europe. Back in 2014, the decision to sanction Russia made strategic sense. With its annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in the Donbas, Russia had flagrantly compromised the security of a European state. If international law was to have any meaning, then Russia had to bear the costs of its actions.

Now, however, the calculation looks different. The sanctions imposed on Russia have failed to induce the required change: Crimea is still in Russian hands and its military active in the Donbas. They are also causing harm to the Western economies which do business with Russia – especially Germany, which is Russia’s largest foreign investor and a major trading partner.

More serious still, the decisive Western response has produced an decisive Russian response that is turning Eastern Europe into a flashpoint for conflict. For months, NATO has been engaging in military exercises in Eastern Europe’s frontline states, deploying heavy weaponry and activating a missile defence shield. In reply, Russia has bolstered its military presence along on its western border, dispatched fighter planes into NATO territory and perpetrated hybrid warfare across Eastern Europe. Now NATO has announced plans to commit four battalions to Poland and the Baltic States, the largest permanent military deployment on Russia’s borders in history.

Alarmingly, this confrontation is gaining a life of its own. Both sides insist they have no interest in a new arms race. However, each step taken by one to bolster its defences is perceived by the other as an act of aggression. Rather than bringing Russia into line, the West’s approach is generating an unstoppable escalation in tensions.

All this is profoundly at odds with Germany’s strategic interest in functional relations with Russia. For one thing, Germany needs Russia’s co-operation in resolving the conflict in Syria to stem the outflow of migrants to Europe, something which is generating a domestic political backlash.

More importantly, Germany needs to preserve the EU, which is already facing the most serious political crisis in its history. Instead, the New Cold War is feeding its divisions, dividing hawks in northern Europe and the Baltic from doves in central Europe and the Mediterranean.

All this poses a major problem for Germany which must find a way to bring the burgeoning conflict to an end.

One policy option is to continue with its existing policy of ‘deterrence and dialogue’. This approach has the virtue of consistency; it upholds Germany’s alliance with the US; and it helps to keep Central Europe and the Baltic States safe from Russian aggression. Even if the rhetoric is now shifting, this is the policy Germany is pursuing in practice: in July, Berlin agreed not only to renew EU sanctions against Russia but also to lead NATO’s planned military deployment in Lithuania.

The problem, however, is not just that the policy has failed so far to force Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. It is also unlikely ever to do so. Since the outset of the conflict, Moscow’s primary goal has been to maintain Ukraine as a friendly buffer against attack from the West – something Russia has suffered multiple times in its history. With NATO deploying troops and heavy weaponry along a belt of states in Eastern Europe, and the Ukrainian government focused on joining the EU and NATO, Russia cannot afford to release its grip on the country.

In this respect, the actual effect of the NATO current policy is to provoke a military escalation in Eastern Europe without achieving its intended strategic outcome.

Another possibility is to intensify pressure on Russia. So far, sanctions have been limited to an embargo on the sale of strategic technologies and travel bans on the Russian political elite. If the West wanted, it could impose full economic sanctions and cut Russia out of the international financial system. The risk, however, is that this would inflict such damage to the Russian economy that, before it ever withdrew from Ukraine, the country would succumb to hardline nationalist elements, creating a far more serious problem than Russia’s occupation of the Donbas and Crimea.

This leaves only one other policy option, which is to make concessions to Russia that neutralise the source of conflict. Broadly, this is the approach the German government is now advocating, at least rhetorically, by reconceiving compliance with the Minsk peace agreement not as a moment but a process, in which sanctions against Russia are dropped incrementally in return for meeting various conditions. To this end, Germany is willing to help Russia by pressurising Kiev to honour its own commitments to Minsk, and abandoning plans for integrating Ukraine into the Western sphere.

In reality, there will never be full compliance because Russia will not withdraw from Crimea or accept a pro-Western government in Kiev - and the German government undoubtedly knows this. Instead, Berlin is reasoning that a softer stance towards Russia means a chance of ending the fighting in Ukraine, perhaps by freezing of the conflict in the Donbas, bringing an end to the military build-up in Eastern Europe and allowing a restoration of relations with Russia.

However, this option is not risk free because of the consternation it will create in frontline states in Eastern Europe which are fearful of Russian revanchism. Rather than viewing such moves as a benign attempt to de-escalate tensions, they will instead see a powerful Germany coming forward with a policy that downgrades the NATO military presence in the region and resolves the conflict in Ukraine on Russian terms in order to uphold Germany’s own strategic interests.

Pro-Western elements in Ukraine will be deeply unnerved, while Poland, which is unusually jittery at the present time, will view any German overture towards Russia as a 21st-century Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. (It has said as much about the Nord Stream II pipeline.) Rather than de-escalating tensions, the danger is that a softening of Germany’s position will embolden the Kremlin and cause alarm in the countries in between. This in turn risks accelerating some of the regional trends already underway: rearming by Poland and Baltic States; the deepening involvement of the US in Eastern Europe; and the formation of a regional security alliance encompassing Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

If matters rested there, the new German policy would constitute a failure but not worse than that. However, in a fragile region where interests are zero-sum, memories are long and everyone is tense, there is a serious risk of over-reaction.

The nightmare scenario is that Russia senses weakness in the Western alliance and intensifies pressure on Ukraine. Kiev then calls on the US to supply it with heavy weaponry, and Poland successfully echoes this demand around the EU in a bid to enforce its eastern buffer. This provokes further anxiety in Russia, which abandons its pretence at non-involvement in Ukraine and moves its army into the south and the east of the country. In response, the Eastern Europeans persuade NATO to move its troops from the frontline states in Poland and Romania to the frontline itself. Worryingly, with fighting flaring up in Ukraine and Russian troops massing on its border, this scenario is already unfolding.

No doubt, the two sides would avoid direct combat to prevent an all-out war. But the new geopolitical reality is that Ukraine would split down its middle and a new Iron Curtain would emerge in Eastern Europe. At this point, the German goal of normalising relations between Europe and Russia would become all but a side-issue in a far more dangerous political drama.  

The main safeguard against such an escalation is the position adopted by the US, which alone can provide the military power to pose a meaningful threat to Russia. In this respect, if Germany’s emerging policy of concession is to work, it must align with American policy.

Much depends on the outcome of the American presidential election. If the next president endorses a softer stance towards Russia, then Ukraine and its Baltic neighbours must accept the hard reality of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. This scenario is more likely under Donald Trump, who has already questioned the benefits of a standoff with Moscow. Instead, he would probably put a brake on American involvement and look for a way to withdraw, even at the price of ceding Russia what it wants in Ukraine.  

Alternatively, if the US remains committed to the existing policy of deterrence, then Poland and others may succeed in involving the American military more deeply. This scenario is more likely under Hillary Clinton, a neoconservative who believes in the exercise of military power for benevolent ends. In contrast to Trump, she would probably take a hard line towards Russia.

All this poses a serious political headache for Germany. In an ideal world, things would return to how they were in 2013, before the current confrontation with Russia began. However, too much has happened since then. Ukraine has tasted freedom, war has broken out in the Donbas, the Baltic nations are jumpy and the Americans are in Eastern Europe.

If it is impossible to turn back the clock, it is hopefully not yet too late to avoid an full-blooded confrontation between Russia and the West. Germany is trying its best to chart a precarious course. However, when there are no good policy options left to choose from, the risk is that things will get worse before they get better.


This article first appeared in German in Berliner Republik on 20th October 2016.

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