Germany, Ukraine, and Russia: The Sudden Return of the European Defense Question (Updated)


2014-03-30 By Robbin Laird

In the mid-1980s when I worked at the Institute for Defense Analyses, I established a working group on Germany and we looked long and hard at the potential for German reunification to emerge from the dynamics of the 1980s.  When the opportunity emerged in the late 1980s, through the leadership from the administration of President Bush and Chancellor Kohl, as well as the Soviet administration, reunification became possible.

I wrote a number of books in the 1980s on Europe and the Soviet Union, including a book looking at the German reunification issue and the Soviet Union.

The book entitled The Soviets, Germany and the New Europe was published by Westview Press in 1991 and the book looked at how the Soviets dealt with the European security in the 1980s and eventually the Russian leadership accepted reunification as the lesser of multiple evils as the Soviet Union faced collapse.

It should never be forgotten that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany are twined events.

The Soviets, Germany and the New Europe

In the conclusion to the book I wrote the following:

Throughout 1990, not only did the Gorbachev administration have to deal with the German unification process and the explosion of political change in Eastern Europe, but it had to deal with the explosions of tensions within the USSR as well.

Suddenly the Russian leadership was faced with the twin pressures of Westernization moving East (to the GDR and to Eastern Europe) and the pressures to create a new Russian and/or Soviet development model as well.

This book closes with the signing of the Soviet-German treaty of December 1990, but this treaty and the process, which led to its conclusion, are clearly not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

With the annexation of Crimea, the Putin Administration is writing a new chapter in the story of European security and the return of Russia in global affairs.

And the linkages here are real and clear.  The President of Russia was a German expert and who witnessed the collapse of East Germany and the Soviet Union.  This is not some 19th century history for Vladimir Putin; it is part of the living present and shaping his approach to the future.

A clear step in the process of moving beyond German unification to setting in motion a counter-reaction was the Georgian crisis and the ability of Russia to reassert its role within European security and to roll back a NATO expansion approach seen as out of control.

A good friend, who participated in my German working group in the 1980s, was the late Ron Asmus.  We discussed many things European and Russian over the years, and certainly saw a major challenge for Europe was the need to deal with the power vacuum created between Western Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Ron’s answer and that of the Administration within which he would eventually serve was to expand the EU and NATO to encompass the states in the in-between regions.

The point of German unification by the partners of Germany was not about enhancing the wealth of Germany. It was about enabling a people to play their proper role in history. The actions of Putin clearly challenge them, and to correct the Secretary of State, this is not about the 19th century it is about the decade ahead.
The point of German unification by the partners of Germany was not about enhancing the wealth of Germany. It was about enabling a people to play their proper role in history.
The actions of Putin clearly challenge them, and to correct the Secretary of State, this is not about the 19th century it is about the decade ahead.

He was an enthusiastic supporter for NATO expansion; I was not.

From my perspective, the question always to be answered is when the Russians strike against some state in the future what will Western Europe do and what will the US do CONCRETELY?

The danger is always that agreements in principle are simply that unless one has a clear path to defend those principles.

With Ukraine, we do not; and with regard to Poland and the Baltic states we better clearly sort that out, now and not in the future.  For the annexation of Crimea has returned attention to the question of European security and the expansion of the challenges associated with the Arctic dimension to European security will only augment the challenges.

NATO can think about so-called out of area issues; but the primary concern is to defend the NATO area and to stop any threats to map re-writing.  The challenge is that the map will most likely be rewritten by the Euro Crisis itself and with the dynamics of change in the Middle East as well as the Arctic.

And although the United States is certainly a player in sorting out solutions, it is not the only and perhaps not even the most important player. 

We have heard for years about the coming of European defense; and the forging of a unified Germany certainly highlights the emergence of the state in Europe most DIRECTLY concerned with the defense of Poland and of the Baltic states.  Germany is the leading state in Europe concerned with these issues, and needs to not just be INVOLVED in defense but to actually LEAD in providing for a European defense RESPONSE to the return of Russia.

Shortly before he died, Ron took a hard look at a problem, which he believed pushed the European defense challenge directly back on the plate of European development, namely the Georgian crisis.

In my last meeting with Ron, before I learned of his death, he dealt with why he saw the Georgian crisis as what I referred to in my book on the Soviets and Germany as the inevitability of new chapters being written on the Russia-German security relationship, which was not ending simply by an initial reunification of Germany.  History was moving again; not receiving a plaque for ending of the Cold War.

In the discussion, which occurred in March 2010, this is what Asmus argued:

Robbin Laird: My final question is what is the longer-term significance of this kind of snapshot that you’ve taken of a moment in European security history? What do you think the longer-term consequences might be of the inability to really deal with this issue in a way that fully reinforces western values?

Ronald Asmus: 2010 is the 20th anniversary of the signing of Charter of Paris, and Charter of Paris was signed of course shortly after the Iron Curtain had come down, when there was a sense of a new unified democratic Europe, cooperative security. The Charter of Paris is supposed to establish a new set of rules of the game for how European security was going to function. 20 years later, there’s no longer any agreement on them.

Russia believes that we used those rules to facilitate a geopolitical moves against it. It no longer, I would argue, accepts the fundamental premises of the Charter of Paris, even though it’s signed up to them a dozen if not dozens of times over the last 20 years, and the key question now is: Do we fight for those values?

Because the Charter of Paris said “No spheres of influence, the right of countries to choose their own alliances, equal security for all countries big and small,” and we wrote them because we had concluded that the 20th Century had taught us that spheres of influence were a bag thing. They led to conflict and not to security. We wanted to move beyond them.

But it’s now all coming back. So do we acquiesce to Russian demands to legitimate a sphere of influence? Finlandization has come back as a phrase and a conflict that you hear whispered in quarters across Europe, or do we fight for or do we hold firm in somewhat up come up with a policy that tries to get the Russians to go back to those principles?

And I think that is the key question because today there is no more agreement on the rules of the game in European security. We talk the talk of cooperative security, but we’re sliding back into geopolitical competition. Institutions like NATO and EU are weak. The consensus that drove EU and NATO enlargement in the outreach to Russia is fragmenting. The OSCE is paralyzed because of the lack of agreement on what it’s all about.

So we’ve all moved on, and we’re all focused on the problems beyond Europe – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East. But I think you’re starting to see the first cracks and fissures in the foundation of European security and stability, and part of my book is a plea to focus on those and to come up with the policies to repair them before they get worse and before Europe really faces a much more serious risk of instability.

Unfortunately, this was pretty good forecast of where we are now.

When Germany was reunified, it was expected to play a key role in the reshaping of Europe into a global power.  The soft power side of European influence is clearly threatened with the deepening of the Euro Crisis and with a shrewd chess player like Putin playing on that crisis to redraw the European map, not just once but twice in the past few years.

German leadership has insisted that there is no military solution in Ukraine, but that only misses the core point.  Hard power – including that provided by Germany – is essential to ensure that map rewriting stops with Crimea.  Germany has the capacity by itself or working with NATO or working with “Europeans” who have talked more about European defense than having created it to reinforce the defense of Poland and the Baltic states.

It can be understood why Germany did not want to participate in the Libyan operation.  But if there is no deployable and useable Germany military capability to defend its interests in Poland and the Baltics, then this is really the end of NATO.  If the largest and wealthiest country in Europe cannot invest in the air and naval power, which can reinforce Poland and the Baltics, then we really are at a dramatic turning point in European history.

With regard to the current crisis, Germany, Norway, Denmark, France and the UK could undertake the reinforcement of the Baltic States by exercising an integrated air-naval force to make clear to the Russians, that the inclusion of the Baltic states is not a candidate for Russian map makers.  And exercises now can be used as templates for doing their own version of something like the Bold Alligator exercises but in delivering support to the Baltic states when it might matter.  And this process could encourage the kind of cross cutting integration and modernization of European forces which are central in the period ahead.

And working Norwegian, Danish, UK, French and German integration to support the Balts can prepare the ground for dealing with the Arctic as well, an area of increasing significance in the decade ahead.

With regard to Poland, the integration of air and missile defense systems within and around Europe and the ability to rapidly deploy airpower could be emphasized.  Here again Europe can take a leading role with the USAF and USN in a support role.  Clearly, a state like Italy can play a major role here with Germany, France, and the UK as well.

By highlighting a European leadership role, Putin would get the point, that it is not just about beating the US on the chessboard or his judgments about the relative weakness of any particular administration. By a small number of European states working more closely together, the US role can be augmented as a force multiplier capability, rather than a force that needs to show up every time to deter the Russians.

Putin is clearly playing a game of chess here.  No credible response by Germany to defend Europe’s interest will be a statement beyond that of Crimea taking back the “gift” of Crimea to Ukraine made in 1954 by then leader of the Soviet Union, soon to be UN-shoe pounding Nikita Khrushchev.

The point of German unification by the partners of Germany was not about enhancing the wealth of Germany; it was about enabling a people to play their proper role in history. 

Putin’s actions clearly challenge them, and to correct the Secretary of State, this is not about the 19th century it is about the decade ahead.

Another key element of a proper response to the Russian gambit has been suggested by VICE ADMIRAL (Retired) SABATIÉ-GARAT  a former French naval officer with many years of diplomatic experience dealing with the EU and NATO:

Putin is playing chess, but seating on a worm-eaten chair. Despite his fifteen years long stronghold on Russia, V. Putin didn’t really succeed in transforming Russia in a prosperous economy, attracting enough for its “near abroad”.

Russia is more or less behaving like a big emirate, with most of its oil and gas revenues fleeing abroad, and struggling with highly inefficient companies like Gazprom. Therefore V. Putin needs external successes, with Duma’s standing ovations.

But he needs as well European know-how in many fields, without hurting his nationalist pride. Here is what EU needs to understand. The way Russia has been left aside from the very beginning of the Syrian affair, and then pointed at as defending a bloodthirsty despot, was politically correct for European public opinion. It was neither realistic nor efficient keeping in mind that nobody wants Islamic extremists funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to rule Syria, and knowing that, due to its long presence in Syria, Russia is the only player to be in a position to find out an acceptable political solution while preserving its own interests in the region.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian crisis, like the 2008 Georgian crisis was, has not been included in a comprehensive bargain leading to a real strategic dialogue.

Thus at every crack of his worm-eaten chair, V. Putin is tempted by a new chess move, easily disguised in a helpful answer to oppressed Russian minorities.

But at each new move the chess game is evolving towards a more dangerous poker game. Without a clear strategic vision and a common will to implement it, EU won’t be able to prevent the next move, be it in the Donbas or in the Baltic countries.

Editor’s Note: The new German defense minister seems especially interested in reinforcing the German defense role and the government appears to be moving up their game.

According to a piece in the EU Observer by Andrew Rettman published on March 31, 2014:

Germany has said its air force is ready to increase security on Nato’s border with Russia, despite Moscow’s promise not to escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

A German defence ministry spokeswoman told the Reuters news agency on Sunday (30 March) “the army could take part in flights to patrol airspace with Awacs machines [surveillance planes] over Romania and Poland as well as training flights in the framework of a Nato air policing mission over Baltic states”.

The statement comes after Denmark and the US in the past few weeks agreed to send more than a dozen extra F-16 fighter jets to the region.

It also comes after the Pentagon, on Friday, told Nato’s military chief, US general Philip Breedlove, to return from Washington to the Nato HQ in Brussels. 

Its spokesman said the move “does not foreshadow imminent military action in Ukraine”. But he added that “lack of transparency” and “growing uncertainty” over Russia’s mobilisation of tens of thousands of troops on Ukrainian borders merits caution.

Russia has not made any explicit threats to former Communist or former Soviet countries in the Nato alliance.

But Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s speech on 18 March, in which he promised to protect ethnic Russians abroad, has raised concerns he could stir up trouble among Russian minorities in Baltic states. 

A clear statement of the new phase of the Russian relationship to the West was made in a recent article by Fyodor Lukyanov, Ogonyok magazine and published on Mar 26, 2014:

This reluctance of the West to stare the facts in the face is because, ever since the late 1980s, Europe and U.S. have become used to Moscow always leaving room for compromise, no matter how loudly it initially protested. And relations themselves with the West have always been valued and worth protecting.

That was the case even at moments of heightened tension — for example, in 1999, when Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov ordered his plane above the Atlantic to turn back on news of the bombing of Yugoslavia, and in 2008, when Russian tanks rolled through the Roksky tunnel to protect South Ossetia from Tbilisi’s attempts to “restore constitutional order.”

Now Russia is acting regardless of the costs, which renders the previous model of relations with its leading Western partners obsolete. But that means its relations with the East, too, need to change, since the global system is closely interconnected…..

Let’s start with the main world power — the United States. All this conflict has confirmed the old adage: If you don’t want to engage in foreign policy, it will engage with you. Barack Obama’s administration reacted sluggishly to the Ukrainian crisis, and for a long time limited itself to general exhortations and gestures by keen promoters of democratic values, such as Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland….

Europe is in the opposite position. It has already demonstrated to the world its total political failure as an international player, and its economic interdependence with Russia is great. The Old World may be among the main losers from the crisis. Under pressure from the U.S., which is annoyed by the EU’s incapacity, it may have to impose sanctions against Moscow that are mutually disadvantageous and harmful to sections of its own economy, while also picking up the tab for saving Ukraine from collapse.

The EU’s ambitions of self-sufficiency are likely to be buried eventually as it returns under the wing of the U.S., which will consolidate the arrangements on transatlantic trade and investment partnership on its own terms. Especially at risk is Germany, for which the Ukrainian crisis marked not only the country’s debut as a political leader, but also its role as Europe’s frontman.

The mere fact that a power of this caliber, used to a shadow role, was forced to act as the mouthpiece of the anti-Russian campaign shows that the EU mechanism works very inefficiently.