BERLIN – Another day, another long table. On Tuesday (15 February), it was the turn of Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, to sit what seemed like a tennis court’s length away from Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, when they met for talks in Moscow.
As some officials from the more hawkish Nato countries never tire of pointing out, Putin’s military build-up near Ukraine has got him some of what he wants without him needing to commit to a course of action.
By moving as many as 150,000 troops to Russia and Belarus’s borders with Ukraine, Putin has obtained meetings with a parade of Western leaders, from the French President, Emmanuel Macron, one week to Scholz the next. Though Western countries have increased their deliveries of military equipment to Ukraine in response to the Russian threat, the war games have also demonstrated to Kyiv that it would be on its own if Russia did invade.
The US is urging its citizens to leave Ukraine while they still can. As Joe Biden, the President, put it in an interview, there is no scenario in which the US would send troops to rescue Americans fleeing the country, still less to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. “That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another.”
So it was with Scholz. The chancellor’s visit to Moscow was yet another opportunity for sceptics to see weakness in Germany’s posture towards Russia, even though Putin has — so far — not committed to war. Since the Ukraine crisis escalated, Germany has been accused of being soft on Moscow, chiefly because it has refused to commit publicly to ditching Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that is all but complete, in the event of a Russian invasion.
“As for the pipeline, everyone knows what the situation is,” Scholz told reporters in Moscow. This is an exaggeration. Scholz has repeatedly refused to say that he would cancel Nord Stream 2, instead leaving the task to Biden, who has said categorically that the pipeline would not go ahead in the event of an invasion. Germany has likely given private assurances to allies, but as long as they are not public they will not much help with perceptions that Berlin is soft on Berlin.
The reasons for this wavering are unclear. Some analysts speak of Germany being on the hook for greater liabilities if it cancels Nord Stream 2 itself, rather than arguing that it was forced into ditching the pipeline by allies.
Another comment from Scholz also caused alarm in some Western capitals and in Ukraine. “The fact is that all involved know that Nato membership for Ukraine is not on the agenda. Everyone must step back a bit here and make it clear to themselves that we just can’t possibly have a military conflict over a question that is not on the agenda,” he told reporters after the meeting.
The comment was not quite the concession to Russia that some characterised it as. Moscow has demanded that Nato pledge that Ukraine never join the alliance, a proposal members of the alliance have so far universally rejected. Scholz was not proposing such a move, but rather pointing out that a war over something all sides know will not happen in the medium term would be not only a disaster but, in his eyes, nonsensical.
Marcel Dirsus, a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in northern Germany, said: “No one is going to take a statement from Scholz in the most charitable way at this moment in time, because Berlin has burned through so much trust with the Americans, central Europeans and Ukrainians. Anything Germany says will be seen in the most negative way possible.”
The irony is that though German policy towards Russia is perceived to be soft in some European capitals, it has become significantly tougher in recent months. As Scholz has hinted but not openly said, Nord Stream 2 will probably be cancelled if Russia invades, a move which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Germany is backing threatened EU sanctions on Russia, despite its heavy reliance on Russian gas. Yet the Chancellor is unlikely to get much credit for the change from allies.