STUTTGART, Germany — When Polish lawmaker Witold Waszczykowski sees unrest on his country’s eastern flank in Ukraine and with it renewed fears of a resurgent Russian menace, he says he can’t help but also worry about what lies to Warsaw’s west: Germany.
“This is a decisive moment for Europe and NATO, but unfortunately we’ve been seeing strange things out of Germany,” said Waszczykowski, a member of Poland’s parliament, a former diplomat and adviser to the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński.
In the face of a more militarily assertive Russia and a push by the eastern European members of NATO for a firm response, Germany — the economic powerhouse of Europe — has been paralyzed by soul searching as it grapples with its deeply anti-military stance born of its crushing defeat in World War II, its more recent history as a divided nation half ruled by the Soviet Union, and its strong economic and energy ties to Russia.
That, analysts say, has exposed fissures in the 28-member NATO alliance at a time when it needs to show a strong, united front — both to deter Russia from further encroachment toward NATO’s outer borders and to reassure the eastern Europe members of the alliance who are fearful of such a scenario.
“If Germany can’t be counted on, how can we expect anything meaningful from others in Europe?” Waszczykowski asked. “I worry other countries will follow the pattern of Germany.”
How Germany responds could have long-term implications for a NATO alliance still coming to terms with a new security paradigm on the Continent.
“In the end, no matter how you twist or turn, the crucial player in all of this is Germany,” said Jan Techau, an expert on German foreign and security policy at the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels. “It is the one country in Europe that needs to stand firm, but the Germans are just not as firmly committed to a strong European defense posture as they should be, and this is a long-term strategic problem.”
In response to the crisis in Ukraine, German leaders have seen themselves as a sort of bridge between east and west, willing to go along with some moves against Russia but not to the extent that they damage its overall ties with Moscow. That position is increasingly being scrutinized inside Germany as more questions emerge about the long-term consequences of what could be perceived as a capitulation to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Many Germans have indulged Russia thus far,” stated a recent editorial in the influential German magazine Der Spiegel. “It seemed as though a Cold War desire for equidistance had returned in recent weeks, the yearning for a neutral position between the West and the East. With all due respect for Russia and its interests, however, Germany belongs to the West, to the other democracies — even if the positions of the United States are sometimes difficult for Germans to swallow.”
As a result of “German wobbliness” allies in the east, such as Poland, are getting ever more anxious about whether Europe has the stomach to stand up to Russia, Techau said.
“This is a strategic death trap,” Techau said. “In order to get out of it, the Germans need to do the thing they instinctively don’t want to do and that is be more robust.”
The roots of German ambivalence are as varied as they are deep, ranging from contemporary economic concerns to the crippling effects of its Nazi past, analysts say.
“It’s much deeper than commercial interest,” Techau said. “There’s a deep distrust in self and a strong desire to not do the wrong thing. This idea of ‘let’s just stay out of it’ catered to the need of the Germans to stay morally clean after World War II.”
“The Germans don’t have the confidence that, in the end, they are on the right side of things,” Techau added. “Britain, France and the U.S. have this confidence bred into their DNA. The Germans are paralyzed.”
Recent opinion polls in Germany point to a general ambivalence about how it should contend with the West’s conflict with Russia. In March, an opinion survey in Germany by Infratest/dimap found that 49 percent of Germans said they wanted the country to stake out a neutral position between the West and Russia when it comes to managing the Ukrainian crisis. Only 45 percent of people preferred a position rooted on the side of the West.
“Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, German society may well be drifting away from the West again,” wrote Clemens Wergin, a prominent German journalist in a New York Times Op-ed, titled ‘Why Germans loves Russia.’ “This anti-Westernism is coming from both sides of the political spectrum.”
During the Cold War, West German leaders promoted Ostpolitik, the notion that negotiating with the Soviets brought more tangible benefits, such as relaxed visits to East Germany and inter-German trade. Some of today’s leaders were schooled in that era, as were those from the former East Germany, who were pro-Soviet at the time.
While Germany is conflicted over its relationship with the west, Poland — a repeated victim of German and Russian land grabs and aggression that dates back hundreds of years and under the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War — has firmly aligned itself with its western allies. In an historical twist, it now seems to hunger for German leadership.
“Today, I fear German power less than I do German inaction,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in a memorable 2011 speech in Berlin that focused on the need for stronger German leadership in Europe.
As the crisis in Ukraine simmers along and new concerns grow over the potential for Russian aggression and political meddling in other areas — another former Soviet republic, Moldova, has a breakaway region seeking union with Russia, and the Baltics also were once under the Soviet umbrella, — weakness out of Germany could undermine long-term security interests in a more unpredictable Europe, analysts say.
Those security interests also are critical for the U.S., which has been closely monitoring how Germany and other European allies respond to Russia’s new threats. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel bluntly observed that the notion of permanent peace in Europe is over and that allies must commit more to their own defense.
In an interview earlier this month with Defense One, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, said NATO must stand with its allies in the east. “I think the crisis in Ukraine is causing NATO to look back to its own backyard, and forcing it to decide whether it still has the capability and capacity to reassure its member states — especially those Eastern countries that embraced NATO as it enlarged in the 1990s — that the alliance remains credible,” Dempsey said.
Techau said Germany needs to commit to reassurance and deterrence, “which it hasn’t wanted to touch.”
When the U.S. dispatched paratroops from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team to conduct training missions across Poland and the Baltics after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Germany should have matched the effort, Techau said.
“They should have sent in troops. These are the kind of reassuring gestures that cost little and would be very seen and noted by those in Poland and the United States, as well as Russia,” he said.
While Germany has taken part in some efforts — a German minesweeper recently patrolled through the Baltic Sea — such commitments have been limited.
In Poland, longtime German watchers such as Waszczykowski say the lack of action by Germany fuels suspicions about its commitment to allies.
And when Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski recently urged NATO to send two heavy brigades of troops to his country as part of an eastward realignment of forces, Waszczykowski points out, the idea was shot down by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who made public statements that such a move would be a violation of agreements between NATO and Russia.
“It was Steinmeier who answered that this is impossible,” he said.
Russia maintains that any substantial deployment of NATO forces into eastern Europe would be a violation of the 1997 Founding Act between NATO and Moscow, which puts limitations on troop deployments in the east. But some NATO allies argue Russia voided the agreement with it’s annexation of Crimea.
Germany isn’t alone in the desire not to push too hard on Russia, a major natural gas supplier to Europe. France, for example, has announced it will press forward with long-planned military contracts with Moscow, despite U.S. opposition. While the U.S. has pushed for tougher sanctions, Europe has generally balked.
But it is the deeper, long-standing German ambivalence about confronting threats now in Europe’s backyard that have rattled some allies. Where will Germany stand if unrest in Ukraine, much of which involves pro-Russian masked gunmen, starts to ripple to other places with large Russian populations?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Waszczykowski said. “I do know it is easier to deter aggression than to fight the aggressor. This is a crucial time.”