September 27, 2021
Much depends globally on Germany and who will replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor. It appears that three political parties will be required to form a coalition, a process that will take two or three months. During this time the country will be in limbo and it may be Christmas before the next leader of the Federal Republic of Germany is chosen.
For 16 years, Merkel has been Europe’s most dominant figure and Germany remains the continent’s economic powerhouse, generating one-fifth of its total GDP. She has been lionized as a leader devoted to cohesion, prosperity, and consensus-building. But Germans have a different view. Her party struggled in this election and she has left behind a mess for Europeans to deal with due to one reason: Her inexplicable capitulation to Vladimir Putin for years.
Merkel’s first major blunder was the unilateral decision to take in one million Syrian refugees, thus opening up a floodgate of millions more who illegally invaded Germany’s neighbors and causing massive social, economic, and political dislocation and damage. This tsunami was due in large measure to Russia’s support for the Butcher of Damascus, but no condemnations or severe sanctions were directed at the Kremlin or Putin from Berlin. Likewise, no commensurate denunciations or punishments were leveled against Putin following the evacuation to Germany from Russia of Alexei Navalny where it was determined that he had been poisoned.
For years, she has unflaggingly supported Putin’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. It was obviously a weapon posing as a piece of infrastructure, but has been finished and awaits commissioning by regulators in Germany. But its existence has already plunged the European Union, NATO, and the United States into a crisis that threatens the survival of Europe’s geographically largest nation, Ukraine, if not the European Union itself.
Her complicity with the Butcher of Moscow is strange in a country as guilt-ridden as Germany and given the fact that the greatest tragedy in world history occurred in 1939 when a Russian and German leader collaborated to invade the countries between them. For these and other reasons, their coupling has always been very odd – the unflappable German frau and a charmless and ruthless KGB agent with a nuclear arsenal.
Of course, there are commonalities. Putin speaks flawless German and both lived most of their lives under Soviet domination. But Merkel was also outflanked by Putin who co-opted her arch-rival, former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, with lots of cash, titles, and positions. Schroder heads the Nord Stream 2 pipeline scheme, was the director of Russia’s Gazprom, and is now chair of its oil giant, Rosneft. He’s become very wealthy and, according to Navalny, is Putin’s “errand boy”.
Merkel’s pipeline support flouted Brussels, where 26 members voted to stop the pipeline, then led her to squander Germany’s political capital in Washington where she convinced President Joe Biden to waive Congressional sanctions that would have stopped the project. By so doing, she also ignored the U.S. Congress which wanted it stopped, NATO objections, security red flags, EU anti-trust laws which forbid the pipeline to be owned by Russia, and most of all, Putin’s mobilization of troops around Ukraine and published intention to grab the 93 percent of Ukraine he failed to conquer in 2014.
Merkel’s submissiveness to Putin has enabled him to outplay everyone in his geopolitical chess game, placing the West “in zugzwang” which is a German word used by chess masters, that describes when an opponent cannot make any move without worsening his or her situation. That’s the state of play right now. The next de facto leader of Europe, a new Chancellor of Germany, won’t be named until winter sets in, making Europe desperate for Russian natural gas. In anticipation of this, Putin throttled back on gas supplies months ago to jam up prices and drive down the volume of gas in storage in order to put pressure on the Germans to hook up the pipeline, which is now facing court battles in Germany.
Furthermore, Ukraine has become Putin’s de facto hostage because Merkel has objected to Ukraine’s entry into NATO, despite its valiant and costly eight-year-old war against Russia on Europe’s easternmost flank. Putin has ignored demands by the U.S. to withdraw forces surrounding Ukraine. And Germany’s promise to the United States that it will prevent Russia from weaponizing gas, given that Moscow is doing this already, would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. Germany’s armed forces, constitutionally, are nothing more than a domestic police force.
This is the ultimate “zugzwang”. Stopping Nord Stream 2 spells disaster for Europe because Russia will cut back supplies even more. Commissioning Nord Stream 2 will allow Russia to invade Ukraine again because its pipelines won’t be needed to deliver Russian gas to Europe. Strategically, Europe is damned if it stops Nord Stream 2 and damned if it doesn’t.
Finally, to top it all off, from the predator’s viewpoint, Germany’s next coalition of three parties guarantees its government will be as dysfunctional and divided as is the European Union’s. Emmanuel Macron, the French President with a powerful military, would love to fill Merkel’s shoes, and frankly, his belief that Europe must spend more on its own defense and be less dependent on the United States is a good idea. But this is not popular in Germany where military spending is miserly and its constitution forbids its armed forces from crossing its borders. So the likely successor, as Chancellor and putative head of Europe, will be the head of Schroder’s socialist party which supports Nord Stream 2 and will alienate all the EU members who were once Soviet satellites.
An Italian official recently described his country’s European dilemma: “we’re closer to Germany than to France, but without all the ambiguities on Russia and China.” By “ambiguities” he meant Merkel’s excessive coziness with Putin, as well as the reality that half of Europe’s trade with China involves Germany.
Fortunately, there are remedies, especially if the Biden Administration realizes it made a mistake in waiving Nord Stream 2 sanctions and in stiff-arming Ukraine from NATO membership. And in the meantime, Ukraine is undertaking sweeping anti-corruption measures to please the U.S. and has enacted civil defense measures and more conscription to repel another attack. Congress, upset at Biden over the pipeline, just resurrected new pipeline sanctions, Turkey and Israel have signed defense agreements with Ukraine, a British warship plies the Black Sea, and America announced new weapons for Ukraine plus a commitment to conduct joint military exercises with Ukraine’s armed forces.
But nothing short of a climbdown by Berlin and Washington from past decisions will stop a potential trainwreck in Europe. Angela Merkel’s acquiescence to Vladimir Putin has left the continent and its relationship with the United States weakened and, despite all the good work she performed, permanently tarnishes her legacy.