As representatives from at least thirty-two countries met for the NATO summit in the flag-draped Lithuanian capital city, some topics were almost certain to come up. Attendees are discussing Sweden’s membership and F-16 fighter plane training regimes, nuclear threats, and even this month’s record global temperatures. Yet other topics that have lit up discussion in Germany will be studiously avoided — the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines likely among them.
The possibility that the United States was partially or fully responsible for the bombing of the pipelines has been downplayed by diplomats and leaders in both countries. Left-wing German politician Sevim Dağdelen mocked leaders in the Bundestag after the publication of an article on the bombing’s likely American origins by respected journalist Seymour Hersh. After his analysis was largely ignored by German leadership, she remarked:
Maybe we don’t need to jump to the assumption that Federal Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz and Federal Foreign Minister [Annalena] Baerbock wouldn’t even venture out to buy a loaf of bread without first getting permission to do so from the US administration.
The circumstances of the Nord Stream bombing are surely discussed mainly by the edgiest branches of Germany’s left and right, as a source of division in NATO. Yet this is also part of a larger ecosystem of real disagreements between German leaders and NATO counterparts who take a more hawkish line on the war. The number of NATO countries hitting their target of 2 percent of GDP on military spending is up from three in 2014 to seven in 2022, according to the Economist, but even after Scholz’s famous Zeitenwende (“turnaround”) speech promising a stronger military, it’s been a long road to that goal for Germany.
The reluctance by Germans and their leaders — at times including Scholz — to go after Russia comes thanks to both economic and cultural factors. From reliance on Russian oil and natural gas to a history of high-level cooperation between their governments, there are deep, decades-long ties between the countries that even the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only partially severed.
Even since Moscow launched its offensive last February, Berlin has often seemed divided over how much military aid to give Ukraine, with head of government Scholz and Foreign Minister Baerbock sometimes clashing. “The main difference [between the two] seems to regard the speed and breadth of military support,” Ulrich Kühn, who tracks NATO for the University of Hamburg, told Jacobin. “While Scholz often appeared to move rather slowly and after having secured the backing and support of the United States, Baerbock was more outspoken and seemed to push for speedy decisions. Meanwhile, [Defense Minister Boris] Pistorius seems to be willing to accelerate the military dimension of the Zeitenwende by making sure that Germany swiftly meets the 2 percent defense spending goal set by NATO.”
Bearbock’s hawkish approach has at times entered the public spotlight, with the foreign minister stating in January that “we are fighting a war against Russia.” That seeming slip of the tongue may be the most accurate assessment of “a proxy war between the United States (and NATO) against Russia,” Christopher Layne, the Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A&M University, told Jacobin. “Even before Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the United States and NATO were providing Ukraine with arms, training and military advisors. Since the Russian invasion, the United States and NATO greatly ramped their supply of ever-more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine.” Layne adds, “According to the Wall Street Journal, Washington is on the verge of greenlighting the ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) for Ukraine, which would allow Ukraine to strike targets in Crimea.”
Layne says that Baerbock’s Greens have been “extremely hawkish” since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, largely aligning themselves with US interests, and that Scholz has had to accommodate the Greens’ position on the war because of his need to keep his three-party coalition intact.
Layne also mentioned that recent leaks — if vague on details — show that American and NATO special forces troops are on the ground in Ukraine, and that Western countries are feeding both a steady stream of weapons and continuous intelligence to Ukraine’s government.
Layne, along with journalist and former policy analyst Benjamin Schwarz, authored a Harper’s Magazine essay in June that laid out in detail their case that the post-1989 expansion of NATO — starting with Washington’s untruthful assurance to Moscow that NATO would advance “not one inch” east of a unified Germany, and progressing through Western plans in 2014 for the “full integration [of Ukraine] into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions” — has resulted in a bloody and predictable war, which could lead all the way to regime change in Moscow.
Matching Baerbock gaffe for gaffe, US President Joe Biden has been frank about his desire to see a new leader in Russia, stating on the topic of Putin in March 2022 that “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The White House later walked back the statement. What remains unclear is how far this war will go.
Germany provided a record amount of military aid to Ukraine in May. Yet forces on both Left and Right have pushed against involvement in both the Ukraine war and NATO as a whole.
In the eastern state of Thuringia, last month Robert Sesselmann secured the first district election win for the hard-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). This party is today on the rise throughout the eastern part of the country, with opposition to the government’s foreign policy key to its agenda. One of the parts of Sesselmann’s platform was a demand for an end to sanctions on Moscow and a call for negotiations.
The opposition to supporting Ukraine is surely not only on the hard right. At the head of a thirteen-thousand-person Berlin rally protesting NATO in February was Sahra Wagenknecht. She had come to prominence in the early 1990s, espousing a combination of Marxist thought and populist hues, and from 2015 became parliamentary cochair of left-wing party Die Linke. But today she is sending a message of her own.
“You can clearly see that the Ukrainian leadership has a clear strategy,” Wagenknecht told German magazine Focus earlier this year. “They want to draw NATO into this war.” On this and other issues, Wagenknecht has entered into conflict with Die Linke. She was declared persona non grata by its leadership in June, and she quickly reciprocated the lack of love, calling the party a “lifestyle-left” and openly mooted creating a new party. Polling suggests that such a force could be relatively successful. Yet, many pundits worry that it would pander to right-wing sentiments on certain topics, aligning her with disaffected members of the AfD.
Accusations of the isolationist Wagenknecht being in bed with neo-Nazis have tended to be nonspecific — as in an April Washington Post piece heavy on links between the far right and Russia, but light on actual links between Russia and her followers. She has repeatedly laughed off the idea of a rightward turn, and Ed Turner, who teaches at Aston University, told Jacobin that this would be more like a “welfare chauvinist” party.
“I think it would be very comfortable with a strong state, high levels of taxation, high levels of intervention in the economy and high levels of welfare,” he added, saying that the main outlier in the platform could be hostility to immigration, possibly alongside vaccine skepticism and opposition to support for Ukraine. Wagenknecht’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.
Whether she successfully starts a new party or not, Wagenknecht — along with the AfD and others on the edges of the political spectrum — taps into deep discontent in the former East. It’s a dissatisfaction that has in recent decades moved many voters in the region from the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats and into the ranks of the AfD and Die Linke, from which Wagenknecht would be likely to pull her supporters.
Germany’s eastern federal states tend to be poorer and provide less upward mobility than their western counterparts, with many older easterners viewing the 1990 reunification as more of a takeover of the East by the West. People from the former West still hold most leadership positions in large German institutions, and many of the East’s universal social services are now lacking.
For Turner, it’s thus no surprise that the Nord Stream bombing and the debate over weapons have fueled arguments among Germans about whether their country should be stepping up military spending. The academic describes the representation of “isolationists” in public polls as significant and growing. While gas politics have played a smaller role in Germans’ approach to NATO than some predicted at the start of the war, the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline has left marks on both public consciousness in Germany and life in Europe as a whole.
It was a tough winter for many. In Germany’s eastern neighbor, the Czech Republic, some citizens had already been swapping out meat for vegetables by autumn to save energy, facing electricity prices tenfold what they had been before the war. According to the Economist, expensive energy may have killed more people in Europe than COVID-19 last winter.
Likewise, a lack of Ukrainian grain exports has increased food prices from Hamburg to Nairobi, with price changes causing complex displacements of sourcing options all over Eurasia. Russian blockades are largely responsible for the ups and downs in grain supplies.
Germany’s energy-hungry industrial sector has also not been immune. The country was able to complete liquified natural gas terminals in a dizzying ten months after the pipeline bombing — blamed alternatingly on Ukraine, Russia, and the United States, depending on who’s talking. But the EU’s largest economy has nonetheless officially dipped into a recession.
Efforts have been made to take things back to normal.
China this spring offered to help settle the conflict, but Western governments — not least German foreign minister Baerbock — keep pushing to continue the war until it is “won.” Even earlier, Western leaders may have scuttled a 2022 attempt at a peace deal.
For Layne, there is a real risk of further escalation, with “complacency” over the last near-century of nuclear taboo leading Western leaders toward a “very dangerous line of thinking” in which no possible escalation is viewed as likely to cause nuclear conflict.
Even given Russia’s perceived lack of response to Western support for Ukraine, it would be wrong to be so sanguine about the risks of pushing Russia into a corner.
Repeated Russian requests for a security guarantee in 2021 and early 2022 were dismissed over and over and over by Western diplomats as a “nonstarter” — only for it to react explosively. An insistence by Germany and its allies on a “win” and a nuclear-umbrellaed Ukraine would back Russia into a dangerous position, Layne and Schwarz write. This could create a situation roughly equivalent to the quandary the United States ran into during the Cuban missile crisis — one that could have easily resulted in escalation if the USSR hadn’t stood down.
This time, things may not be so lucky. The Russian government has already explicitly threatened to engage in a preemptive nuclear strike if NATO nuclear weapons are placed in Ukraine. For many older people in Berlin, who still have memories of waiting for one side or other — either side — to drop a bomb that would wipe out both parts of the divided city, this makes the need for a negotiated settlement feel especially urgent.
Kühn says that factors including the recent Wagner rebellion mean that it’s “far from clear” how the war might end. But he also insists that it would be wrong to take the mutiny as a sign that Putin is about to be ousted. So, Western leaders may still be well served by a plan for a settlement.
An agreement of any type would be likely to involve a demand by Russia for a promise of Ukrainian neutrality. That could seem like a big ask, after more than a year at war. Precedent for such an arrangement can, however, found elsewhere in Europe — in Austria, where the government has since World War II been constitutionally mandated to avoid involvement in any military alliances.
Austria adopted neutrality as part of its post-1945 reconstruction at the demand of the Soviet Union. Far from threatening the safety of the country, this constitutionally guaranteed military neutrality is viewed by many Austrians as a core part of their national identity: a 2022 poll found that just 14 percent of Austrians supported the idea of joining NATO, with 75 percent opposed. This March, legislators in Vienna from the hard-right Freedom Party walked out of a speech by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in protest at the idea that the country might lose its neutrality.
“Austrians like to pick the raisins from the [European Union] cake, but they prefer not to be involved when it comes to unpleasant topics such as joining NATO or a European alliance,” Institut für Demoskopie und Datenanalyse director Christoph Haselmayer told Austrian newspaper Der Standard last year, presaging what could be a future Ukrainian approach to avoiding military alliances if a negotiated settlement is ever reached.
Germany, for its part, has moved in the other direction since Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech in 2022. There is nothing like an EU army — and the closest thing that does exist, the militarized European border enforcement organization Frontex, is more likely to be mounting illegal migrant pushbacks than defending against foreign soldiers. Rather, Berlin’s role is much more likely to be as a junior partner in NATO. Defense Minister Pistorius has been vocal about recommitting to working with the US military establishment, which already involved significant weapons exports, augmenting American exports that are now scheduled to include cluster munitions, which are outlawed in Germany and controversial among pundits. The country recently released its first public national security strategy, which lists Russia as the country’s primary threat and urges continued military buildup.
Such pushes worry German antiwar activists like Karl-Heinz Peil, who told Jacobin that Germany’s leadership, pushed along by uncritical media coverage, is willing to allow “economic decline with dramatic social disruptions” in order to militarize. Ultimately, though, their opinions are unlikely to produce significant change, as despite being the EU’s largest economy, Germany is largely forced to follow the US lead. Analyst Schwarz says that this is US “leadership” instead of a real “partnership.”
Dağdelen is less diplomatic. For her, Germany’s role has “no democratic sovereignty in sight,” she comments by email to Jacobin. “And the United States seems not to acknowledge any allies, just vassals.”