Key German leaders want to end sanctions against Russia. Such a decision might seem like a minor piece of economic news, but it could be the beginning of a major break between Europe and America and the separation of Germany from the Western security alliance.
European sanctions on Russia are up for renewal in July. The European Union and the United States imposed the sanctions after Russia invaded Crimea in March 2014. The plan was to keep the sanctions in place until the Minsk Protocol, a protocol aimed at ending the fighting in Ukraine, was fully implemented.
But with little to no progress on the Minsk agreement, some leaders in Germany want to end the sanctions. On May 31, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested ending the sanctions “step-by-step,” rather than waiting for Minsk to be completed.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel holds the same opinion. Reporting on a speech that Gabriel gave to German and Russian business leaders recently, Spiegelwrote:
He says that Russia has recently shown that it can be a reliable partner and mentions the nuclear deal with Iran as an example. He says that Russia and the world are dependent on each other—and that the time has come for a step-by-step easing of sanctions.
Spiegel also reported that, “behind the scenes,” the German government “has long since developed concrete plans for a step-by-step easing of the sanctions against Russia and that the process could begin as early as this year.”
Gabriel and Steinmeier are on the political left of Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the right has also been making the same call. Last year, Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer, leader of Ms. Merkel’s sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU),demanded the end of European economic sanctions and called for a better relationship with Russia. “The question needs to be asked: Do we want to continue the sanctions for an unlimited period of time?” he said. “Or is it time to talk about it?” (Trumpet translation throughout).
Seehofer, along with Honorary CSU Chairman Edmund Stoiber, has visited Russian President Vladimir Putin despite the sanctions.
Nor is Germany the only nation thinking this way. Other nations have also taken an economic hit due to the sanctions. “It’s no secret that several countries within the EU are skeptical,” Steinmeier said. Countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy also support an easing of sanctions.
Despite the sanctions, Germany has been improving its relations with Russia in important ways. The two nations are building a second gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea—despite opposition from America and most of the EU. Once built, Germany will be able to transport 80 percent of Russia’s Europe-bound gas. Germany’s business relationship with Russia has continued in other ways as well.
The current sanctions regime is not working for Germany; its economy is affected both directly (in terms of lost business with Russia) and indirectly (the countries in the eurozone that Germany sells to are poorer because their economies are also hurt by the sanctions). The German economy depends on exports, so the sanctions have hit it where it is most vulnerable.
An escalation in conflict with Russia is also more likely. “The European Union is sufficiently fragile to frighten Germany,” wrote George Friedman for Geopolitical Futures. “A confrontation between Europe and Russia would likely shatter the EU.”
In addition to all this, Russian and German interests overlap in every major crisis facing Europe. Russia has deep links to Cyprus and Greece and could dramatically help, or hinder, Europe’s approach to its financial crisis. Its links to Syria and the Assad regime give Russia a huge influence in the migrant crisis.
The trouble is, as Friedman explained, ending the confrontation with Russia would put Germany at odds with America. He pointed out that “on the list of other things—far more important than eastern Ukrainian autonomy—that Russia would want to revise is the growing U.S. presence in the Baltics, Poland and Romania.”
Friedman believes that a compromise between Russia and America is highly unlikely. Russia wants U.S. forces out of the area and a guarantee that Ukraine will not be drawn into the Western security alliance. But America does not trust Russia to stick to an agreement once American troops are gone. “The U.S. deployment of troops in the region has made getting rid of sanctions far more difficult and has turned the sanctions into a side issue,” wrote Friedman.
“[T]he only other option for Germany is to find another means to balance the Russians and Americans,” he continued.
If Germany sticks to its usual post-war role and takes a back seat to America, then the hostility with Russia will continue. “The normal strategy for Germany is to do nothing. But doing nothing, in this case, means allowing a set of destabilizing forces to undermine core German interests,” wrote Friedman.
Given German economic vulnerability at the moment, the Americans can destabilize the foundations of Germany. Therefore, it makes sense for Germany, playing the balance of power in Europe as Britain did in the 19th century, to reach out to Russia. Russia can counterbalance the Americans and would welcome German economic activity in the country, given its weakened economy.
As Germany mulls breaking from America over sanctions, Europe is seriously considering a European defense union, a NATO without America. NATO sources have been complaining to the press that France is losing interest in NATO while it tries to set up its own European defense alliance. The New York Times wrote, “France is reverting to its traditional skepticism toward the alliance, which it sees as an instrument of American policy and an infringement on its sovereignty.”
Germany supports France’s push for this new alliance. Such an alliance would be essential if Germany were to break with America over Russia. To draw closer to Russia without alienating Poland, the Baltics or other central European states nervous about Russia’s rise, Germany needs some way of reassuring these countries.
French President François Hollande has been explicit about his goal to end Europe’s military dependence on America. “Let’s not rely on another power, even a friendly one, to do away with terrorism,” he told Germany’s Bild newspaper.
Of course, a German end to the sanctions is not a forgone conclusion. Chancellor Merkel is one of the most Russo-skeptic leaders in Germany. Despite what her lieutenants are saying, she has given no sign that she’s in favor of scaling back the sanctions. But leaders on both her left and right are pro-Russian. It may require a new chancellor, but an open rapprochement between Germany and Russia is coming.
The fact that Germany’s leaders are considering a break with the U.S. at the same time that Europe is working on an American-free defense union is significant. As Friedman wrote back in 2008, there is the potential for major change here (emphasis added):
All of this is not to say that Berlin is about to flip on the West. It has time to mull its decision. The point is that Germany is not the solid rock of NATO and the European Union that the West assumes it is. Russia’s recent actions mean that history is catching up with the Germans and that a choice will eventually come. Everything depends on Berlin’s choice between maintaining its dependence on the United States or flipping the entire balance structure in Europe by striking a deal with Russia. Berlin has been itching to reassert itself as a real and unbound power on the Continent once again. … Berlin’s choice will shape the future of Europe and possibly the world.
The easing of sanctions and talk of a European defense union are still in the early stages, but we could be seeing the beginning of this geopolitical shift.
Great Britain and the U.S. promoted the formation of the European Union in order to provide a counterbalance to Soviet Russia. But if the EU allies with Russia, the whole idea will have backfired. Otto von Bismarck once revealed the key for a successful Europe: “The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.” Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, foreign affairs editor of Chronicles magazine, explained in an interview:
The only ones who are chronically terrified of a German-Russian understanding are invariably the maritime powers. In the 19th century, the British tried to prevent the rise of an emerging superpower on the Continent, such as a German-Russian alliance. Looking at the British Empire and its naval bases, one is struck by how the Eurasian heartland was effectively surrounded.
Prior to Bismarck, Napoleon Bonaparte tried to ally himself with Russia to cut Britain off from supplies. Later in World War II, the Hitler-Stalin Pact was made to bring an axis victory to the wars in the West.
America may simply follow along with whatever Germany wants, even scaling back sanctions in order to prevent a breach. A skillful German leader may be able patch things up with Russia, while delaying a break with the U.S. But a German-American schism is coming.
For more on the future of German-Russian relations, read Trumpet editor in chiefGerald Flurry’s article “Watch Germany!” And for more on Germany’s relationship with America, read “The Significance of Germany’s Break From America.”