This article was
first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the world’s
leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to St. Petersburg last week for meetings with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The central question on the table was Germany’s position on NATO expansion,
particularly with regard to Ukraine and Georgia. Merkel made it clear
at a joint press conference that Germany would oppose NATO membership
for both of these countries, and that it would even oppose placing the
countries on the path to membership. Since NATO operates on the basis
of consensus, any member nation can effectively block any candidate
from NATO membership.
The fact that Merkel and Germany have chosen this path is of great significance.
Merkel acted in full knowledge of the U.S. view on the matter and is
prepared to resist any American pressure that might follow. It should
be remembered that Merkel might be the most pro-American politician in
Germany, and perhaps its most pro-American chancellor in years.
Moreover, as an East German, she has a deep unease about the Russians.
Reality, however, overrode her personal inclinations. More than other
countries, Germany does not want to alienate the United States. But it
is in a position to face American pressure should any come.
Energy Dependence and Defense Spending
In one sense, Merkel’s reasons for her stance are simple. Germany is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas.
If the supply were cut off, Germany’s situation would be desperate — or
at least close enough that the distinction would be academic. Russia
might decide it could not afford to cut off natural gas exports, but
Merkel is dealing with a fundamental German interest, and risking that
for Ukrainian or Georgian membership in NATO is not something she is
prepared to do.
She can’t bank on Russian caution in a matter such as this, particularly when the Russians seem to be in an incautious mood. Germany is, of course, looking to alternative sources of energy
for the future, and in five years its dependence on Russia might not be
nearly as significant. But five years is a long time to hold your
breath, and Germany can’t do it.
The German move is not just about natural gas, however. Germany
views the U.S. obsession with NATO expansion as simply not in Germany’s
First, expanding NATO guarantees to Ukraine and Georgia
is meaningless. NATO and the United States don’t have the military
means to protect Ukraine or Georgia, and incorporating them into the
alliance would not increase European security. From a military
standpoint, NATO membership for the two former Soviet republics is an
empty gesture, while from a political standpoint, Berlin sees it as
designed to irritate the Russians for no clear purpose.
Next, were NATO prepared to protect Ukraine and Georgia, all NATO
countries including Germany would be forced to increase defense
expenditures substantially. This is not something that Germany and the
rest of NATO want to do.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Germany spent 1945-1992 being
the potential prime battleground of the Cold War. It spent 1992-2008
not being the potential prime battleground. Germany prefers the latter,
and it does not intend to be drawn into a new Cold War under any circumstances. This has profound implications for the future of both NATO and U.S.-German relations.
Germany is thus in the midst of a strategic crisis
in which it must make some fundamental decisions. To understand the
decisions Germany has to make, we need to understand the country’s
geopolitical problem and the decisions it has made in the past.
The German Geopolitical Problem
Until 1871, Germany was fragmented into dozens of small states —
kingdoms, duchies, principalities, etc. — comprising the remnants of
the Holy Roman Empire. The German-speaking world was torn apart by
internal tensions and the constant manipulation of foreign powers.
The southeastern part of the German-speaking world, Austria, was the
center of the multinational Hapsburg Empire. It was Roman Catholic and
was continually intruding into the predominantly Catholic regions of
the rest of Germany, particularly Bavaria. The French were constantly
poaching in the Rhineland and manipulating the balance of power among
the German states. Russia was always looming to the east, where it
bordered the major Protestant German power, Prussia. (Poland at the
time was divided among Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary.) Germany
was perpetually the victim of great powers, a condition which Prussia
spent the roughly half-century between Waterloo and German unification
trying to correct.
To unify Germany, Prussia had to do more than dominate the Germans.
It had to fight two wars. The first was in 1866 with the Hapsburg
Empire, which Prussia defeated in seven weeks, ending Hapsburg
influence in Germany and ultimately reducing Austria-Hungary to
Germany’s junior partner. The second war was in 1870-1871, when Prussia
led a German coalition that defeated France. That defeat ended French
influence in the Rhineland and gave Prussia the space in which to
create a modern, unified Germany. Russia, which was pleased to see both
Austria-Hungary and France defeated and viewed a united Germany as a
buffer against another French invasion, did not try to block
German unification changed the dynamic of Europe. First, it created
a large nation in the heart of Europe between France and Russia.
United, Germany was economically dynamic, and its growth outstripped
that of France and the United Kingdom. Moreover, it became a naval
power, developing a substantial force that at some point could
challenge British naval hegemony. It became a major exporting power,
taking markets from Britain and France. And in looking around for room
to maneuver, Germany began looking east toward Russia. In short,
Germany was more than a nation — it was a geopolitical problem.
Germany’s strategic problem was that if the French and Russians
attacked Germany simultaneously, with Britain blockading its ports,
Germany would lose and revert to its pre-1871 chaos. Given French,
Russian and British interest in shattering Germany, Germany had to
assume that such an attack would come. Therefore, since the Germans
could not fight on two fronts simultaneously, they needed to fight a
war pre-emptively, attacking France or Russia first, defeating it and
then turning their full strength on the other — all before Britain’s
naval blockade could begin to hurt. Germany’s only defense was a
two-stage offense that was as complex as a ballet, and would be
catastrophic if it failed.
In World War I, executing the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans attacked
France first while trying to simply block the Russians. The plan was to
first occupy the channel coast and Paris before the United Kingdom
could get into the game and before Russia could fully mobilize, and
then to knock out Russia. The plan failed in 1914 at the First Battle
of the Marnes, and rather than lightning victory, Germany got bogged
down in a multifront war costing millions of lives and lasting years.
Even so, Germany almost won the war of attrition, causing the United
States to intervene and deprive Berlin of victory.
In World War II, the Germans had learned their lesson, so instead of
trying to pin down Russia, they entered into a treaty with the Soviets.
This secured Germany’s rear by dividing Poland with the Soviet Union.
The Soviets agreed to the treaty, expecting Adolf Hitler’s forces to
attack France and bog down as Germany had in World War I. The Soviets
would then roll West after the bloodletting had drained the rest of
Europe. The Germans stunned the Russians by defeating France in six
weeks and then turning on the Russians. The Russian front turned into
an endless bloodletting, and once again the Americans helped deliver
the final blow.
The consequence of the war was the division of Germany into three
parts — an independent Austria, a Western-occupied West Germany and a
Soviet-occupied East Germany. West Germany again faced the Russian
problem. Its eastern part was occupied, and West Germany could not
possibly defend itself on its own. It found itself integrated into an
American-dominated alliance system, NATO, which was designed to block
the Soviets. West and East Germany would serve as the primary
battleground of any Soviet attack, with Soviet armor facing U.S. armor,
airpower and tactical nuclear weapons. For the Germans, the Cold War
was probably more dangerous than either of the previous wars. Whatever
the war’s outcome, Germany stood a pretty good chance of being
annihilated if it took place.
On the upside, the Cold War did settle Franco-German tensions, which
were half of Germany’s strategic problem. Indeed, one of the
by-products of the Cold War was the emergence of the European Community, which ultimately became the European Union.
This saw German economic union and integration with France, which along
with NATO’s military integration guaranteed economic growth and the end
of any military threat to Germany from the west. For the first time in
centuries, the Rhine was not at risk. Germany’s south was secure, and
once the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no threat from the east,
United and Secure at Last?
For the first time in centuries, Germany was both united and
militarily secure. But underneath it all, the Germans retained their
primordial fear of being caught between France and Russia. Berlin
understood that this was far from a mature reality; it was no more than
a theoretical problem at the moment. But the Germans also understand
how quickly things can change. On one level, the problem was nothing
more than the economic emphasis of the European Union compared to the
geopolitical focus of Russia. But on a deeper level, Germany was, as
always, caught between the potentially competing demands of Russia and
the West. Even if the problem were small now, there were no guarantees
that it wouldn’t grow.
This was the context in which Germany viewed the Russo-Georgian war in August. Berlin saw not only the United States moving toward a hostile relationship with Russia, but also the United Kingdom and France going down the same path.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who happened to hold the rotating EU presidency at the time, went to Moscow to negotiate a cease-fire on behalf of the European Union.
When the Russians seemed unwilling to comply with the terms negotiated,
France became highly critical of Russia and inclined to back some sort
of sanctions at the EU summit on Georgia. With the United Kingdom being
even more adamant, Germany saw a worst-case scenario looming on the
distant horizon: It understood that the pleasant security of the
post-Cold War world was at an end, and that it had to craft a new
From Germany’s point of view, the re-emergence of Russian influence in the former Soviet Union
might be something that could have been blocked in the 1990s, but by
2008, it had become inevitable. The Germans saw that economic relations
in the former Soviet Union — and not only energy issues — created a
complementary relationship between Russia and its former empire.
Between natural affinities and Russian power, a Russian sphere of
influence, if not a formal structure, was inevitable. It was an
emerging reality that could not be reversed.
France has Poland and Germany between itself and Russia. Britain has
that plus the English Channel, and the United States has all that plus
the Atlantic Ocean. The farther away from Russia one is, the more
comfortable one can be challenging Moscow. But Germany has only Poland
as a buffer. For any nation serious about resisting Russian power, the
first question is how to assure the security of the Baltic countries,
a long-vulnerable salient running north from Poland. The answer would
be to station NATO forces in the Baltics and in Poland, and Berlin
understood that Germany would be both the logistical base for these
forces as well as the likely source of troops. But Germany’s appetite
for sending troops to Poland and the Baltics has been satiated. This
was not a course Germany wanted to take.
Pondering German History
We suspect that Merkel knew something else; namely, that all the
comfortable assumptions about what was possible and impossible — that
the Russians wouldn’t dare attack the Baltics — are dubious in the
extreme. Nothing in German history would convince any reasonable German
that military action to achieve national ends is unthinkable. Nor are
the Germans prepared to dismiss the re-emergence of Russian military power.
The Germans had been economically and militarily shattered in 1932. By
1938, they were the major power in Europe. As long as their officer
corps and technological knowledge base were intact, regeneration could
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and its military power crumbled.
But as was the case in Weimar Germany, the Russian officer corps
remained relatively intact and the KGB, the heart of the Soviet state, remained intact if renamed.
So did the technological base that made the Soviets a global power. As
with Germany after both world wars, Russia was in chaos, but its
fragments remained, awaiting reconstruction. The Germans were not about
to dismiss Russia’s ability to regenerate — they know their own history
too well to do that.
If Germany were to join those who call for NATO expansion, the first
step toward a confrontation with Russia would have been taken. The
second step would be guaranteeing the security of the Baltics and
Poland. America would make the speeches, and Germans would man the
line. After spending most of the last century fighting or preparing to
fight the Russians, the Germans looked around at the condition of their
allies and opted out.
The Germans see their economic commitment as being to the European Union.
That binds them to the French, and this is not a bond they can or want
to break. But the European Union carries no political or military force
in relation to the Russians. Beyond economics, it is a debating
society. NATO, as an institution built to resist the Russians, is in an
advanced state of decay. To resurrect it, the Germans would have to pay
a steep economic price. And if they paid that price, they would be
carrying much of the strategic risk.
So while Germany remains committed to its economic relationship with
the West, it does not intend to enter into a military commitment
against the Russians at this time. If the Americans want to send troops to protect the Baltics and Poland,
they are welcome to do so. Germany has no objection — nor do they
object to a French or British presence there. Indeed, once such forces
were committed, Germany might reconsider its position. But since
military deployments in significant numbers are unlikely anytime soon,
the Germans view grand U.S. statements about expanded NATO membership
as mere bravado by a Washington that is prepared to risk little.
NATO After the German Shift
Therefore, Merkel went to St. Petersburg and told the Russians that
Germany does not favor NATO expansion. More than that, the Germans at
least implicitly told the Russians that they have a free hand in the
former Soviet Union as far as Germany is concerned — an assertion that
cost Berlin nothing, since the Russians do enjoy a free hand there. But
even more critically, Merkel signaled to the Russians and the West that
Germany does not intend to be trapped between Western ambitions and Russian power
this time. It does not want to recreate the situation of the two world
wars or the Cold War, so Berlin will stay close to France economically
and also will accommodate the Russians.
The Germans will thus block NATO’s ambitions, something that
represents a dramatic shift in the Western alliance. This shift in fact
has been unfolding for quite a while, but it took the Russo-Georgian
war to reveal the change.
NATO has no real military power to project to the east, and none can
be created without a major German effort, which is not forthcoming. The
German shift leaves the Baltic countries exposed and extremely worried,
as they should be. It also leaves the Poles in their traditional
position of counting on countries far away to guarantee their national
security. In 1939, Warsaw counted on the British and French; today,
Warsaw depends on the United States. As in 1939, these guarantees are
tenuous, but they are all the Poles have.
The United States has the option of placing a nuclear umbrella over
the Baltics and Eastern Europe, which would guarantee a nuclear strike
on Russia in the event of an attack in either place. While this was the
guarantee made to Western Europe in the Cold War, it is unlikely that
the United States is prepared for global thermonuclear war over
Estonia’s fate. Such a U.S. guarantee to the Baltics and Eastern Europe
simply would not represent a credible threat.
The other U.S. option is a major insertion of American forces
either by sea through Danish waters or via French and German ports and
railways, assuming France or Germany would permit their facilities to
be used for such a deployment. But this option is academic at the
moment. The United States could not deploy more than symbolic forces
even if it wanted to. For the moment, NATO is therefore an entity that
issues proclamations, not a functioning military alliance, in spite of
(or perhaps because of) deployments in Afghanistan.
Everything in German history has led to this moment. The country is
united and wants to be secure. It will not play the role it was forced
into during the Cold War, nor will it play geopolitical poker as it did
in the first and second world wars. And that means NATO is permanently
and profoundly broken. The German question now turns into the Russian
question: If Germany is out of the game, what is to be done about