The two EU and NATO heavyweights are more willing than the US to talk to Vladimir Putin, and persuade the Russian leader to de-escalate tensions with Kiev.
After French leader Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, German leader Olaf Scholz paid a visit to Moscow today to try his hand at bringing an end to growing Ukraine escalations.
Both France and Germany are the two leading European Union states, which have their own reasons to calm tensions between Kiev and Moscow. While the states are not able to produce an effective united EU front on the crisis, both countries are seeking greater diplomacy with Moscow when compared to the US, which has a very hawkish approach toward Russia.
In 2015, after fighting killed more than 14,000 in eastern Ukraine under the Minsk process, Germany and France brokered a political agreement which appeared to largely concede to Russian demands, like offering broad autonomy in separatist regions.
The deal also included that Ukraine, which has not had full control over its eastern border since 2014, would only regain access to it should Kiev allow local elections. As a result, since the beginning of the conflict, Germany and France have approached Russia with a more conciliatory tone than the US, seeking an end to the crisis.
But Berlin has more concerns than France regarding a NATO-Russia escalation because much of Germany’s gas demand is supplied by Moscow through Nord Stream, the world’s longest subsea pipeline going through the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany.
“Germany has long resisted giving a NATO perspective to Georgia and Ukraine. Even right now Germany is resisting a lot to give weapons to Ukraine,” says Bulent Guven, a Turkish-German political scientist, due to the country’s dependence on Russian gas.
Unlike France and the UK, who have reportedly sent weapons to Ukraine to back the state against a possible Russian invasion, which some Western officials and analysts expect to happen this week, Germany is not willing to supply any weapons to Kiev. It also shows fractures among European allies over the Ukrainian crisis.
In 2008, Russia invaded parts of Georgia after a pro-Western Rose Revolution toppled the country’s pro-Moscow government. Russia has long opposed both Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership to NATO, demanding the West to guarantee that both states will not be part of the Western alliance.
Germany’s energy needs
“Germany is moving toward a transformation for renewable energy. As of this year, it stopped operating all of its nuclear plants. Before 2030, Germany also plans to close down its coal-fired power plants. As a result, the country wants to meet its energy demands with renewable energy sources and Russian gas,” Guven tells TRT World.
Compared to Nord Stream, Qatar and the US exports gas to Germany by sea and other means that are far less desirable and sustainable for Berlin’s high energy demand.
While Berlin has expressed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty like other NATO members prior to Scholz’s visit to Moscow, promising “very far-reaching measures that will have a significant impact on Russia's economic development opportunities," the German chancellor has conspicuously not mentioned Nord Stream.
Interestingly, even when Scholz’s Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy blasted the Russia-Germany energy link, Nord Stream, as “a geopolitical weapon" during their talks in Kiev, the new German leader was silent on Zelenskyy’s charges.
“He never mentioned Nord Stream because they are dependent on Russian gas,” Guven argues, who is a close friend of Scholz. As a result, Germany has a lot of interests to de-escalate Ukraine tensions, the analyst adds.
The Nord Stream pipeline project is a great concern in the West because it bypasses Ukraine, a Western ally and an enemy of Moscow, weakening Kiev’s hand against the Russians. On the other hand, the project strengthens Russia in terms of supplying gas to Europe.
Under pressure, Scholz will tell Putin that if Russia does not invade Ukraine, everything from Nord Stream to other Russia-Germany economic ties will stay intact and Berlin will work hard to persuade its Western allies to lift the harsh sanctions on Moscow, Guven says.
Prior to Scholz’s visit, Macron, a man who does not appear to have that much trust in NATO, was in Moscow last week, listening to the Russian leader’s complaints about the Western alliance’s expansion across Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
"I secured an assurance there would be no deterioration or escalation," an excited Macron said after the meeting. After meeting with Putin, Macron also visited Kiev, speaking with the Ukrainian leader.
“By talking with Putin, Macron wants to show the world that he is the leading European politician, who can play a better role than the US or others to de-escalate tensions to ensure peace and security across the continent,” Guven says.
Two years ago, Macron made an insulting comment on the Western military alliance saying that NATO is "brain-dead". Macron added that the EU needs to develop its own defence strategy and army to protect its borders from outside threats.
Both Macron and Scholz have been on the same page in terms of de-escalating tensions. According to Guven, behind the scenes, both leaders also agree on a crucial part of Russian demands regarding NATO expansion.
“The best way for a possible resolution to the conflict could be guaranteeing Russia that Ukraine will not be part of NATO [in the short-term],” Guven says. The analyst thinks that both Macron and Scholz agree on this Russian demand.
As a result, Scholz’s talk with Putin is crucial to generating an essential understanding between the West and Russia on this issue, he says. On the other hand, US intelligence assesses that Russia might kick off its invasion as soon as Scholz leaves Moscow.
But on Monday, in a theatrical televised appearance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged more diplomacy, suggesting "there are always chances ... it seems to me that our possibilities are far from exhausted."
Berlin also may have some empathy toward Russia’s NATO expansion concerns close to its western borders due to some historical reasons, according to Guven.
Like “the unfair Versailles Treaty'', which was signed between the Allies and Germany after WWI, Berlin thinks that the West treated the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a failed state, imposing “a dishonourable peace” over Moscow, he says.
Many analysts see the rise of Nazism in Germany partly as a result of the harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty. Guven thinks that since the 1990s, by expanding across former Soviet territories from Caucasus to Eastern Europe, the West tried to encircle Russia despite its repeated pledges that it’s not going to compromise Moscow’s security concerns.
As a result, under Putin, a new Russian assertiveness has clearly moved toward undoing NATO’s expansion across its borders from all directions to secure its regional interests and concerns, Guven says. From its historical experience, Germany understands why Russia wants to reverse Western expansion close to its borders, he says.