Despite the constant contradicting information regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the few certainties we have of the conflict is that Vladimir Putin is the aggressor. There’s no doubt in that.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other enablers of Putin’s attack. Some point towards Donald Trump or Joe Biden but, let’s be honest: The U.S. President, whoever he is and however cuddly or passive he is with Russia, cannot be blamed for every single conflict on the world stage. Nevertheless, there’s a name that is seldom floated around those with some guilt over the blood spilled on Ukraine: Angela Merkel.
In fact, some have even said that with Merkel still in power, Putin wouldn’t have dared to invade Ukraine. Completely untrue. The steady appeasement policy Merkel applied on Putin’s Russia on her 16-year period as German Chancellor, inherited from her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder (more on that ahead), is one of the main reasons why Ukraine is on the brink of collapse and Europe is enduring its largest armed conflict in over two decades.
Merkel said on February 25 that the invasion was “a deep rupture in Europe’s history following the end of the Cold War”, but didn’t she enable it? Let’s review the facts.
Russia-Germany relations before Merkel
It’s no secret that Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder were quite close with Boris Yeltsin in their attempt to build a united Europe with a westernized Russia in it. Schröder continued this position when Putin reached power despite some obvious red flags.
Schröder went as far as forming an entente with France and Russia to oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and bring Russia closer to Europe and form a greater Europe from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the European industry and Russian resources. And Schröder was key in the development of the Nord Stream pipeline to bring Russian gas to Germany through the Baltic Sea without crossing any other country. He went as far as to call Vladimir Putin a “perfect democrat” during his tenure, and, of course, landed a juicy board position in the Nord Stream project and then in Nord Stream 2.
After becoming Chancellor in 2005, Merkel quickly sought to restore the damaged relations with the U.S. and was successful in it. This led George W. Bush to miscalculate: he thought he had Merkel in his hand and openly called NATO to accept Georgia and Ukraine as members. Merkel refused, fearing to provoke Putin too much. The result? Putin invaded two Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain under the control of Russian-supported separatists as of today. Sounds familiar?
Merkel’s failed energy policy
Probably the biggest failure and what explains the most the passive attitude Germany and, therefore, Europe, took against Putin until the invasion is the continuous failures of Merkel’s energy policy.
Germany will turn off its remaining three nuclear plants later this year. The phase-out started in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster when pressure grew on Merkel to do so. By then, the plan was to use renewable energies to fill the supply, and even if renewable energy is growing in the country, it’s less than 50% of the total energy production.
Moreover, Germany also intends to ban coal energy production by 2038 (despite its supposedly successful green policy, Germany is the 9th largest coal burner in the world), so it needs a lot of gas to fill its energy requirements, which is about 45% of the total electricity needs in Germany. As if it weren’t enough trouble, the Netherlands, which is the source of 30% of Germany’s gas supply will cease extraction in a decade.
To be sure, there are other ways to get the gas, such as an existing route through Ukraine and/or Poland from Turkey or from ships from the U.S. However, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germans were optimistic that they could work with Putin on Nord Stream 2 and still have an independent foreign policy. Plus, Nord Stream (1 and 2) did not require passing through a third country or any further complications. Huge mistake.
Even as Merkel led the West’s sanctions on Russia in 2014 after annexing Crimea, Germany’s energy dependence on Russia increased with each passing year, constraining Germany’s foreign policy, forever delaying the renewal of its military and its role on NATO. In fact, a route from Turkey and Russia passing through Ukraine would have made it costlier for Putin to attack Ukraine and draw Erdogan closer to the West.
Changed through trade doesn’t work
Many, in both sides of the political aisle, criticized Trump when he panned Merkel in the regularly boring NATO summit in 2018, by calling Germany “a captive of the Russians” and that “[he] think[s] it is very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia, we are supposed to be guarding against Russia, and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia.”
You won’t hear this often from me but Trump was right. Merkel’s appeasement policy against Putin failed and during her 16 years in power, Europe’s dependence on Putin only grew to the point they have serious constraints. Even as they are providing weapons so Ukraine fights back against the invader, they haven’t dared impose sanctions on Russian gas.
What’s the lesson of all this? That change through trade–the aspiration that growing economic cooperation will eventually lead to a democratic system–with Russia is and always was a liberal pipe dream. Change through trade does not democratize autocracies; it achieves pretty much the opposite: Liberal states end up on their knees begging for mercy.
Putin felt he could take Ukraine and did so because he knew Europe relied too much on Russian gas. He might not be successful in the end, but Europe is already enduring a massive refugee crisis and a war that can be as bloody as the Balkan wars.
Putin’s Russia is isolated now, but for how long? And if he endures his isolation, what’s next? The rest of Georgia? The Baltic states? No one knows, but one thing is clear: it all started with two damned pipelines and Merkel’s green energy dream.