‘Wrong about Putin’: Did Germany and France turn blind eye to threat from Russia?

‘Wrong about Putin’: Did Germany and France turn blind eye to threat from Russia?


The escalating civilian toll of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has fuelled calls for a reappraisal of more than a decade of French and German efforts to engage with a leader whose forces stand accused of committing horrific war crimes in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s embattled President Volodymyr Zelensky did not mince his words as he addressed Western leaders in a video message late on Sunday, just hours after witnessing the trail of death and destruction that Russian forces left in their wake as they retreated from Kyiv’s northern suburb of Bucha.

He had a special message for the former leaders of Germany and France, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he accused of denying Ukraine a path to NATO.

“I invite Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy to visit Bucha and see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years,” Zelensky said, referring to the gruesome killing of Ukrainian civilians in towns north of the capital – which world powers have described as “war crimes”.

“See with your own eyes the tortured and slain Ukrainians,” he added.

Zelensky was speaking on the anniversary of the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, where the transatlantic alliance offered Georgia and Ukraine a promise of future membership but without a timetable – a compromise that, according to Zelensky, left Ukraine in a “grey zone” and exposed to Russian aggression.

“They thought that by refusing Ukraine, they could appease Russia, to convince it to respect Ukraine and live normally alongside us,” he said in his video address, accusing NATO members of acting “in fear” of the Kremlin.

Collapse of the post-Cold War order

Back in 2008, both France and Germany had deemed it too early for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, arguing that neither country was ready. They also warned that bringing in the former Soviet Republics would compromise relations with Russia, echoing warnings voiced by US diplomats who sought to dissuade the White House from offering a concrete path to membership.

In a short statement issued by her spokeswoman on Monday, Merkel said she “stood by her decisions in relation to the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest”. She also offered her support to “all efforts to bring an end to Russia’s barbarism and war against Ukraine”.

In hindsight, “it is hard to know whether a membership plan for Ukraine would have been enough to dissuade Putin,” said Laure Delcour, an expert in EU-Russia relations at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris.

“NATO membership is a very long process and it is quite possible that Ukraine would still not be a member as we speak,” she told FRANCE 24. “One can also imagine that Putin would have moved faster to thwart Ukraine’s admission.”

“Move fast” is precisely what Putin did just four months after the Bucharest summit, sending his tanks into Georgia in support of pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He repeated the trick six years later in Ukraine’s Donbas region, going one step further with the annexation of Crimea.

A ‘logical continuation’: After Georgia and Crimea, was an invasion of Ukraine inevitable?

© Reuters

Each of Putin’s incursions met an ambivalent response from European leaders, alternating between heated rhetoric and sanctions, at first, and attempts at détente, soon after. With Ukraine now in the throes of a catastrophic war, those leaders stand accused of emboldening the Russian president and being blind to his imperialist ambitions.

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“Europe didn’t go wrong, Germany and France did,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice-president of the German Marshall Fund and head of its Berlin office, in an interview with FRANCE 24. 

“France and Germany tend to speak for the rest of Europe. But these miss-assessments were made in Paris and Berlin, not elsewhere. Eastern Europe didn’t go wrong, northern Europe didn’t go wrong,” he added.

Kleine-Brockhoff said the war in Ukraine called for an urgent reappraisal of German and French policy vis-à-vis Russia. He added: “Not only is the post-Cold War order crumbling in front of our eyes, so are the strategies deployed by Germany and France.”

Nord Stream repentance

The reappraisal is well under way in Germany, where Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has cast a pall over the legacy left by Merkel after 16 years at the helm.

“What Germany and Europe have experienced over the last days is nothing short of a reversal of Merkel’s policies of guaranteeing peace and freedom through treaties with despots,” the conservative daily Die Welt wrote last month, describing the former chancellor’s trade-based diplomacy as “an error”.

Criticism has come from some of Merkel’s closest aides, including her former defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has condemned Germany’s “historical failure” to bolster its military over the years. “After Georgia, Crimea, and Donbas, we have not prepared anything that would have really deterred Putin,” she tweeted in March.

Read more analysis on the war in Ukraine
Read more analysis on the war in Ukraine © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

Under particular scrutiny is Germany’s reliance on Russian energy, which accounted for 36 percent of its gas imports when Putin seized Crimea and had risen to 55 percent by the time the Kremlin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine. The dependence on Russian power has left Berlin saying it is unable to follow a call by the US and other allies to impose a full energy embargo on Moscow.

>> Baltic states end Russian gas imports – but can the rest of Europe follow suit?

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served as foreign minister in two of Merkel’s cabinets, on Monday admitted that he made a “mistake” in pushing for Nord Stream 2, the controversial pipeline built to double gas imports from Russia to Germany.

“We were holding on to bridges that Russia no longer believed in and from which our partners had warned us about,” he said. 

The United States and EU members like Poland had deeply opposed the €10 billion pipeline which bypasses Ukraine, depriving Kyiv of gas transit fees. After obstinately defending it through its construction, Germany finally put the project on ice following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Like Merkel, Steinmeier has come under fire over the pipeline project. His Social Democrats in particular have over the years pushed for closer ties with Russia – most notably Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who has refused to quit key posts at Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom despite the war in Ukraine.

“We failed to build a common European house,” Steinmeier said. “I did not believe Vladimir Putin would embrace his country’s complete economic, political and moral ruin for the sake of his imperial madness,” he added. “Like others, I was mistaken.”

Running after a chimaera

The war in Ukraine has pricked the bubble Germany had been living in since the 1990s, said Kleine-Brockhoff, “a post-Cold War order offering it the most advantageous international set-up since industrialisation, with peace, affluence, and the idea that the country could get along with everybody and therefore did not need to guarantee its own defence”.

An “end-of-history” thinking had led countries like Germany to “believe that the whole world was on a path to democracy”, Kleine-Brockhoff added. “Russia would take time but would eventually come on board, that was the idea. It proved to be a chimaera.”

“Germany believed that trade would be a peacemaker, that interconnectedness would prevent us from going to war with each other,” he said. “There was a belief that trading with Russia, notably with what it does best, namely oil and gas, was a strategy for peace. But that strategy has failed.”

How Germany, shaken by Ukraine, plans to rebuild its military

Turning to France, Kleine-Brockhoff said an ingrained French “ideology of European strategic autonomy” had driven President Emmanuel Macron into a “wrong assessment of Putin, of who he is and of what he wants”, as well as a misunderstanding of Europe’s position vis-à-vis the United States and Russia.

“We’ve seen that the defence of Europe is not Europe, it’s NATO,” he said. “That’s the conclusion from everything we’re seeing [in Ukraine]. The solution to our security problem lies in Western unity – not in fantasies of European armies that will never become true.”

A tour of France’s chateaux

Delusions about the nature of Russia’s leader and Europe’s ability to reason with him have led Macron to engage with Putin for longer than is warranted, according to Kleine-Brockhoff.

“The attempt to prevent war and to engage the Russians is not to be criticised – what is to be criticised is the lofty ambitions, instead of a more realistic assessment of what is possible,” he said, adding: “For how long do you engage in serial phone calls with mass murderers?”

The problem is not so much the dialogue as the timing and purpose, said Sorbonne University’s Delcour, noting that “some form of dialogue is necessary insofar as Russia will remain both Europe’s and Ukraine’s neighbour – but one has to be clear about the objectives”.

While Macron’s recent exchanges with Putin have been focused on preventing the war, and then ending the bloodshed, past attempts at a rapprochement with Moscow had sent mixed messages, she explained.

No foreign leader has Macron tried harder to sway than the Russian president, whom he treated to a grand reception at the Palace of Versailles in May 2017, just two weeks after taking office. He hosted Putin again two years later, this time at the Fort de Brégançon, the summer retreat of French presidents. 

“A Russia that turns its back on Europe is not in our interest,” Macron stated at the time, a year after he celebrated France’s World Cup win in a VIP box in Moscow at Putin’s invitation – an event other Western officials had shunned over the Skripal poisonings in London.

“The Brégançon meeting took place a year after the Skripal affair and five years after the annexation of Crimea, and was preceded by very little consultation with EU allies,” Delcour noted. “In that context, one can legitimately question the wisdom of inviting Putin for a reset.”

A frosty encounter at the Kremlin on February 7, 2022.
A frosty encounter at the Kremlin on February 7, 2022. © AFP and SPUTNIK

As Europe reflects on two decades of failing to deter the strongman in the Kremlin, it is important to distinguish between the factors behind Moscow’s post-Cold War angst, some of them understandable, and Putin’s own decision to wage war on Russia’s neighbours, Delcour added.

“We know NATO enlargement had a major impact on Moscow’s perceptions, but the real problem is how Russia responded to enlargement,” she said. “We should not confuse cause and consequence. In this case, the problem is the consequence.”

>> Did NATO ‘betray’ Russia by expanding to the East?

Ultimately, Macron and his predecessors have been guilty of clinging to the belief that Putin could be accommodated within a security architecture he has repeatedly rejected and violated, said Kleine-Brockhoff.

“We have wanted to believe that Russia would come on board to become a responsible stakeholder in the current European and global order,” he said. “And we have chosen to overlook the indications to the contrary.”

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