Garvan Walshe: Finland and Sweden’s NATO application shows how much Russia has already lost 

12 May

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO is more evidence that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a monstrous mistake. Moscow has maintained an effective veto on Swedish and Finnish membership since ether Cold War. Now, with Russian troops bogged down in the Donbas, Helsinki and Stockholm can join while Russia’s too busy to do much about it.

It also complicates Putin’s tactical situation.  NATO forces could soon be positioned to open a second front north of St Petersburg, limiting Russia’s ability to intimidate the Baltic States, and to broaden the directions from which Murmansk on the Arctic coast can be subject to counterattacks.

Instead of Finland defending a 830 mile border with Russia, Russia will now have to defend another 830 miles of border with NATO. The island of Gotland, from which the Baltic Sea can be controlled, will be a NATO, not just a Swedish, island.

But the most important difference is geopolitical. Look at the globe from the top, and list the countries across the Pole from Russia: the United States (through Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the UK, Norway, Sweden and Finland. This arc sweeps down through the Baltic States, Poland and the other countries that escaped Soviet domination in 1989, to Ukraine. All except Ukraine are in NATO – and Ukraine is inflicting the biggest defeat of Russia since the Japanese in 1905.

Apart from the US and Canada, which must also pay attention to Chinese ambitions in the Pacific, all these states see resisting Russian aggression as their main defence policy task. 

This will remain the case until the Russian state comes to understand that its purpose should be to improve the lives of Russian people, and that this is hindered, not helped, by paranoid militarism. Yet that process won’t even begin until Putin leaves office, and could well be reversed, even if he’s followed by a liberalising successor. Both Tsar Alexander II’s and Boris Yeltsin’s openings were overturned.  

These first-line states, of which the UK, Poland and Ukraine are the main military powers, can expect to maintain decades of containment of Moscow. As well as strengthening their own cooperation, they need to keep the rest of the Western alliance involved. 

Even setting aside the risk of a second Trump administration, a United States that returns to isolationism, or is simply focused on China, would be unable to help mount a defence against Russian aggression in the way it has this time. Continental European powers such as France and Germany under less immediate threat to Russia need to be persuaded who their real friends are.

The German government is divided. While Annalena Baerbock, its Foreign Minister, has been steadfast in her support for Ukraine, Olaf Scholz appears to lack the courage of his convictions, and needs continually to be pushed to live up to the Zeitenwende he announced immediately after Russia invaded.

And as Emmanuel’s Macron’s speech on Monday showed, France still struggles to shrug off its reflex of seeking somehow to involve Russia in contributing to security in Europe. This thinking has long been obsolete: a democratic Germany inside the EU has long made a Russian balance to Prussia unnecessary, and Poland’s integration into the West made it unsustainable.

But winning the political battles in France and Germany (and maintaining Mario Draghi’s new pro-Ukrainian consensus in Italy) will take more concerted diplomatic effort. It’s been entertaining to watch the friendly rivalry by former European schoolmates as they compete for visits to Kyiv and videotaped addresses by Volodomyr Zelensky. Whether they are Anglo-Swedish NLAWs (anti-tank weapons), US Javelins, German Panzerfausts or French CAESAR howitzers, all contribute to Ukraine’s fight for freedom. This is not a race, but a collective effort in which all democracies should take part.  

Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO, accompanied by British security guarantees for both countries until the NATO accession process is complete, is one such initiative. Denmark joining the EU’s defence policy (it currently has an opt out: a referendum is due on 1 June, and ‘join’ has a 20 point lead) is another.  The requirement is not necessarily unity of institutions, but unity of action, which must be pursued through NATO, EU initiatives and the British-led Joint Expeditionary force. 

Next winter, when inflation and high energy prices are due to bite, will prove critical. Russia will put every ounce of its political manipulation effort into splitting Germany, France and Italy from the front line states. It is an essential British interest that these efforts fail. 

Lasting peace in Europe will only come once Russia, like Germany has, abandons imperialist ambitions, reforms its militaristic culture, and retreats from all territory in other states that it has occupied. Putin’s defeat won’t be enough on its own to trigger the introspection and reconstruction that Russia needs. But it is a necessary step, and his inability to enforce Moscow’s ban on Finnish and Swedish NATO membership is evidence that he is starting to lose. 

Stephen Booth: Does Germany’s pledge to rearm signal fundamental change – or is it a temporary reflex?

10 Mar

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

The horror of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been shocking in so many ways. Much about what happens next is uncertain, but the crisis is clearly a pivotal moment, which the West and its allies will be grappling with for many years to come. Vladimir Putin’s appalling actions have upended long-held assumptions about the geopolitics of Europe and are leading to radical and fundamental changes in policy, most starkly in Germany.

Germany has long been the EU’s economic powerhouse but, due in large part to its history, has eschewed a leadership role in European foreign and security policy, which have traditionally been roles for France and Britain. However, faced with the new reality, the new coalition government, headed by the centre-left SDP and supported by the Greens and the liberal FDP, is now embarking on a new course.

For weeks prior to the invasion, Berlin had maintained a longstanding policy of not delivering weapons to active conflict zones. Meanwhile, Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor, had refused to say publicly if the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be scrapped if Russia moved into Ukraine. This position was increasingly unsustainable, and the pipeline was eventually suspended in response to Putin moving his forces into Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

A week later, Scholz’s speech to a special session of the Bundestag was the most striking illustration of how the crisis is altering the strategic outlook. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Foreign Minister, described it as a “180-degree turn” in the country’s foreign policy.

Scholz announced that Germany will now “year after year” meet the NATO target of investing more than two per cent of GDP in defence (up from around 1.5 per cent now) and will create a one-off €100 billion fund to modernise its under-resourced military. He committed Germany to NATO’s nuclear sharing, pledging to upgrade its outdated Tornado jets, and reversed the government’s opposition to providing weapons to Ukraine.

On energy, Scholz pledged to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas, proposing new infrastructure to secure supply from other sources and providing economic support for consumers affected by the transition. There is however no plan to reverse the phase out of nuclear energy announced by Angela Merkel in 2011, which has prolonged German reliance on coal and Russian gas.

Nevertheless, the various policy announcements have overturned decades of German foreign policy and some fundamental tenets of the main political parties.

The SPD has been the party of “Ostpolitik” and has long seen engagement and interdependence with Russia as a key plank of German policy. The first gas pipeline between Germany and the then Soviet Union opened in 1973, under the then SPD Chancellor, Willy Brandt. Scholz also called on another former SPD Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to resign from his posts at Russian firms, dismissing the argument that he is now a private citizen, noting that a chancellor’s public service doesn’t end when he leaves office.

The Greens have accepted the pledge to increase capacity for coal and gas reserves and build new liquid natural gas terminals to accelerate the move away from Russian gas. The party’s former leader, Robert Habeck, first raised the prospect of providing Ukraine with defensive weapons in May 2021, but this was controversial with the rest of his party and the increase to defence spending is a major departure from the party’s pacifist roots. The fiscally conservative FDP have accepted the need to take on new debt to modernise the military.

Equally, Friedrich Merz, leader of the largest opposition party, the centre-right Christian Democrats, and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) came out with strong support for rearmament. This is significant, since investment foundered during the 16 years of CDU-led government under Angela Merkel. The breadth of cross-party support demonstrates the level of consensus behind this new direction.

These developments have been welcomed by Germany’s international partners, including the UK, who have long called on Berlin to shoulder a greater share of the security burden and re-evaluate its stance on Russia. Speaking to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee this week, Liz Truss said, “I want to praise Germany for their change in stand, because that will have a huge impact. I want to see others follow their lead.”

Delivering the new suite of German policies is certainly more easily said than done. For example, Scholz has so far resisted any EU embargo on Russian oil, judging this too risky a step, which only underlines the country’s dependence on Russian energy. The US and the UK, which announced embargos this week, are less reliant. The EU has instead announced a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year.

Germany has been repeatedly criticised for free riding on others’ NATO commitments. The question is whether we are witnessing a temporary reflex to the current situation, or whether the political environment has fundamentally changed for the long-term. Just as Germany’s energy dependence on Russia cannot be reversed overnight, decades of drift into quasi-pacifism reflect a deeply embedded outlook. Will this moment mark a shift towards a new forward-leaning posture regarding security and the use of hard power as a deterrent?

But assuming it is a long-term commitment, the planned boost to German spending will make it the biggest defence spender in Europe. However reluctant it is to actively engage in geopolitics, this fact alone will matter by virtue of Germany’s size, history, and geographic position at the heart of the EU. A more assertive Berlin could potentially alter EU and wider European affairs significantly in the years to come.

Emmanuel Macron, who looks likely to be re-elected this spring, has been positioning France to take on the geopolitical leadership of Europe post-Brexit and post-Merkel. However, Scholz may yet become a more influential and decisive Chancellor than Merkel. Recent events will certainly have boosted the relationship between Berlin and Washington.

Macron’s bid for European leadership has centred on a push for EU “strategic autonomy”, but Germany, Eastern Europe, and the UK have been keener to emphasise NATO’s role in European security, which could suggest a stronger role for Atlanticism.

On the other hand, Germany is likely to be reluctant to lead from the front, and German governments have consistently sought to embed foreign policy in an integrated EU framework. The current coalition agreement proposes qualified majority voting for foreign and security policy, with a mechanism to reassure the smaller member states. If this moment marks the birth of a more geopolitical EU, its character and configuration remain up for grabs.

Meanwhile, the UK’s early role in providing military aid to Ukraine and its support for eastern NATO states has been welcomed by several EU members. Broadly, both UK and EU politicians have sought to emphasise how the crisis has demonstrated the need for and value of cooperation on fundamental issues of security and upholding democracy. Truss, along with her counterparts from the US, Canada, and Ukraine, attended the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council last week.

When pressed at the Foreign Affairs Committee, Truss refused to engage in speculation about whether new UK-EU structures in this area might be explored. However, she said, “We do need to re-look at European security architecture. It needs to be tougher, it needs to be stronger, there needs to be much stronger support on the Eastern flank.” The key part of the conversation is between the EU and NATO, she added.

For now the most pressing issue is the appalling unfolding humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, which is only likely to get worse as the violence grinds on. Meanwhile, the war’s wider economic impact will soon be felt by households across Europe in the form of higher energy prices and living costs, which will compound already high levels of inflation. Neighbouring countries will need assistance in coping with the humanitarian fall-out as increasing numbers of refugees flee the country.

However, the crisis is also likely to have profound implications for our European neighbourhood, which require careful consideration.

Garvan Walshe: Germany’s new government may be tougher on Russia and China. Which would suit our own. But there’s a snag.

30 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Foreign policy rarely features much at election time, and Germany’s election last Sunday was no exception. It scarcely appeared during the three Chancellor candidates’ debates, conducted against a background of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Franco-American spat over AUKUS. The result, however, sets the stage for an change in German foreign policy to which the UK will need to adapt.

The centre-left SPD came out narrowly on top with 26 per cent of the vote and 207 seats in the Bundestag. Their Olaf Scholz is likely to move to the chancellery once coalition negotiations conclude.

Angela Merkel’s successor-to-be, Armin Laschet, suffered a true shocker. He gave his CDU/CSU Uniuon their worst ever result ever (24 per cent of the vote and 196 bundestag seats).

Next came the Greens, up a third to 15 per cent and 118 seats, and the liberal FDP (92 seats and 12 per cent).

The far right AfD and far left Die Linke got 10 per cent and five per cent respectively, as their core electorate of elderly former GDR residents dwindles. Fans of the Schlewsig-Holstein question will be delighted to observe the seat won by Stefan Seidler of the Danish minority SSW.

The big electoral shift is not so much the revival of the SPD, up a fifth on their 2017 result, or unmet expectations of the Greens, who did not do as well as their early summer polling suggested, but the decline of the CDU/CSU. This was partly down to an uninspiring and gaffe- prone candidate, but also because of its difficulties in keeping its vote together at a time of electoral fragmentation.

An important strand of the CDU has come to think that a hard-boiled national conservative politics could consolidate the right-wing vote by winning back supporters lost to the AfD. Friedrich Merz, who narrowly failed to become CDU leader after Merkel’s successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was forced out, epitomised that thinking. This week’s results put its futility beyond doubt. The CDU picked up 80,000 votes from the AfD this time around, but lost almost three million to the SPD, Greens and FDP. If even ultra-moderate Laschet was too right-wing for that many CDU voters, it is hard to see how an AfD-lite offering could not have done even worse.

This election has moved German politics in a liberal, pro-European, pro-green direction. Norbert Röttgen is the CDU man best placed to take advantage. Yet after its battering, the CDU/CSU is now divided about whether even to take part in coalition negotiations. Though Laschet claimed a mandate to enter talks with the Greens and the FDP, many in his party, including the influential Bavarian sister party leader, Markus Söder, are wary. After sixteen years in power, an exhausted Union could do with some time in opposition to refresh itself.

Though a CDU-led government remains an outside possibility, the most likely coalition will be the so-called “traffic light” made up of the SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and the Greens. In a savvy move, the smaller Greens and FDP have decided to forge a joint neogtiating platform (together they acccount for 210 seats, four more than the SPD) that they will then put to the bigger parties’ leaderships.

And although Greens and FDP differ on economics, their positions on foreign affairs are much closer than might be expected. With the Green co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, tipped for the foreign ministry, German foreign policy is not set for radical revolution (this is Germany after all), but it can expect to receive a sizeable shove.

Both parties want to see more foreign policy made at the EU level, and by qualified majorities (rather than unanimity as it is now). The FDP are explicitly in favour of a European army. And while the Greens have a pacifist inheritance that makes them skittish about anything involving nuclear weapons, they have come around to multilateral military deployments abroad. Watch for an effort to change the EU’s treaties to bring all this about. If the new coalition is with the SDP, policy towards Hungary and Poland will also toughen.

Beyond Europe, both these parties are also tougher on Russia and China than both the SPD (whose former leader works for a Russian state oil firm) and the CDU, more focused on human rights, and less on industrial exports. Though they are unlikely to be strong enough to stop the Nordstream 2 pipeline in Germany, expect them to push to have it subjected to tougher EU-level regulation.

Overall, this is an agenda with which the UK can work well — provided it realises that the new government will be even more disposed to conduct its foreign policy through the EU. Bilateral relations will remain polite, of course, but London will find it much easier to pursue its interests if it comes to terms with the growing EU foreign and defence establishment in Brussels and engages with it.

Off the football field, Laschet assures the Germans they can continue to pretend to be weak

29 Jun

This afternoon’s football match between England and Germany will be seized on by both sides as a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

When German politicians want to avoid controversy, they often talk, in a most expert manner, about football.

But the greatest of those politicians are also capable of talking about politics in such a way as to avoid controversy, or indeed to avoid saying anything at all.

From her earliest years, Angela Merkel mastered the art of giving nothing away about her personal opinions: a skill which was indispensable to her as the child of a Lutheran clergyman in Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany.

Armin Laschet, chosen by the Christian Democrats as their candidate to succeed her as Chancellor, possesses also that skill, albeit developed over a long period under quite different circumstances.

He is from Aachen, on the far western border of Germany, close to Belgium and the Netherlands. While Merkel speaks excellent Russian, he speaks excellent French.

She was Lutheran. He is a devout Roman Catholic, which is normal for a leader of the Christian Democrats. In the words of a penetrating observer from the German Left,

“He’s a nice fellow, but he is not a strategic person. He is not a second Konrad Adenauer. He is not even a Boris Johnson.

“He is part of the Catholic opposition against the Prussians – a very funny opposition of weak, small people who fight with all their humour against the people at the top of society.

“He is a very charming and weak person who is always laughing at himself. People like him but nobody thinks he is a leader.”

The press, fed up with sitting through numerous occasions when Laschet gave them nothing to report, tends to write him off as a bore.

That does not do justice to him. He has a subtle gift for making not having a stand-up row, indeed not making a decision, sound reasonable. His intonation is delightful: he speaks as one might imagine an unresentful friar would speak, at ease with the whole world.

He stands accused of being too friendly towards Russia and China, but professes friendship towards everyone.

At a recent appearance at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, he was asked what he would change in Germany and the European Union’s policy towards Russia, and what his attitude is towards Nord Stream 2, the Baltic pipeline which will bring Russian gas direct to Germany, cutting out Ukraine.

He replied in a mild tone that he would not change anything, for the joint German-French declaration in Minsk offers a good way out of warlike tensions – it has not yet achieved final success, but a big war, a big conflict has been avoided.

As for Nord Stream 2, he recognised that behind this question lay concern about the geostrategic effect on Ukraine – would Ukraine’s energy security be endangered, would it become more dependent on Russia?

No, he insisted in his sweetest tone, it would not be, for the position of the German Government is that the position of Ukraine must not be affected by the pipeline.

Whether any reliance can be placed on that assurance is doubtful, but Laschet behaved as if it settled the matter.

Germany, it was pointed out to him, has despatched a frigate, the Bayern, to the Indo-Pacific region. Will Germany be sending more frigates there?

Laschet raised his hands in a pacific gesture. This, he explained, is just a part of Germany’s relationship with China, for which the European Foreign Ministers have developed “a good formula – China is partner, competitor and rival”.

If German voters wish their next leader to be all things to all men, which it appears that they do, Laschet is their man. He is almost ten points ahead of his nearest rival, the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, a former trampolinist who is laughably inexperienced, as one can see when she gives straight answers to straight questions.

She is against Nord Stream 2, pro-American, has an economic policy which German business thinks is disastrous, and has recently been found to have doctored her curriculum vitae.

Like most German politicians, Laschet is in favour of “a stronger Europe”, which “must end in treaty changes”, and in “a European Constitution which is close to the people”.

But when it was put to him that this must mean he favours a common European budget and the pooling of European debt, he replied at once, with a smile, that he had been “misunderstood”, and that was not what he meant at all.

With imperturbable good humour, he indicates that he will take care of everything. It is a beguiling prospectus, for a Germany which is determined to go on pretending to be weak.

Garvan Walshe: Merkeldammerung. Germany’s polls put the Greens within striking distance of government.

1 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

No leader gives up the job entirely on their own terms, but Angela Merkel, who will step down as Chancellor after what will be at least fifteen years in power, came closer than most.

She had the skill to keep the coalition of voters behind her Christian Democratic Union (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) sufficiently broad to dominate German politics for a decade and a half. She’ll leave office as one of the great centre-right Chancellors of modern Germany, along with Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

Known for waiting for what seems to everyone too long before making darting radical jumps, Merkel overcame the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and even dealt effectively with the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

She saw off rivals internal (Wolfgang Schäuble) external (the AfD) and a man best described as standing just inside the tent, peeing in (Friedrich Merz).

Yet she was unable to find a successor. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg imploded in a plagiarism scandal, Ursula von der Leyen’s mediocre efforts at the defence ministry would be repeated at the European Commission, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer proved the dampest of squibs, while Armin Laschet was left holding the Coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination programme foundered.

Like every other centre-right party in proportional electoral systems, the CDU/CSU is struggling in a fragmenting political landscape. Party activists worry that she’s losing votes to her right, to the AfD (or, in a more liberal direction, the FDP), while larger numbers of voters defect to the Greens, who have governed impressively in Baden Württemburg (in coalition with the CDU), and who also increased their seats at the CDU’s expense in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The “Union” has a backup plan in the form of Markus Soder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, who could replace Laschet as the centre-right’s Chancellor candidate in September’s elections, but he is now also suffering from the terrible vaccination campaign and PPE procurement corruption scandals. The Union is now polling in the mid twenties, ten points down on the beginning of the year. This doesn’t look like an election where “more of the same” is a winning formula.

The latest opinion polls have narrowed the gap between the CDU/CSU and the Greens to less than five points, and if the trend continues the Greens could even top the poll in September.

This opens up two new possibilites for post-election Germany. Until this month, it had seemed likely that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, headed by a Union Chancellor, would have been the only way to avoid letting either the AfD or the post-communist Linke into national government.

But the green surge increases the options. A “traffic light” coalition, between the Greens, SPD (the social democrats, whose colour is red) and the liberal FDP (yellow), or a Jamaica coalition (after the Jamaican flag, because the CDU’s colour is black) involving Greens, Union and FDP would also add up to a majority. In these scenarios it is the Greens, not either of Germany’s two traditional parties, who could choose who to form a government with.

Germany’s Greens started as a conventional green party emphasising environmental politics, but have evolved into a centre-left formation without the industrial baggage of the SPD, which allows them to take clearer stances against polluting industry or in favour of immigration and accommodating refugees.

If their representation in the Berlin city government is radical (favouring rent control, for example) their adminsitration in prosperous Baden Würtemberg, home to much of Germany’s car industry, has been decidedly more pragmatic. Their independence from German industrial politics has also led them to take stronger stances against Putin’s Russia (remember that Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former Chancellor, serves as chairman of Rosneft), and Orban’s Hungary.

A green-led government would, perhaps astonishingly, tilt German geopolitics closer to that of the United States. Transatlantic friction over Russia’s Nordstream pipeline to Germany, which both the Greens and Washington are against, would disappear. Leading the govenrment would, however, pose problems for the party in relation to nuclear weapons, with which much of its membership is deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the German Greens, which hse co-leaders, Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock, would pursue international policy in step with the UK’s focus on addressing climate change, and upholding international human rights norms against Moscow and Beijing.  Nonetheless, they are strongly pro-European, and a Green-led German government would put renewed energy behind deeper European integration.

In September, the test for the Greens will be whether they can provide the right combination of reasssurance and change for an electorate that prized the stability and integrity Merkel provided them, but is now ready to give the system a bit of a jolt.