Germany, France and how not to do deterrence

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The writer directs the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution

Two weeks ago, Republican US senator JD Vance told an audience at the Munich Security Conference that “the time has come for Europe to stand on its own feet”. In a follow-up article for this newspaper, he singled out Germany as “the most important economy in Europe, but it relies on imported energy and borrowed military strength”. 

The senator is a combative, often vitriolic Trumpist, and one of the fiercest opponents of a US aid package that includes $60bn for Ukraine, which is currently held up in Congress. Not a few Republicans find him an easy man to dislike. But recent events in Europe suggest that his criticism is essentially correct. 

Yes, the Europeans managed to approve a €50bn aid package for Ukraine last month, and as Germany’s leaders never tire of pointing out, they are Kyiv’s second biggest supporters after the US. Major European states have signed bilateral security agreements with Ukraine. But at a time of multiplying security challenges, the overwhelming message from Europe has been one of disarray and fecklessness. That is particularly true of Berlin.

In 2014, Germany’s president, foreign minister and defence minister took turns to promise their Munich audience that their country would in future take on responsibility commensurate with its power. A decade on, with Russia battering Ukraine’s defences and the looming possibility of a second Trump administration, chancellor Olaf Scholz might have echoed that moment by asking his European peers to drop everything, and come to Munich.

Imagine if they all had signed a detailed pledge to defend Ukraine and Europe, and then stood on the stage together to say: “Russia: your aggression will not stand. We will do whatever it takes to stop you. America: We still need your help (and thank you!), but we hear you, and are racing to become much more self-sufficient.”

But that didn’t happen. Germany’s key partners, French president Emmanuel Macron and Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, didn’t even come. And things have been going swiftly downhill since then. 

Last week, Macron, in his toughest language so far, said Russia needed to be defeated. But he also appalled the EU and the US alike by suggesting in the name of “strategic ambiguity” that the west might deploy troops to Ukraine. He made some concessions on EU weapons purchasing but they were partly withdrawn days later.

This contortionist performance, it appears, awoke a spirit of competition in Berlin. 

Germany has been refusing to give Kyiv its Taurus cruise missile. While similar to the Scalp/Storm Shadow missiles supplied by France and Britain, it is held to pack more punch — the kind that would be capable of destroying the Kerch bridge linking the Russian mainland and Crimea. 

Last week, Olaf Scholz publicly explained his objections for the first time: giving Kyiv the missiles would be escalatory, would require the deployment of German troops and would make Germany a “party to war” — arguments promptly rejected by dismayed German experts as well as by senior leaders of his Green and liberal coalition partners. Scholz also hinted that British and French forces are providing Ukraine with targeting support, to cries of outrage in Paris and London. On Friday, Russian media leaked a recording of top Luftwaffe generals discussing how many Tauruses (“10 to 20”) it would take to destroy the Kerch bridge.

The mood in Berlin last week was not improved by a German frigate mistakenly firing two missiles at a US Reaper drone in the Red Sea (it missed, which was probably better for the US-German relationship). Nor by revelations that a fugitive former executive of the once vaunted German financial services company Wirecard had been working for Russian military intelligence all along — under the nose of Scholz, then finance minister.

This is the brutal truth: the two key actors in continental Europe are bungling the strategic response to Europe’s greatest security threat in a generation, while Ukraine’s future is hanging by a thread. 

France, its president’s acrobatics notwithstanding, at least has a powerful deterrent in its nuclear weapons. Germany’s government — despite its immense financial commitments and frenetic efforts to produce more weapons — appears to think that clinging to the US is a grand plan. Where it ought to have a Europe strategy, or a Russia strategy, there is a conceptual void. And the only thing it is deterring is itself.

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