German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Russian President Vladimir Putin upon his arrival to attend a peace summit on Libya at the Chancellery in Berlin on January 19, 2020. Photo: AFP / John MacDougall

The following is the sixth installment of an extended report on one of the most important geopolitical developments of the 21st century: the increasingly comprehensive alliance between China and Russia and its implications for Eurasian and regional powers across the planet. To follow the series, click here.

All the developments described in previous articles in this series have added to the tensions over the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization toward Russia’s borders and the present-day geopolitical contestation unfolding between the US, the European Union and NATO on one side and Russia on the other over the post-Soviet republics along Russia’s western borders and the Black Sea and the Caucasus.

Russia has been seeking a modus vivendi between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union and at one point advanced the concept of a united Europe from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not interested. 

Meanwhile, the incipient signs of German militarism have appeared. In a stunning remark in May 2017, while on the election campaign trail, Merkel said that Europe could no longer “completely depend” on the US and UK after the election of President Donald Trump and Brexit.

“The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. I’ve experienced that.… We Europeans have to take our destiny into our own hands,” Merkel told a crowd at an election rally in Munich. 

Partly, the remarks might have been “thanks to the beer, pretzels and Bavarian brass band enlivening the crowd,” as a British Broadcasting Corporation commentator wryly noted on that balmy day in Munich, but what was striking was that Merkel’s words were uncharacteristically passionate and unusually forthright. The message resonated all across Europe and Russia: “By all means keep friendly relations with Trump’s America and Brexit Britain – but we can’t rely on them.” 

This led to some speculation that Germany under Merkel was drifting away from the US. In reality, though, it was more a matter of the testy relationship between Merkel and President Trump and not at all about her own imminent transformation as a German Gaullist, so to speak.

The speculation, in fact, has since died down as quickly as it had surfaced. The fact of the matter is that Merkel’s generation of German politicians are staunchly “Atlanticist” – as she herself is – who place primacy on “shared liberal values” in the overarching German-American relationship (bypassing Trump) and see it as at the very core of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Thus they are committed to building a stronger European pillar of NATO. This is twice removed from French President Emmanuel Macron’s conception of an independent European force. 

Unsurprisingly, they see Russia as antithetical to their value system, which is riveted on democratic principles, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech and so on. They regard as a huge challenge Russia’s perceived aggressive, assertive policies and that Russia altered established international boundaries on the doorsteps of Europe no fewer than four times. Plainly put, they are shell-shocked by Russia’s resurgence under President Vladimir Putin. 

Western analysts initially pooh-poohed when Putin in 2007, toward the end of his second term in office, appointed Anatoliy Serdyukov – the former head of the Federal Tax Service – as defense minister as part of an effort to combat corruption in the Russian military and carry out reforms. But as the August 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict revealed large-scale Russian military operational failures, the Kremlin became more determined to boost military capabilities.

Thus a comprehensive reform program began touching on all aspects of the Russian armed forces – from the total size of the armed forces to its officer corps and command system, a large-scale 10-year weapons modernization plan, military budgets, the development of new weapon systems both for strategic nuclear deterrence and conventional forces, and the Russian national security strategy and military doctrine itself. 

The reform has gone further than any previous efforts in altering the force structure and operations of the Russian armed forces inherited from the Soviet Union. By 2015-16, Western analysts who were initially skeptical began sitting up and taking notice that Russia was in the midst of a major modernization of its armed forces, driven by Putin’s ambition to restore Russia’s hard power and supported by the revenues that flowed into the Kremlin’s coffers between 2004 and 2014, when the price of oil was high.

A Russia specialist at Brookings, Steven Pifer, wrote in February 2016, “The modernization programs encompass all parts of the Russian military, including strategic nuclear, non-strategic nuclear and conventional forces. The United States has to pay attention. Russia … retains the capacity to make significant trouble. Moreover, in recent years the Kremlin has shown a new readiness to use military force.”

(Pifer was writing soon after the Russian military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.) 

To be sure, in a national address in March 2018, Putin announced that Russia’s military had tested a group of new strategic weapons aimed at defeating Western defense systems. Putin used videos shown on a large screen to present some of the weapons he discussed. He said the new weapons had made the missile defenses of NATO “useless.”

In a December 2019 speech, Putin disclosed that Russia had become the only country in the world to deploy hypersonic weapons. “Now we have a situation that is unique in modern history when they [the West] are trying to catch up to us,” he said. “Not a single country has hypersonic weapons, let alone hypersonic weapons of intercontinental range.” 

Suffice to say, Germany’s “militarization” needs to be put in perspective. Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said recently in a conversation with the Atlantic Council that “Russia needs to understand that we are strong and we intend to follow through.” She said Germany was committed to meeting 10% of NATO requirements by 2030 and a higher defense budget and building up of capability was in Germany’s own interest. 

However, neither Germany nor Japan is at liberty to plunge headlong into “neo-militarism.” Neither has an independent foreign policy. A lot of domestic opposition will have to be overcome first to take to a neo-militarist path.

In both countries, the national discourses are still dominated by postwar pacifism questioning the military and each of its operations. The two countries have voluntary armies; neither is capable of starting a war without US support or concurrence; both are in effect supplementary powers and not major forces on their own steam.

Germany doesn’t want to get out of NATO, while Japan simply cannot think of life except under the canopy of its military alliance with the US. In the final analysis, both are militarily castrated nations lacking the capacity or the political will, having been the losers in the last World War.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times. It is the sixth article in a series. Part 7 will examine the geopolitical forces pushing Russia and China closer to each other.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.