German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Russian President Vladimir Putin could part ways on the Ukraine crisis. Image: Video Screengrab / Express

Many German gains at the end of the first Cold War could be lost. The possibility of a second Cold War in Europe is no longer farfetched and, to avoid it, Berlin should perhaps look it right in the eye and think of China.

Germany was the country that gained the most since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. It regained the unity it lost in 1945, and it pushed Russia back over a two “buffer-country” line, the greatest distance from its unwieldy neighbor in its entire history.

The new buffer state lines were those of the former Soviet empire that joined the European Union (EU) and NATO, and the fledgling states emerging from the Soviet collapse such as Belarus and Ukraine.

Then, Germany saw a huge field of possibilities to expand its increasingly precise and efficient manufacturing industry, while other developed countries were chasing the new internet economy and exiting manufacturing.

Eastern Europe, Russia and also China were all anxious to buy the symbol products of new wealth: the BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches, all far more glittering and tangible than the ethereal latest services from the web – Google, Amazon and Facebook.

The rest of the EU was bound to Germany by the euro, by the ever-closer relations of financial and productive subordination to Germany’s virtuous debt to GDP ratio and by essential supply lines stretching to Italy, Spain and France.

These European relationships were growing stronger and more solid than those with America. The basis of American-European relations had been defense against the Soviet threat, but with the collapse of the USSR that existential threat was gone.

But the US-NATO defense alliance was abused, with high costs and low performing deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, there was the euro, separated from the dollar, and Washington’s increasing distraction by Asia, which was not a challenge for Germany.

For Germany, the efficiency of its economy was the answer to any theoretical political trial. For Germany, it was an ideal world – if Russia had not begun to change it by narrowing the buffer lines.

Thinner buffers

Since 2008, Russia had eliminated or thinned the first line of buffer countries. Listing the events in no particular order, Russia has split and caged Georgia with a series of internal and external conflicts.

It has successfully supported the Assad regime in Syria, strengthening itself in its port of Tarsus in the Mediterranean Sea. It aided the Benghazi faction in Libya, it foiled a democratic election in Belarus and virtually reannexed the republic. It detached Crimea from Ukraine and annexed it.

Russia also tried to expand into Azerbaijan supporting Armenian ambitions. It failed, but Armenia is now closer to Moscow. Moscow may have inspired a coup in Kazakhstan, and in practice extended its power throughout former Soviet Central Asia, thereby erasing any dreams of an alternative gas supply to Russia.

In this file photo taken on March 26, 2019, a worker moves a pipe at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Lubmin, northeastern Germany. Photo: AFP / Tobias Schwarz

There was a prospect of bringing Kazakh or Turkish gas to Europe and Germany with a pipeline through the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Instead, Russia wanted and wants to channel all that gas only through its pipelines to increase its political leverage with the EU and indirectly with the US.

All this leaves Germany in a very different reality than 30 years ago. Russia is now much closer to German borders. It can also be a good thing because some of the countries returned under the strict protection of Moscow were considered by some as bunglers and scoundrels, and it was so much better to talk directly with the Russians.

But the Russian extension to the west has also sent the second line of buffer countries, those now in the EU and NATO, into turmoil and dwindles prospects of negotiations on energy supplies. If the Russian pipelines have no potential alternatives in Central Asian gas routed through Turkey, then Berlin is under a Russian monopoly.

Germans can console themselves by thinking that the Russians need German euros more than the Germans need Russian gas. But the reality is that the Russians have proven that they are willing to suffer for a political purpose, so they can take fewer euros. The Germans, on the other hand, can hardly do without gas.

So, what can happen in the Ukraine crisis for Germany? The pro-Russian coup in Kazakhstan may show that Moscow does not want a neutral government in Kiev, nor a buffer state, but a satellite country.

For Berlin, the idea of admitting into NATO a fragile and decomposed country, a “thief” of gas from the pipelines, like Ukraine is certainly disturbing. But the de facto annexation of this immense land and the anxiety and apprehension it spins throughout Europe, with ramifications as far as Portugal, opens up possibly worse scenarios.

The ghost of a second Cold War in Europe, not only in Asia, is rising again. Here, Germany will want to avoid being on the front line again, at all costs, and must protect itself. Russia may want guarantees but similarly so does the rest of Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move toward Ukraine, at the same time as the coup in Kazakhstan, opens up new and existential scenarios for Germany. The time when commercial economic integration could replace geopolitics is over.

If Germany does not oppose Russia in Ukraine, it returns to the front line and becomes a subject, not a leader, of the EU. The relationship with the US, today dialectic, becomes hierarchical again because only America can guarantee German security from the Russians or from Polish, Romanian and Baltic anxiety.

Germany cannot get out of its geography, much less out of the EU and NATO. It can try to play there, but Putin has changed his games.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Will he invade or hold back? Photo: AFP / Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik

Putin’s miscalculations

In other words, Putin may have miscalculated. By pushing too hard on Ukraine, he found resistance and in the face of this resistance, he did not immediately withdraw, but insisted, and so he is forcing Germany into choices it did not want to make.

Berlin would have wanted to maintain a special axis with Moscow over the other European countries, but this axis cannot exist in spite of the European countries. If it has to be in spite of them, Germany may be pushed to bend with the rest of Europe.

It is unthinkable and not practical that it would choose Moscow over Europe, which it is an integral part of.

Therein lies the dilemma. Putin is in a corner and coming out of the Ukraine game defeated could have heavy domestic consequences. Chaos in Moscow would be a jinx for Berlin.

Germany may want an honorable compromise for Putin, but the Eastern European countries may want to take this opportunity to push back the Russians and step out of their shadow with more certainty, even at the cost of possible instability in Moscow.

Moreover, beyond the intentions of others, Putin is hesitating by keeping troops on the border without letting them withdraw or advance. The more time that passes in this indecision, the weaker his hand becomes, and the more complicated the game and German desires also become.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz thus faces not a simple crisis in Ukraine, but rather a complex redefinition of his country’s foreign and economic policy after 30 years. And he has no time, because Putin’s indecision does not help him.

That leaves the energy question. How does one survive or resist under threat from Putin’s gas policies? Russian gas is indeed convenient, but now thanks to new shale technologies, the world has perhaps more oil and gas than mineral water.

Extractions have been reduced due to the economic crisis after Covid and production has not restarted immediately. But the gas is there and there’s a lot of it. The immediate problem is how to bring it to Europe.

If liquified American gas comes in, regasification plants must be equipped, but once that happens, Russian gas may become redundant. Here the Russians have a window of only a few months to bargain with the Germans and the Americans.

This, however, touches on webs of legitimate personal and business interests that have been intertwined with Russian gas over the past decades. These entanglements today may cloud the vision of many in Europe and contribute to confusion, multiplying the risks of mistakes and accidents in Ukraine and its surroundings.

Russian troops have massed on the border with Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

Finally, how the Germans handle the Russians in Ukraine could become the foreplay of a more sensitive terrain – how Berlin (and by association the EU) will handle China. So far Germany has been very good in keeping the two issues apart – a stern position on human rights issues, and a very realistic approach to business.

Still, if things change with Russia, then they may change with China, too. Priorities and goals are different between the two countries. Still, if a new era of geopolitics is looming and realistic geoeconomics is doomed, Germany may want to think hard about it.

This is very important for China, too. Perhaps Beijing should consider what it should do to keep economic and political relations with Germany and the EU on a fairly even keel when perhaps an even bigger storm is coming.

This story first appeared on the Settimana News website and is republished with permission. To see the original, please click here.

Follow Francesco Sisci on Twitter: @francescosisci