Americans use the slang “lockstep” recalling a characteristic trait of their prisons of the 19th century when inmates had to shuffle-step because of the chain that linked their legs. But US President Joe Biden used that powerful evocative metaphor to convey on Monday that his country and Germany are aligned on fighting any Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“Germany is one of America’s closest allies,” he said, adding that the two nations were “working lockstep” to address the alleged Russian aggression. Biden was speaking ahead of his bilateral meeting with new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House.
For Russia, “lockstep” is a horrific 20th-century metaphor that harks back to Nazi Germany. Disregarding the pejorative tone, Biden casually tossed it around to drive home German-American solidarity and discipline.
Scholz simply responded: “I’m looking forward to working closely together with you.” He said the US is one of Germany’s “closest allies.”
Much has been made out of Scholz’s reluctance to mention the Nord Steam 2 project at this joint press conference with Biden. But did it really matter? Biden spoke for him, suggesting firmly that the pipeline issue should not get in the way of ties with Germany.
Indeed Biden, who has been a leading figure in American foreign policy for nearly half a century, recognizes the delicate politics Scholz is facing with the project. He also knows Scholz is new to his job and is unable to unite the trans-Atlantic alliance in a response to Russia as his predecessor Angela Merkel would have.
Overall, Biden has reason to feel pleased that the relations between the US and its European allies are strong despite apparent disagreements on certain aspects of a response to Russia.
Fundamentally, the alliance agrees that a Russian military intervention in Ukraine cannot go unchecked.
Washington is also not losing sleep over the French-led talks with Russia and sees President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to engage with the Kremlin as a way to amplify France – and therefore himself – as a more influential player than Biden or Boris Johnson.
Macron is only two months away from a presidential election where he seeks a second term.
After the visit to Moscow, Macron traveled to Kiev on Tuesday. He told reporters that “the next few days will be decisive and will require intensive discussions, which we will pursue together.”
But Moscow cannot be of two minds that when the chips are down, the United States’ allies will inevitably line up behind Biden, as history testifies.
The unknown, if at all, is how the allies might react if the Russian intervention were to fall short of a large-scale military move and is limited to, say, an operation confined to the Donbas region of Ukraine. This probably explains why Scholz would not publicly commit on the future of Nord Stream 2.
US news network CNN speculated that Scholz would have reached some sort of understanding with Biden. The point is, the German economy is closely tied to Russia’s and scrapping Nord Steam 2 could hit it hard as well as Scholz’s political standing.
At such a sensitive juncture, it is also part of Washington’s toolbox to confuse Moscow by playing “good cop, bad cop.” The so-called Berlin Declaration of the Weimar Triangle among Germany, France and Poland on Tuesday called on Russia “to de-escalate the situation at the Ukrainian border and engage in a meaningful dialogue on security on the European continent.”
It said: “France, Poland and Germany express willingness to engage constructively in meaningful and result-oriented discussions on security issues of mutual concern.”
Yet it added: “In line with the Alliance’s dual-track approach the leaders agreed that the Alliance needs to continuously keep its deterrence and defense posture under review and be ready to adapt as necessary to a further deterioration of the security environment, including in the framework of NATO’s enhanced forward presence.”
The moribund Weimar Triangle’s sudden appearance can only confirm Moscow’s suspicion that Washington is playing games. While Germany and France have so far opted for a more diplomatic approach toward Russia and continuously emphasized the need to resume dialogue with Moscow, Poland has taken a tougher stance.
The trilateral format is a clumsy attempt to recalibrate Europe’s approach to the Kremlin. Clearly, Russia is being wooed by diverse quarters in the West, in different permutations and combinations.
British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss landed in Moscow on Thursday and Scholz is to do so next Tuesday.
But on the core issues as such, namely the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s rollback and Russia’s security demands, there is no movement.
In fact, none of these countries – the UK, France, Germany or Poland – is even qualified to negotiate the core issues with Russia. At best, they can provide an “exit route” for Russia to “de-escalate” by withdrawing troops far away from the Ukrainian border, without loss of face.
Frustration is building up in Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry lashed out at Germany on Tuesday, calling it an “occupied state” where American diplomats “are giving orders to German officials” and are “backed up by 30,000 American boots on the ground.”
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova implied that Scholz caved in under US pressure. She said: “Germany needs this gas not because they like Russia or want to please us – they just need it, it’s what feeds their economy, it’s a resource their industrial development hinges on, it’s what they need to live, basically … a vital issue.”
Zakharova lamented that not only with Germany but with the rest of Europe too, it’s the same case. “There’s been no talk of any sovereign interests for a long time now,” as she put it.
The timing of this outburst cannot be accidental. Certainly, it deliberately scattered the “feel-good” lingering in the air after Macron’s visit. Russia is not impressed that European leaders are making a beeline for Moscow. It sees a strategy to wear it down in inconsequential diplomatic gyrations.
And all this is while NATO is substantially building up its forces on Russia’s borders and continues to develop military infrastructure on adjacent territories. Russia-Ukraine relations are also deteriorating, with both sides massing large numbers of military personnel and equipment along their borders.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat. Follow M K Bhadrakumar on Twitter: @BhadraPunchline