Merkel = Luo Ji?
4 February 2022
As of writing, Russian troops are positioned at Ukraine’s borders. Vladimir Putin, current president of Russia, claims he has no intentions to invade Ukraine. The West disagrees. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has accused the West of alarmism. Putin, however, has threatened “appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures”. As retaliations are in response to an action, in this case, that action is discussions for Ukraine to become part of the NATO alliance.1
From the Russian perspective, their neighbours are expanding their borders, and they find it appropriate to resist. Russia wants secure access to trade ports in the Black Sea.2 Of course, Ukraine joining NATO does not impede their access, but NATO is a political and military alliance with a collective defence clause. A future conflict with any NATO country would be stifling.3
From the West and NATO’s perspective, they encourage democratic values. If Ukraine and its people want to be part of NATO, Russia has no right to interfere.
So, what sparked this conflict now? One might wonder, Ukraine first expressed interest to join NATO in 2008. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was elected the president of Ukraine, and he chose to shelve this plan.4 This was followed by a series of events culminating in pro-EU protests in Ukraine, and then Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Crimea has oil and gas reserves and Sevastopol, a warm water port city on the Black Sea. If you remember, the primary motivation of Russians here is to enjoy a beach in winter.5
In 2015, with an active effort from France and Germany, we arrived at the Minsk agreements that implemented a ceasefire in Crimea. These accords would avoid bloodshed, but Crimea would remain part of Russia. A superstar of this negotiation was Angela Merkel, the then Chancellor of Germany. She was the only leader Putin respected. I’ve attached a famous tweet signifying her involvement in these discussions.
Back in 2022, Angela Merkel has retired. From Merkel’s party CDU, Olaf Scholz is the current Chancellor of Germany. And the world is disappointed with Merkel. Under her leadership, Germany has become dependent on Russia’s Nord Stream natural gas pipeline. If that were not the case, perhaps Germany could have taken a hard line towards Russia. Instead, they remain pacifists, preferring to resolve conflicts with dialogue rather than sending weapons. But this is not wholly attributed to the Nord Stream pipeline. With a few exceptions, not sending arms to a conflict zone has long been part of German policy.6 But perhaps, Ukraine right now cannot be another exception because of German dependence on Russian energy.
I beg to differ. I instead believe this to be a masterstroke by Merkel. The Nord Stream pipeline is an instrument of mutual deterrence. As much as Germans depend on Russian natural gas, the Russian economy depends on income from these exports. I have found it challenging to find data on the share of Europe’s natural gas purchases in Russian GDP. However, there are indirect indicators that it is indeed the case that Russia would not invade Ukraine because it cannot afford to lose Europe as a customer of its natural gas. The chief indicator is news of Putin cosying up with the Chinese premier Xi Jinping at the Winter Olympics being held in China as of writing. Well, Russia wants to increase energy exports to China. It is a good thing to diversify your clientele. There are details to this. Russia would supply China with its eastern supplies, which indicates that China cannot replace Germany. However, it can be an excellent economic buffer if things go south for Russia versus the West.7 For now, the Ukrainian conflict is a game of chicken. Economic developments over the next decade are more attention-worthy as Putin would try to break out of deterrence tactics. There is no longer a leader among us who can hold his gaze. Sholz may share an ideology with Merkel but does not have her spine. Our Wallfacer has retired, and we are doomed.