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Germany must face up to Russia's aggression

Kommentarbild Oliver Rolofs
Oliver Rolofs
December 26, 2021

As tensions grow along the Russian-Ukrainian border, the honeymoon period of the new German government is set to be short-lived. It should use the tools it has together with the EU to push back, says Oliver Rolofs.

A Russian soldier standing in front of a tank
Preparing for war? Image: AP /picture alliance

The government coalition's agreement was right to dedicate one of its longest sections to Russia. In addition to friendly words that attest to the depth and diversity of German-Russian relations, there is clear criticism of Russia's aggressive actions towards its neighbors. 

There are direct references to "attempts to destabilize Ukraine, the violence in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea" as well as the "comprehensive restriction of civil and democratic freedoms." In simple terms: Russia is waging a psychological, hybrid war that is not limited to Ukraine and neighboring countries — and is an increasing threat to the West.

Recent developments paint a grim picture. Nuclear-capable Russian bombers are being intercepted by NATO fighter jets over the North Sea. The Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is using refugees to blackmail the EU, with the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the Russian-Ukrainian border, the Kremlin has amassed close to 100,000 soldiers and heavy artillery. Cyber attacks on Ukraine and the EU are the order of the day.

Don't abandon Ukraine again

A Russian invasion of Ukraine, reminiscent of the 2014 incursion, is a real possibility. Seven years ago, Europe and the United States left Ukraine in the lurch. But they can and should be at Kyiv's side now. Appeasement of the Kremlin would have disastrous consequences — for the whole of Europe, not just Ukraine. 

Security expert Oliver Rolofs
Security expert Oliver RolofsImage: Privat

To shield Ukraine, Germany and other allies must understand that Russian aggression is not limited to tanks and troops. The Kremlin's hostilities towards Ukraine run deep and are part of a broader pattern of belligerence, which includes energy blackmail and economic warfare. 

Russia is using gas as a political weapon at a time when Europe is hit by a crippling energy crunch. This is not a new tactic and Ukraine is by no means the only victim: last month, Moscow weaponized the energy card to discourage the new pro-EU Moldovan government from strengthening links to the bloc. 

Beyond pipeline politics, Russia has threatened Ukraine's territorial integrity through underhand economic warfare aimed at forcing the Ukrainian government into a financial cul-de-sac. These pressure tactics have included tightening customs procedures leading to long delays for exporters at the border, imposing import bans for Ukrainian products and launching campaigns to shutter factories in eastern Ukraine. 

According to estimates by the Atlantic Council, a think tank, Russia's annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine has cost Ukraine at least $100 billion (€88 billion). This, of course, is just the stone-cold economic analysis. The human toll has been far greater, with 14,000 dead and counting.  

Is the EU willing and able to act?

The EU has the tools and political muscle to push back — but can it act swiftly and decisively enough? The EU needs to carve out a new strategic framework for dealing with Russia. In the first instance, Brussels should unpack its regulatory toolbox and continue the diversification and unbundling of energy markets. 

Working in tandem with France, the German government should open the door to tighter regulation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and strong-arm Gazprom into supplying gas to the Russian-Ukrainian border. The recent move to suspend Nord Stream 2's operations by Germany's energy regulator sends a powerful, albeit overdue, message to the Kremlin that its bullying tactics will no longer go unchecked. The EU's Green Deal to meet its ambitious climate targets can also be used as a pressure point. Climate change creates new geopolitical realities that, over time, will cost Russia lucrative sources of income and its main means of influence.

Berlin and Paris should also redouble efforts to revive the Normandy Format, a negotiation platform bringing together the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. 

Sending a clear message to Russia

While pushing back against Russian aggression, the EU must also make sure that the Ukrainian government has the necessary support to stay on course. If left alone, there is a high risk that the country could once again fall prey to politically active oligarchs such as Viktor Medvedchuk and former President Petro Poroshenko, who are opening the door to the Russians at a time when a united front is crucial.

The German government should use its communication channels with Moscow to draw clear red lines which drill home the cost of Russian aggression. Europe faces a long, cold winter if the combined diplomatic and economic power of the EU, the US and the UK fails to deter Russia.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Oliver Rolofs is a security expert. He was previously the head of communications at the Munich Security Conference, where he established the Energy Security Program.