1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

West needs cohesion — beyond the Ukraine crisis

Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau
February 19, 2022

There were more warnings of Russian intervention in Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference. But while the West's unity is repeatedly invoked, Germany's stance is contradictory, writes DW's Jens Thurau.

2022 MSC Olaf Scholz
Once again, Olaf Scholz managed to avoid mentioning North Stream 2Image: Tobias Hase/dpa/picture alliance

There is something ghostly about listening to the speeches at the Security Conference in Munich this weekend. There has been much talk of European cohesion, of a new, stronger transatlantic relationship, especially between Washington and Berlin. There was talk of NATO not threatening anyone, not even Russia. That negotiations are still possible in the Ukraine crisis and that everything must be done to prevent a war in Europe. The words have almost become the conference mantra.

And at the same time, conference participants in Munich's Bayerischer Hof hotel can hear the latest news from the Ukraine-Russia border. There were reports of large-scale Russian maneuvers just this weekend, personally supervised by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and of a mobilization of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Delegates in Munich discuss and appeal to Western values while Putin creates facts on the ground. In Washington, meanwhile, US President Joe Biden says he is convinced Putin will attack Ukraine.

Jens Thurau
DW political correspondent Jens ThurauImage: DW

What to do? It is easy now to accuse Europe, and especially Germany, of inaction. Very little is in the Europeans' hands. But nuances do exist. On Friday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party called what is happening a "Russian crisis," not a Ukrainian one, clearly naming the aggressor. She also explicitly mentioned the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline when discussing the possible sanctions following Russian military action. In other words: Nord Stream 2, now fully completed but not yet operational, cannot go online if Russia intervenes in Ukraine and shifts its borders.

But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — in both his speech Saturday and the questions that followed — stuck to the strategy he used in many appearances in recent weeks and avoided any mention of the pipeline. Scholz and his party, the Social Democrats (SPD), are currently facing the broken fragments of a Russia policy focused on diplomacy and economic cooperation that has prevailed for many years — despite the increasing provocation from Russia.

When Scholz was asked about the German "no" to arms deliveries to Ukraine, a line escapes him that summarizes the main features of German policy at this point: After all, Ukraine is receiving weapons from other nations. This way of withdrawing as far as possible when the dirty jobs have to be done seems strangely out of step with the times.

Many attempts to interpret Putin

It is interesting to see how the motives of the Russian president are examined and re-examined in Munich. Scholz reported on his conversation with Putin a few days ago in Moscow. He had made it clear to the Russian president, he said, that he could not accept that the reason for Putin's aggressive policy was the fact that NATO had expanded the alliance eastward after the end of the Cold War. If one went back far enough, centuries if necessary, in world history, Scholz said, one could always find a reason to shift the borders. Undoubtedly true, but will this argument sway Putin?

In her speech, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that there is now a whole generation of young people in Ukraine who are oriented toward the West, toward Western democracy and a market economy. This is what Putin fears. That, too, can hardly be denied, but can it help prevent escalation?

Kamala Harris speaking at the Munich Security Conference
Kamala Harris refrained from criticizing Germany in her speechImage: Tobias Hase/dpa/picture alliance

Diplomacy put to the test

In Munich, the representatives of the old Western alliances — NATO, the European Union — have no choice but to strengthen cohesion, to show unity. This is happening across the board. Almost every speaker reaffirmed that Putin would pay a high price for an intervention. US Vice President Kamala Harris passionately emphasized the cohesion of the West and refrained from criticism of any allies, including Germany, though there has been much criticism in Washington.

There is so much at stake for Ukraine, but also far beyond that. Von der Leyen, for example, said Russia and China are counting on an entirely new world order: A more confrontational one, one in which autocratic states play a much greater role. And that old-school diplomacy is being pushed into the background.

That's what makes the Munich meeting so spooky. After all, the security conference is essentially that: a forum for talks in front of the cameras, but, above all, in background discussions, with representatives from all camps, including non-democratic ones. The motto is that those who talk to each other don't shoot at each other. Putin, however, is currently moving in a different direction.

This opinion was originally written in German.

Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau