The Unravelling of the Western front on Ukraine

In the first week of December, German officials told journalists that Berlin’s last year’s promise to raise their defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP will be missed not only this year (2023) but also the next year. This is a decision not just based on simple economics but on geopolitics. German decision also means that the possibility of procuring fighter jets from the US will also be delayed. As reports in the US media show, the purchase of 35 F-35 jets is in jeopardy. In fact, earlier in December, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told German lawmakers that the deal risks being hampered by “delays and additional costs.” This change in policy correlates to the changing German views on the military conflict in Easter Europe. When asked in April 2022, about 29 per cent of Germans said that NATO provoked Russia to go “to war.” When asked the same question in October, this number rose sharply to 40 per cent of the Germans holding the same view. In provinces once part of East Germany, 59 per cent believe that NATO is responsible for this military conflict in Eastern Europe.

This popular thinking is being reinforced by powerful Germans as well. For instance, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently revealed that the 2014 Minsk agreements did not resolve the then crisis. These agreements were only meant to buy time for Ukraine to become powerful vis-à-vis Russia. It shows how the seeds of the present conflict were sown many years ago by the West itself rather than Moscow. The changing German opinion is bound to have an impact on the German government, which is itself battling a severe economic crisis since the start of this conflict in February 2022 – a crisis exacerbated by expensive US gas.

This dual impact of a struggling economy and changing political opinion in Germany is at the heart of increasing German contact with the ‘Eastern camp’ i.e., China and, indirectly, Russia. The first major contact happened in November 2022 when the German Chancellor visited China. Many in the West explained that visit as a one-time meeting, but the recent call between German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Xi effectively shows the evolving trajectory of German geopolitical thinking away from the US camp. The Chinese readout was meaningful, as it said that

The two sides also exchanged views on the Ukraine crisis. Xi Jinping stressed that China stays committed to promoting peace talks, and believes that a protracted and complicated crisis is in no parties’ interests. China supports the EU in demonstrating its strategic autonomy and in leading the establishment of a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture to realize enduring peace and long-term stability in the European continent.”

The reference to strategic autonomy is meaningful insofar as it shows Beijing is fully aware of where Germany is going in its quest for a greater role in the changing world. There is no denying that Germany wants to enhance its power, but it does not want to do it by simply playing a second fiddle to the US. Interestingly, the contact between Steinmeier and Xi was followed by a surprise visit of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to China. While this may just be a coincidence, many in the US believe that Germany is changing its course. Both the phone call and the visit were preceded by Olaf’s own call for Europe to go back to the “pre-war peace order” with Russia. This is nothing short of strategic setback to the whole US plan to expand NATO to Ukraine.

China, it seems, is facilitating as a mediator to make things normal in Europe. That, of course, is concerning for Washington, which saw this conflict as an opportunity to rekindle its hegemony by building a Cold War like scenario. But the fact that the centre of diplomatic action is now shifting away from the US to Beijing means that there are many reasons for the US to worry, as it is losing the initiative. That’s why the US has started a new offensive on China.

Followed by the phone call and the visit, Blinken made a phone call to Wang Yi, who is China’s State Councillor and Foreign  Minister. It happened on December 22. The American readout said that “ The Secretary also raised concerns about Russia’s war against Ukraine and the threats it poses to global security and economic stability.  They further discussed the current COVID-19 situation, and the Secretary underscored the importance of transparency for the international community.”

But the Chinese response was far more belligerent, as Wang reminded Blinken “that the United States should not engage in dialogue and containment at the same time, neither should it talk cooperation, but stab China simultaneously”, adding that “This is not reasonable competition, but irrational suppression. It is not meant to properly manage disputes, but to intensify conflicts. In fact, it is still the old practice of unilateral bullying.”

Unilateral bullying refers to Washington bullying China into toeing the US line on all matters, including staying away from Europe. But Wang’s response not only shows the inability of the US to keep matters under its control but also reveals how uneasy Washington is over these developments, as it sees Germany’s increased recourse to operate outside of the framework of the alliance as an unravelling of its own control of the European continent. Combined with French dissatisfaction with the US, the growing German distance from the US is particularly significant for the future course of events and the possible conclusion of Russia’s special military operations in Ukraine.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“


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