The latest NATO summit got underway in Brussels this week, and President Trump brought all of his signature rhetorical subtlety to the Belgian capital. Off the bat at a meeting Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump accused Germany of being “captive” to Russia. The remark ruffled diplomatic feathers in the Western alliance and touched off a predictable freakout among reporters and pundits back home.
When Trump insults Merkel and Germany, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tweeted, “Putin wins.” Mitchell’s horror was shared across the foreign-policy establishment. Many American liberals like to think of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel as a one-woman bulwark against populism and Putinism at a time when the putative leader of the free world—Trump—is an unabashed populist and, they suspect, a crypto-Putinist.
Reality is a lot messier.
Yes, Trump’s suggestion that Germany is “captive” to Russia was a bit much. But it is true that, among the top NATO powers, Berlin has often struck a wobbly pose in response to Russian aggression and other threats to the West. With few exceptions, the country’s leaders view Germany less as a member of the Western military alliance and more as a commercial and diplomatic intermediary between East and West. Germany’s drift toward Moscow—there is no other way to describe it—began long before Trump came on the scene.
Start with the Nord Stream II pipeline, which provided the immediate context for Trump’s barb. The project—a joint venture of Gazprom, the Vladimir Putin-linked energy giant, and several European firms—would allow Russia to deliver some 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly to Germany. Running on the Baltic seabed, Nord Stream II would bypass existing land routes, which is why it has nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe up in arms.
Nord Stream II would allow the Kremlin to expand its energy dominance and isolate the likes of Poland and Ukraine, which not only lose out on transit fees but also the strategic leverage they enjoy over Moscow—i.e., the fact that they can block the westward flow of Russian gas and therefore a significant share of Putin’s energy income. The Merkel government, which backs Nord Stream II vigorously, is deaf to the ominous historical echoes of Germany and Russia dividing the region among themselves.
The Trump administration, like its predecessor, is opposed. As Richard Grenell, the American envoy to Germany, told me recently, “The U.S. shares widespread European concerns about projects like Nord Stream II that would undermine Europe’s own energy diversification efforts.” Grenell also warned that firms working on “Russian energy export pipelines are operating in an area that carries sanctions risk.”
A senior Republican congressional staffer, who has repeatedly met with the Germans on these issues in recent months, was blunter still: “Nord Stream II is Germany making money by putting Europe under Russian energy hegemony. The Trump administration has been fighting tooth and nail to stop it. So have bipartisan coalitions in Congress. But the Germans say it’s in their national interest and won’t budge.”
Then there is Germany’s less-than-serious response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Encouraged by President Obama to take the lead in talks with Moscow, Berlin softened the Western line in word and deed. In 2015, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s most serious newspaper, called the German position on Russia’s encroachments a “pink line.” That was after an especially brutal Russian rocket assault against eastern Ukraine that left 30 civilians dead.
Germany’s response to the attack? It was serious, said then-Foreign Minister (now-President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but not one signaling a “quantitative change in the situation.” The previous year, as some 15,000 suspected Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine and another 40,000 amassed by the border, then-German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was quick to warn NATO that “the impression must not be given that we’re playing with military options even in theoretical terms.”
Time and again, Gabriel, Steinmeier, and other German leaders have denounced NATO exercises meant to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe as “saber rattling” and “war cries.” Their proposed alternative: dialogue and cooperation and, well, gas deals. Berlin also reportedly opposed plans to rotate NATO armored forces through Poland and the Baltic States, and German leaders weighed on the Obama administration not to arm Kiev (not that the 44th president needed much persuading to abandon embattled allies).
To be fair, all this reflects popular sentiment in Germany. Opinion polling consistently shows that the majority of Germans don’t view Russia as a military threat, don’t support economic sanctions against Moscow, and don’t want German troops defending Poland and the Balts if Putin attacked them.
The reasons for this German ambivalence are complex. Not all of it can be attributed to cowardice or greed for euros. But it would be nice if the American reporters and pundits who imagine that Merkel can do no wrong, while Trump can do no right, would brush up on history—which did not, in fact, begin in 2016.