It isn't just Russian gas that's dividing Europe over Ukraine

There are fundamental differences in the thinking and approaches adopted by the continent's three big powers

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Wolfgang Ischinger, one of the most eminent former German diplomats, recalled last week asking a Russian counterpart in the 1990s about Moscow’s relations with its neighbours. Even in the early post-Cold War period – when Russia was relatively weak on the global stage – the response was implacable. "What is wrong with having our neighbours fear us?," came the reply.

The encounter has resonance today as the crisis in Ukraine envelops diplomacy, with some in the West asking if Germany is one of those neighbours that retains an element of fear in its relations with Russia.

The three big European powers – France, Germany and the UK – have all taken distinct policy approaches to the events in Ukraine. It’s worth breaking down the reckoning in each capital and assessing the outsized role that geography is playing in the response.

Germany sees Russian President Vladimir Putin targeting a historic moment, partly because the departure of Angela Merkel as its longtime chancellor in December means the new Berlin leadership under Olaf Scholz is untested. It also sees that Mr Putin has been clear for decades that he regards any western assistance or military presence in countries such as Ukraine as an act of hostility.

Andre Haertel, the Eurasia associate for SWP-Berlin think tank, also points out that Russia desires superior economic relations with its neighbours and the EU association model marks it out as a competitor to Moscow on this front as well. And since Russia cannot compete on economic or cultural grounds with western Europe in this contest for control, it is reaches for its security policy tools to get its way.

The new German government, therefore, is willing to see if it can accommodate some of these security manoeuvres for the overall goal of maintaining economic ties, particularly gas imports from Russian state-owned producers. According to Mr Haertel, Mr Scholz's rhetoric is the same as Mrs Merkel’s but the policy is not.

The German thinking on the scenarios available to Mr Putin rest on three potential moves.

One line sees the build-up on the border with Ukraine, as well as war game exercises in Belarus, as a form of forced diplomacy to gain its demands from Nato and the US. By not giving itself a way out, Russia is, in fact, ensuring that there is a diplomatic process focused on accommodating its agenda. This thinking is obviously open-ended on the question of what the outcome of the crisis is, and it mitigates against a defensive response.

In the second scenario, it is not so much Ukraine that is the target as a permanent presence for Russian troops in Belarus. This would give the Kremlin a potential chokehold on Suwalki Gap, a strategically important land corridor between Poland and Lithuania, severing the Baltic states' connection to the rest of Nato. Since the Minsk regime has asked for Moscow’s assistance, the development could emerge as a fait accompli from the current crisis. The retaliatory measures drawn up for the Ukraine incursion could not be used in this Belarus situation.

Thirdly, that the build-up of battlegroups is designed to complete the annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine – where 600,000 people have already been granted Russian passports – entrenching the polarisation of Russia and the West.

Anything beyond these scenarios, such as a raid on Kiev or a takeover of the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, are seen as moves that would trigger a more serious schism with the West by Berlin.

In contrast, France spends almost no time dissecting scenarios of Russia reaction and counter response. President Emmanuel Macron has moved to capitalise on the crisis at the institutional level.

The French have sought to reinvigorate the 2015 ceasefire deal and Normandy format of talks that involve Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. The objective of trying to find a route through the crisis is two-fold from the French point of view. First, as a pivot to show that Europe can act and build on its own initiatives. Paris wants to prove that Europe can be capable of dealing with a crisis like this by itself.

Gerald Araud, the former French ambassador to Washington, makes a second point. It's that the Russia-Ukraine confrontation may be a model for future crisis where power politics is unleashed. Mr Macron wants to present a more dynamic and forceful European approach not only now but far into the future.

Lawrence Freedman, the leading British strategist, notes that the UK has been playing a “pretty forward role” that has drawn praise not only from Ukraine but the northern European states as well. By directly transferring weapons to Ukraine, the UK has sought to shore up the concept of defensive alliances. It has prioritised the principle that borders must not be changed by force in the international order.

The government has shown that its Integrated Review of international policy is meaningful and that the Global Britain ambitions of the government can be delivered. After leaving Europe, Mr Freedman said the Ukraine crisis has presented the UK with a “pretty good test” that is coming through well.

Only one of the countries is acting as if their policy won’t work if it’s not aligned with the US. The problem for the other two, France and Germany, is that while the US interests may not be congruent with Europe’s in the future, even Russia recognises that it is the vital decider in this current showdown.

Published: January 31, 2022, 4:00 AM