France and Germany in the Face of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

With the return of war to European soil, it is worth analysing the actions of two key nations in Europe's institutional architecture - France and Germany - in the face of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.  At the same time, it is pertinent to examine some of the consequences of the outbreak of war in Ukraine for these two countries, both internationally and domestically.

At the geopolitical level in France, former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine noted in 2019: “our relations with Russia are worse than those with the Soviet Union during the last three decades of its existence. This cannot be favourable to our interests". In the country where Charles de Gaulle had already spoken of a Europe that went "from the Atlantic to the Urals" regardless of American interests on the continent, current president Emmanuel Macron has on several occasions voiced the goal of "bringing Russia back to Europe" so as to amend the policies of the last few years that pushed Russia towards China.  With the unleashing of the war in Ukraine this strategy seems to have been set back.

Domestically, President Macron lacked a strong opposition - neither in terms of a candidate nor of an idea – and Putin's actions in Ukraine has undermined rivals who once expressed admiration for the Russian leader - the right-wing populists Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemour, and the left-winger Jean-Luc Malenchon. Because of his quixotic last-minute journeys to Moscow to meet Putin, Macron has been able to claim that he did all he could to avoid war. In the face of this fait accompli, Macron has said that France must now strengthen its borders and prepare to receive Ukrainian refugees, while authorising the dispatch of 500 military personnel to Romania.

On the energy front, given the problems of Russian gas deliveries to Europe, Macron has more than justified the decision to continue developing nuclear energy as an energy source in France. This strategy, advocated by de Gaulle and always supported by the development of nuclear weapons, was intended to give his nation more energy and military independence. In turn, the French achievement regarding the inclusion at the European Union level of nuclear energy among the energy sources considered to be environmentally friendly has acquired greater importance.

Meanwhile, Germany has fallen into a state of shock after the Russian invasion, forcing the new "traffic light coalition" - Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals - to make drastic changes in its foreign policy. Indeed, the invasion has destroyed one of the pillars of German foreign policy: Ostpolitik. This policy of reaching out to the former East Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia was conceived by Chancellor Willy Brandt - a social democrat - who was the Mayor of West Berlin during the traumatic construction of the dividing wall. Ostpolitik was reflected in the good relations of Vladimir Putin - who speaks German - with former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and former Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel - who speaks Russian. Thus, German leaders have been left stunned and outraged by Putin's invasion of Ukraine, which has caused Ostpolitik to implode. They must be recalling the words of the great Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: "never trust the Russians, for even the Russians do not trust themselves".

Another change will be the reformulation of its defence policy. Germany has lived under the US conventional and nuclear military umbrella since the end of the Second World War. It believed it was a state without enemies, and never thought that the Cold War nightmare of Russian tanks advancing from the East would come true. As a result, Germany's armed forces have been significantly reduced since 1989: from 310,000 soldiers to 180,000, from 4,700 tanks to 300, from 390 helicopters to 230, from 130 ships to 60, and from 18 submarines to 6. Among other things, this has led former social democratic defence minister Sigmar Gabriel to assert: “Putin thinks we are all wimps". With the illusion of a Europe without military violence coming to an end, Olaf Scholz's government has decided to spend an additional 113 billion dollars on defence, bringing military spending above 2% of the GDP, thus drastically rewriting his security policy.

A third change will be made in its energy policy, where Germany is highly dependent - 55 percent - on Russian gas imports. In a blatantly Real-politik action, a Baltic Sea pipeline (Nord Stream 1) was built that supplies gas directly from Russia, without sharing pipelines with Eastern European countries. This prevents Germany from being adversely impacted if the Kremlin puts pressure on these countries by shutting off gas supplies. A second pipeline (Nord Stream 2) was awaiting certification, but has now been put on hold. American critics have complained that by buying gas Germany is funding Russia, from which the United States is expected in theory to defend it. This discussion has finally found its way to Berlin as the fact that former chancellor Schroder was the chairman of Gazprom in Germany slowed down the debate. Yet, it is not possible at this stage to cut off supplies from Nordstream 1 - the SWIFT energy accounts continue to be operational - especially as Angela Merkel's administration decided to phase out the use of atomic energy, a measure that is now under reconsideration.

A manifestation of Germany's outrage was the expulsion of the famous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev from the Munich Philharmonic for not condemning the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian president. Gergiev, the great conductor of Saint Petersburg's theatre, had staged there the complete cycle of operas from Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungs", a true masterpiece of German culture, and had even staged it at the New York Metropolitan.

The most important challenge for these two nations, one that they will have to address together, is perhaps deciding what the United States' role should be in Europe's defence, and in particular in its relation with Russia. Indeed, in the lead-up to the current war there have been differing views between the United States, France and Germany on the role of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in Europe.  Thus, at the NATO meeting in Bucharest in 2009, George W. Bush's team pushed for a resolution establishing that both Ukraine and Georgia would eventually become members. 

In fact, efforts were made to begin the admission process - the so-called Membership Action Plan - but both France and Germany vetoed it.  The two European nations, given their geographical proximity to Russia, have naturally been more responsive to Russian interests and sensitivities than the United States, which is thousands of kilometres away. Indeed, both Macron and Olaf Scholz seemed to believe until the last moment that a diplomatic solution might be found. Yet, after the "Minsk 2" peace agreement in 2015, neither they nor the United States have sufficiently pressured Ukraine to implement mechanisms to give more autonomy to the territories of the Donbass, one of the critical points of the agreement.

The divergence of interests between the United States and its European allies has given rise to expressions in the French leadership along the lines of "friends, allies, but not aligned". On the German side, former Federal Minister Klaus von Donanyi under the administrations of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt has voiced criticism claiming that there has been a great misunderstanding in Europe with regard to the relations with the United States.  As an example he points to the relation with Russia: "There are people in the Washington establishment who for decades have had nothing else on their minds but to continue to push back or weaken Russia. This is consistent with their interests, though not with Europe's".

In essence, and beyond the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict, there is also the crucial question of whether France and Germany will build their own defence systems to enhance European "strategic autonomy", or to what extent they will continue to rely on American protection.

Patricio Carmody is a specialist in international relations and the author of the book "Seeking Consensus at the End of the World - Towards a Foreign Policy by Consensus (2015-2027)". He studied at Dartmouth College, Harvard and Columbia Universities, and at the École des Hautes Études Internationales in Paris.

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