Who blew up the Nord Stream pipelines? I suppose one day we may actually find out, though Seymour Hersh’s interesting recent speculation is just that, and establishes nothing for certain. The best clues are, as so often, circumstantial. Who would be pleased? It is laughable to imagine that Russia, which spent so much on the project and which has now lost the power to turn it off and on at will, would wreck its own property and destroy its own power. Whatever for? Former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, connected through his wife, Anne Applebaum, with the Washington foreign policy establishment, tweeted a picture of the foaming sea after the sabotage, with the words, “Thank you, USA.” So that may tell us something, as does the fact that he soon afterward removed the tweet. There seems to be a rule about major anti-Russian actions outside Ukraine itself, such as this and the blowing up of the Kerch Bridge, that nobody takes responsibility for them. Even if the answer is pretty obvious, actual gloating could result in retaliations beyond the main war zone. And then what?
I cannot say who did it, because I do not know, though it is not the toughest conundrum the world has faced. The most interesting question is whether it was aimed mainly against Russia, or mainly, through Russia, against Germany. Some might see in this crude piece of destruction a warning to Berlin, that it is not as important or as independent as it thinks it is. If it wants any relations with Russia, it will have to have only those that Washington permits. And this raises the question: Whatever happened to Germany, once a great carnivorous power, now seemingly a docile and bovine nation, large and fat?
After Bismarck’s victory over France in 1870, again at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and yet again after Berlin violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1941, the two great contestants for mastery in Europe were Germany and Russia. I know my own countrymen (preoccupied with Flanders) find this hard to accept, but the two great European wars of the 20th century were essentially Russo-German conflicts, in which what are now Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltic States were the main field of battle. The parade in Brest-Litovsk that celebrated the defeat of Poland in 1940 was a joint affair, in which Red Army and Wehrmacht officers together took the salute from German and Soviet soldiers. Astonishing photographs survive. Yet while the two tyrannies got on surprisingly well at this level, Germany’s actions in destroying France and driving Britain from the Continent, and especially its temporary friendship with Stalin, were preparations above all for an attack on the Soviet Union.
Then, in 1945, a defeated Germany mysteriously disappeared from European geopolitics. It was still there on the map, huge, potentially rich and populous. There was still a government, run by the ancient, cunning Konrad Adenauer, but hidden away in the “Federal Village” of Bonn, a twee university town on the banks of the Rhine, chosen to emphasize the modesty of the new nation. The wealth quickly became a reality. The new Germany even maintained sizable armed forces until the end of the Cold War. But this revived country was horrified by any suggestion that it might actually use these forces (apart from one brilliant defeat of terrorism at Mogadishu airport in 1977). Its apparently permanent foreign minister of the time, Hans-Dieter Genscher, was a kind of jet-powered olive branch. He whizzed about the world and ceaselessly assembled diplomatic packages aimed at relaxing Cold War tensions, even pouring subsidies into the neighboring prison state of East Germany. He did this in the well-founded hope of stirring reform in Moscow itself, and so bringing about German reunification. There is a reasonable case for saying that he helped create Mikhail Gorbachev.
But even after the triumph of reunification, Germany was far bigger but just as invisible. I recall driving into Germany from Poland in 2001, near Frankfurt on the Oder, a few years before Warsaw joined the European Union. At the side of the road, we first met a huge sign proclaiming “Welcome to the European Union!” A little further on, a more modest marker announced “Welcome to the State of Brandenburg.” It was only because I was looking for it carefully that I soon afterwards spotted the small metal plaque, half-hidden by vegetation, which muttered “Welcome to the Federal Republic of Germany.” I have never seen a better example of the rather slippery idea that, instead of seeking a German Europe, Berlin would (after 1945) seek a European Germany. This does not mean, as some have thought, that Germany would not be powerful. It means that German power issues its instructions tactfully and offstage—and it is impolite for others to mention this publicly.
Germany, of course, has never ceased to exist. It has just submerged about 90 percent of its former characteristics in a European sea, so appearing nice and harmless. And yet it has accrued huge power of the real sort. Its domination of EU economies through the euro is all the greater because it is exercised in near-silence. Greece and Cyprus, when they were foolish enough to challenge this arrangement, found themselves facing naked power that simply was not interested in anything they had to say. All others took note. The abolition of almost all continental frontiers, robbing most EU members of a major aspect of practical sovereignty, also gives the Continent the air of being somebody’s empire. But whose? I have strolled into France and the Netherlands from Germany, as if crossing from one county to another, and traveled from Berlin to Warsaw and Prague (surely two of the world’s most sensitive journeys) without any need for a passport.
I am reminded, by such things and by the general shape and nature of the modern European Union, of the brilliant scheme put forward by Imperial Germany’s subtle foreign minister, Richard von Kuehlmann, in 1917 and 1918: “limited sovereignty.” It was a key feature of the unwisely forgotten 1918 Peace of Brest-Litovsk, which so very nearly decided the shape of modern Europe. And as the Great War historian Fritz Fischer explained, it placed a bomb under the old Russian Empire by offering Petrograd’s subject nations all the baubles of independence. But “Germany’s aim was not to confer independence and national liberty on Poland, Lithuania, Courland, Livonia, Estonia, and the Ukraine, but on the contrary to fetter them closely to the German Reich and to Mitteleuropa by treaties which were only nominally international personal unions, economic and customs unions, and military conventions.”
Kuehlmann’s ideas have been restored to life, especially in the rush into the European Union by former Soviet subject nations. It is easy to see why they have accepted their new conditions, but it would be wrong to pretend that they have no strings. Whatever it is they have now, and however much it is preferable to Soviet imprisonment, it is not national sovereignty. In a superb and cogent book on modern Germany, Berlin Rules, a former British ambassador to that country, Sir Paul Lever, remarks that, just as NATO will never do anything the US does not want it to do, the European Union will never do anything Germany does not want it to do. Yet at the same time modern Germany pretends to be nobly uninterested in power. It has almost wholly renounced its own history, apart from a creditable, honest, and effective examination of the Hitler era. And having all but denied its own existence or importance, modern Germany dissolves itself into a Euro-mist. As Lever says, “The more that [the European Union] becomes the vehicle through which identity is expressed, aims pursued and influence exercised, the less important is the historical baggage of its individual members.”
German leaders used to defend the European Union, Lever notes, on the grounds that it was “the only way to accommodate the reality of German power.” Now, they do not even do that. Though very occasionally German leaders irritably hint at what might happen if the rest of Europe neglects its side of the bargain—the pretense that it follows German wishes by accident, or voluntarily. In February 1996, in Leuven in Belgium (a city twice devastated by German invasions), the then-German chancellor made an astonishing speech that even one of Britain’s most liberal newspapers described thus: “Chancellor Helmut Kohl yesterday warned in the most strident terms that a retreat from further political integration in Europe could plunge the continent into new ‘nationalist’ wars. … The German leader proclaimed: ‘The policy of European integration is in reality a question of war and peace in the 21st century.’”
I go into all this because the odd—and so far successful—relationship between Berlin and Washington has shown grave strains during the Ukraine crisis. Berlin wants a stable, prosperous Europe largely under its control. But Russia can never be part of this, though Germany, understandably, remains deeply interested in influencing events in Russia and in exploiting its economy. This means compromise with Moscow, and major trade with Russia. It has meant the creation of the Nord Stream pipelines between Russia and Germany.
But Washington seems to want a confrontation with Russia, and has chosen Ukraine as its site. Instead of being content with a largely peaceful and prosperous Continent, some strategists in Washington appear to have a policy of aggressively marginalizing and perhaps diminishing Russia. This has been especially active since 2008, when NATO almost split over the suggestion that Ukraine should be offered membership.
For the European nations, this is an utter change. Since the 1940s, the United States has pursued and supported a policy of European integration that has meant European domination by Germany, sweetened by unprecedented economic and social stability. France put up with it by continuing to pretend to be a world power. Britain did roughly the same, but also claimed, for the sake of its own pride, to be the extra-special friend of America (which it is not). The rest of the Continent was happy to be spared any more explosions or conquests. Until the collapse of the USSR, Germany was very much under the American thumb, and also restrained by Britain and France. The two aging powers tried feebly to stop German reunification after 1989, but had no power to prevent it. Since that failure, the project of a “European Germany” has been an economic and political success. Many of the objectives proclaimed as war aims in Berlin’s “September Programme” of 1914 have been peacefully attained. Even the old diplomatic preoccupations of Wilhelmine Berlin—in Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Romania, the Balkans, the Baltic coasts, and Poland—are now pretty much fulfilled through European integration.
But Germany is still a diplomatic and military dwarf. And it does not quite seem to have realized that the price for its European supremacy is continued subservience to American priorities. The irritated explosion by US official Victoria Nuland, snarling “Fuck the EU!” in a leaked telephone conversation, revealed this tension. Her outburst was recorded during the days in February 2014, just before Ukraine’s legitimate leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown in a lawless putsch. Nuland, in her tapped conversation with the US envoy to Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, was rather outrageously discussing the make-up of a new cabinet for a supposedly sovereign Ukraine. Its planned membership was so nationalist that it was hard to believe it would have served under Yanukovych. Yet European foreign ministers, presumably working with the knowledge and approval of Berlin, were at the same time making strong efforts to keep Yanukovych in office. They actually brokered a treaty between him and the leaders of the “Revolution of Dignity,” involving major concessions and early elections. They thought they had a deal. But when the Kiev mob rejected it, the nationalist leaders did little to save it, instead claiming that they regretted even having shaken Yanukovych’s hand. Did the US deplore the deal’s collapse, or welcome it? Who can say?
But the United States, which has for many years used German power to stabilize Europe, is now pursuing a quite different objective. Germany matters less. France matters hardly at all. Britain, as usual, wags its tail and puts its head forward to be patted, offering bits of its underpowered military inventory to Ukraine. Strongly anti-Russian nations, especially Poland and the Baltic States, demand pure, relentless support for Ukraine. How very odd it is that American power, which was used so effectively for so long to keep Europe free from conflict, is now being used to extend and deepen the worst European war for nearly 80 years.