Vladimir Putin's gamble all along has been that the West is too comfortable and self-absorbed to take any pain for Ukraine. This week, Germany proved him right. The news that Germany is not even prepared to trade off a percentage point of gross domestic product for Ukrainian lives will have heartened Putin.
Germany has made its choice. It will not risk any of its creature comforts in the face of war crimes. It will not sanction Russian gas. It will not imperil, even in the short term, the interests of corporate Germany for human rights, the sovereignty of nations or any so-called western values. It has hung Ukraine and by extension all of its democratic eastern neighbours, from Estonia to Romania, out to dry. Germany has also given the two fingers to Washington.
We all know the reason Germany is special. It is a country that is held and holds itself to higher standards, precisely because it is Germany. Regular visitors to the country appreciate the sense of a nation still traumatised by Nazism, a people still suffering from some collective post-traumatic stress disorder. It is palpable. Despite its economic and cultural heft, Germany is haunted. It does not have the permission to lead Europe, nor does it trust itself to do so.
Tragically, Germany allowed itself to become Russia's hostage, addicted to cheap, free-flowing Siberian energy
At the heart of Europe lies this extraordinary country. From the death of Bach until 1933, Germany was Europe's absolutely dominant intellectual, philosophical, theological, mathematical, scientific and cultural force. Germany won more Nobel prizes than the UK and America combined. Its position, a square geographic bloc, defined by the Rhine on the west, the Danube to the south, the Elbe to the east and the Baltic to the north means that everything European goes through Germany – and Russia knows this.
If you think I’m giving Germany a harder time than other countries, you are right, I am, because Germany is the most important player. Where Germany goes, so does Europe.
Tragically, Germany allowed itself to become Russia’s hostage, addicted to cheap, free-flowing Siberian energy. Last June this column described Germany as being run by a “carbon coalition”, gobbling up fossil fuels to drive its world-beating export industry.
Behind the luxury brands and reliability of the hyper-successful German economy lies one fact: industrial Germany is a carbon addict marooned in a post-carbon world.
Since 1950 Germany has been burning fossil fuels and turning the result into cars, trains, heavy machinery, plastics, petrochemical products and food. It has exported most of this, resulting in the largest trade surplus per head in the world. The carbon model was so successful for the Germans that all their institutions – political, financial and ideological – were constructed to maintain it. The Bundesbank kept inflation low to ensure that wages did not go out of control. Those wages were negotiated collectively, taking their lead every year from the IG Metal trade union, which sets a floor and a ceiling on country-wide wages.
Industry, underpinned by low inflation and manageable wages, fed off the graduates of an education system, annually throwing off engineers, mechanics and designers to work in the fossil-fuel burning manufacturing sector.
Germany has put its post-1990 three-card trick – importing cheap Russian energy, fuelling German industry to export stuff to China – before everything else
The main political party, the CDU, was designed to prop up the interests of this amazingly successful industrial effort dependent on fossil fuel. Germany was run by a “carbon coalition”, which brought together industry, political institutions, political parties, the central bank and the technical education system, not to mention the national transport system of roads and railways and, of course, agriculture, all based on burning fossil fuels.
Those words back then were written as a warning that Germany, the home of Europe’s environmental movement, is in fact captive to carbon. There was no prescience about Putin, Russia and Ukraine, merely the assertion of energy fragility. Now we know just how fragile Germany is. By asserting that it will not even turn off an outside-heater to help the Ukrainians, Germany has sealed Kyiv’s fate. Putin’s gamble is paying off. The West is not muscular, we are weak. We are in the ransom business rather than the justice business. The EU’s position is purely transactional.
Germany has put its post-1990 three-card trick – importing cheap Russian energy, fuelling German industry to export stuff to China – before everything else. Yet even the most pessimistic German economists believe that a sudden stop tomorrow is manageable. The Financial Times reported that a “full EU embargo on Russian energy would trigger a major recession in Germany, sending output down 2.2 per cent next year and wiping out more than 400,000 jobs, according to the country’s top economic institutes”.
This sort of temporary slump is not anywhere near as dislocating as Covid, and the bizarre thing about all this is that Europe has the money to compensate Germany. What did the pandemic show us? It revealed that we can shut down our economies for two years, with little or no permanent damage. We can do this because we have built strong institutions and democratic governments that the financial world believes in.
If we in western Europe feel removed, think about what eastern Europeans, living on the Russian border, feel about Germany's choice this week
We are the world’s savers, sitting on a nest-egg that allows us to absorb economic pain. That’s the purpose of saving, to tide you over in bad times. We have among the deepest financial markets in the world and a central bank that can print money at will to protect us from unpleasant shocks. As the pandemic revealed, we have the wherewithal to brazen this out, to reorientate our energy needs to other producers. We have the reserves for three or four months and, with our cash, other producers can be persuaded to increase production.
Let Russia sell cheaply to China or India; Europe has the means to buy expensive energy from the Gulf, west Africa and the United States. Will it cost us? Sure it will, but what’s the point of being rich, if not to buy yourself time in a crisis and do the right thing?
The right thing is to make it as expensive as possible for Russia to kill people. It’s really that simple.
If Nato won't help them in the field, then the psychology of standing behind Ukraine is all-important. If we in western Europe feel removed, think about what eastern Europeans, living on the Russian border, feel about Germany's choice this week. They will not forget or forgive.
In the 1940s, the German Protestant anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemoller wrote about moral integrity and the contagion of cowardice in the face of bullies. His famous words are worth repeating today:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
“Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”