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2015.06.15 23:23

J. Forbrig: Germany would respond military if the Baltics were attacked

Vilija Andrulevičiūtė, LRT.lt2015.06.15 23:23

Although 58 percent of Germans say that Germany should not respond militarily to Russian attack on a neighboring country that is a NATO ally, if the worst case scenario comes true in the Baltic States or elsewhere, Angela Merkel would certainly convince the Germans of the need and obligation to respond with all means, to news portal LRT.lt says Joerg Forbrig, Central and Eastern Europe expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.  

Although 58 percent of Germans say that Germany should not respond militarily to Russian attack on a neighboring country that is a NATO ally, if the worst case scenario comes true in the Baltic States or elsewhere, Angela Merkel would certainly convince the Germans of the need and obligation to respond with all means, to news portal LRT.lt says Joerg Forbrig, Central and Eastern Europe expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

J. Forbrig

According to Mr. Forbrig, the threat to the Baltic States coming from Russia is real, and the challenge to the West has become a single source of legitimacy of the Putin regime.

“Asserting control over its neighbors is part of this conflict but it seems that Putin has an even bolder design. He wants to fragment the European Union and to neuter NATO, which would strip the United States of its European allies and weaken Washington‘s leadership in global affairs.

The Baltic States are at the very frontline of these efforts because it is there that the Kremlin likely sees its best chance to puncture NATO. It may well try to show that, faced with a Russian aggression combining military threats, economic pressures, political meddling, cyber-attacks and propaganda, NATO fails to muster the solidarity and will to defend its allies. This would effectively spell the end of NATO”, – says Mr. Forbrig.

But Germany has already taken on an active role towards enhancing the security of the EU and NATO's Eastern-most members. It contributes to air-policing in the Baltics, it has a lead role in developing the NATO spearhead force and it has recently offered to provide Lithuania with military equipment.

“This is not a mean feat given how surprised the German government was by the developments of the last year, how reluctant public opinion remains on anything to do with military engagement, and how weak the German Bundeswehr has been revealed to be after years of cuts. Yet indications are that Germany is on track to increase its role in security east of its own borders”, – says Mr. Forbrig.

According to J. Forbrig, despite its huge efforts, massive propaganda and traditionally warm ties, Russia has effectively lost most of the German society. Germans have increasingly understood that Russia poses a threat to the Baltic States and Poland. They support Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

– How do the German people accept the threat of Russia? Do they see it as a serious international threat? How do they react to the things that are happening in Ukraine threatening the other neighboring states?

– Under the impression of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the German public has dramatically changed its perceptions of Russia and Eastern Europe over the last year. Traditionally, there have been strong sympathies for Russia and views of Eastern Europe typically had an overriding Russia angle, while little if anything registered with the German public about Russia‘s neighbors in the region, such as Ukraine or also the Baltic states. Russia‘s actions over the last year have fundamentally altered this picture.

First, the Kremlin has lost the trust of most Germans, of whom only about a sixth has any confidence left in Russia. Instead, support has steadily increased for sanctions against Russia, which are now supported by a solid majority of Germans.

Second, support for Ukraine has massively increased, so much so that vast majorities back economic and financial support for this country, which few knew much of prior to the crisis, and some even support an EU membership of Ukraine. That said, military support for Ukraine is being rejected by most Germans.

Third, Germans have increasingly understood that Russia poses a threat to the Baltic States and Poland, a concern expressed by now 59 percent according to a poll in March of this year.

In short, the last year has seen a remarkable assimilation of German perceptions to those long expressed by publics in the Baltic States and Poland. Or put differently, despite its best efforts, massive propaganda and traditionally warm ties, Russia has effectively lost most of German society.

– How do the politicians and political elite accept the aggression of Russia? Do they take it serious enough?

If the German public sees the situation with Russia so very clearly, political and public elites paint a much more ambiguous picture. To be sure, the German government can hardly be blamed for not taking the developments of the last year seriously or not having tried hard to find responses and solutions to the situation.

Berlin has been central to almost all rounds of negotiations with Russia, especially the Minsk talks, however unsuccessful these turned out to be. Chancellor Merkel has been steadfast in her criticism of Russia and was key to the introduction of economic sanctions against Russia, while Foreign Minister Steinmeier has consistently sought to strike more conciliatory tones to get Russia back to the negotiation table. And both have been very clear in their support for Ukraine, the Baltic States and other Russian neighbors in their fears of Russian threats.

However, the government has been under immense pressure from various sides to soften its stance. A strong business lobby has been fear-mongering of the fallout for the Germany economy of this harder-line Russia policy. Parties on the political fringes, from the post-communist left to the populist and Euro-sceptic right, have been drumming up pro-Russian propaganda. A number of highly-regarded former leaders, including Chancellors Schmidt, Kohl and Schröder, have launched heavy attacks on the government.

And public and media debate has been irritating, through public appeals by advocates of appeasement toward Russia, dozens of talk shows that typically feature Russian positions but hardly ever those of its neighbors, and an avalanche of pro-Kremlin trolls including a recent massive attack on the Angela Merkel‘s “Instagram” account. Given these pressures, it is quite remarkable how the government in Berlin has stood its strict and critical course towards Moscow.

– Some say that after the Cold War the West lost its self-protection instinct. Do you agree with such opinion? Why did such thing happen? We saw and still see many countries cutting down their defense budgets, disarming. Was that a right thing to do?

– It would be unjust to claim that the West has completely lost its instinct for self-protection. Rather, since the end of the Cold war, perceptions changed as to where the new threats came from for the security of Western countries. It was generally assumed that however difficult relations with Russia might be this country did not constitute a major or direct threat for the West. This assumption, by the way, was likely one of the factors that made NATO enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe possible; had Western allies expected the confrontation with Russia we now see, they would have been much more reluctant to admit the Baltic States and others into the alliance.

Instead, the major threats were seen elsewhere: in international terrorism, in Islamic fundamentalism, in new tensions among rising Asian powers, in conflicts over natural resources or trade routes. Accordingly, political attention and resources shifted towards other world regions, new forms of threats, and different security measures. Nowhere is this more visible than in NATO, which adjusted its doctrine and capabilities away from its original mission of territorial defense of members.

With the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and its ever-less veiled threats against neighbors and NATO members, that original mission has resurfaced. And with it, NATO members are reconsidering their massive downscaling of traditional military capabilities over the last two decades. Germany is a case in point. It has decided to increase its defense budget, along with those for internal security and diplomacy, starting next year. It is also now completing the largest arms procurement in a long time, a missile-defense system. But in Germany as elsewhere, it will take quite some time for these reinforcements to really enhance security.

– According to a recent poll, only 38 percent of Germans said their country should respond militarily to a Russian attack on a neighboring country that is a NATO ally, while 58 percent said it should not. The headline of the article in media said that the Baltic nations have a reason to worry and that public opinion puts into doubt mutual-defense treaty commitment, known as Article 5. Do the Baltics have a reason to worry about their allies, Germany to be more exact? How the public opinion would affect the reaction of political elite, decision-makers in such case?

– In the first place, this figure reflects how deeply ingrained pacifism is in German society. This sentiment mixes historical responsibility for two world wars with the rather convenient experience during the Cold war when security was effectively provided by the United States, and (West) Germany could focus on diplomacy, engagement, and economic relationships.

Following German re-unification, this often naive pacifism has come to be increasingly challenged, as Germany was increasingly pushed to engage also militarily, from the Balkans to Afghanistan. Yet acceptance of a German military engagement grows only very slowly, as the broad rejection of military aid for Ukraine or opposition to permanently stationing NATO troops on the Eastern flank also show.

Seen in this light, the figure of 38 percent of Germans that back a military response to a Russian attack on a NATO ally is actually quite substantial. It likely already reflects an increase in response to Russian actions of the last year, and given that Russia is clearly intent to continue its confrontation, this figure is likely to grow further. This can be helped by better communication and public diplomacy. The governments in Tallinn, Riga or Warsaw, helped perhaps by those of the Nordic countries that enjoy enormous trust among Germans, need to better communicate the very real threats emanating from Russia.

In turn, the government in Berlin must make crystal-clear that it will honor its obligations to any ally under the North Atlantic Treaty. In combination, this would grow German acceptance and Baltic or Polish confidence that in case of an attack, support would be forthcoming.

– Political elite influences the public opinion about geopolitical situations. So maybe people do not think Germany should respond militarily to a Russian attack on a neighboring country that is a NATO ally because of the impact of that public opinion formed by politicians? Who plays the most important role in forming the public opinion in this case?

– Starting well before the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Germany has seen an intense debate on the international role of the country. Long-time allies from the United States to Poland have demanded a stronger German engagement and responsibility in the international arena for years.

Domestic debate on such a more active role accelerated early last year when President Gauck, Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Defense Minister von der Leyen simultaneously demanded that given its political and economic weight, Germany must assume more leadership in international affairs.

The evolving crisis in Eastern Europe then pushed such leadership in very practical terms, as Chancellor Merkel became the key Western leader to respond to Russian aggression with both sanctions and negotiations. Her government suddenly found itself in a permanent effort to cement European unity around sanctions, and to assure the Baltic States and Poland of German solidarity and support.

Overall, this  multipronged and balanced policy seems to resonate with a majority of Germans. And should the worst case arise in the Baltic States or elsewhere, it would certainly be Angela Merkel to convince the German public of the need and obligation to respond with all means.

– Do you see any real threat for the Baltic States coming from Russia?

The threat is real. Its war against Ukraine, its pressure on other neighbors, its provocations along NATO borders, its meddling inside EU states, and its vicious agitation against the West all indicate that Russia is intent to confront the West as such. Even worse, this challenge to the West has become the single source of legitimacy of the Putin regime.

Only through permanent conflict with the West, whether by proxy as in Ukraine or directly, can the government in Moscow close the ranks at home and stay in power. Asserting control over its neighbors is part of this conflict but it seems that Putin has an even bolder design. He wants to fragment the European Union and to neuter NATO, which would strip the United States of its European allies and weaken Washington‘s leadership in global affairs.

The Baltic States are at the very frontline of these efforts because it is there that the Kremlin likely sees its best chance to puncture NATO. It may well try to show that, faced with a Russian aggression combining military threats, economic pressures, political meddling, cyber-attacks and propaganda, NATO fails to muster the solidarity and will to defend its allies. This would effectively spell the end of NATO.

– What is the attitude of Germany in terms of security of the Baltics? Is Germany willing to play an active role in this sphere?

Germany has already taken on an active role towards enhancing the security of the EU and NATO‘s Eastern-most members. It contributes to air policing in the Baltics, it has a lead role in developing the NATO spearhead force, and it has recently offered to provide Lithuania with military equipment.

This is not a mean feat given how surprised the German government was by the developments of the last year, how reluctant public opinion remains on anything to do with military engagement, and how weak the German Bundeswehr has been revealed to be after years of cuts. Yet indications are that Germany is on track to increase its role in security east of its own borders.