With friends like these...
This article originally appeared at Lenta.ru. Translated for RI by Valeria Bondareva
Over the last several years the number of mutual grievances between the U.S. and Germany has increased. First, the partnership between the two countries was damaged by spy scandals. Then, relations deteriorated over the Ukrainian crisis. As it turns out, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is searching for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, American “hawks” are actively advocating for military supplies to Kiev, which are likely to contribute to the escalation of the conflict with Moscow. Lastly, recent statements made by the Commander-in-Chief of NATO forces in Europe, Philip Breedlove, on current events in the east of Ukraine were completely at odds with the information obtained by German intelligence sources, which has added further fuel to a crisis between the partners.
Spokes in the wheels
The presentation recently made by the Commander-in-Chief of NATO forces in Europe, Philip Breedlove, was greeted with surprise in Berlin. According to the 59-year-old general, Russia has again increased its military presence in the east of Ukraine. “The Russian President has control over thousands of military vehicles and fighting and artillery units in Donbass. The situation is not getting better; it is only getting worse,” stated Breedlove.
However, according to Der Spiegel, following these statements made by the NATO representative, everybody in Berlin feels at a loss. The statements contradict the data obtained by the German Federal Intelligence Service. In the German government, comments made by the NATO general were labeled as “dangerous propaganda.” It is believed that false or exaggerated information provided by the head of NATO may damage confidence and trust in NATO — and, therefore, in all Western countries.
The situation is also complicated by a fact that this is happening not for the first time. Der Spiegel’s editing office even drew up a list of controversial statements made by Breedlove and sent it to him. For example, in the interview with Frankfurter Allgemenine Zeitung, the head of NATO forces in Europe claimed that “there are Russian regular army units in the east of Ukraine”; but next day, in an interview with Stern.de, he clarified that he had not meant Russian combat units, but Russian instructors and advisors.
A response from the commander came immediately. He wrote that he confirmed all his statements on the Ukrainian crisis. At the same time, he noted that not all members of NATO share his point of view. As German media suggests, people in Germany have started thinking that Breedlove gives interviews only at times when the situation in Donbass improves.
“He talks about the Russian invasion at those times, when the grounds for a cautious optimism emerges. I want Breedlove to make intelligent and sensible comments […]. He challenged our deputies multiple times with his news on alleged movements of artillery units, which was at odds with our intelligence,” leader of the German Social-Democratic party Niels Annen said.
Statements made by the American general caused serious concern in other EU countries too. For example, Morten Strand, a correspondent for the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, in his column dedicated to Breedlove’s public statements, called for someone to “cut the wings” of the American hawk. “It won’t be an easy thing to do, especially if this ‘hawk’ is the head of the joint forces of NATO in Europe, whose mission historically was to keep sleepy Europeans mobilized,” wrote Strand.
Only proponents of ‘hard power’ in the U.S. Congress (both chambers are currently controlled by Republicans), who support the delivery of military aid to Ukraine, benefit from the distortion of certain facts. As German media reports: on the one hand, President of the U.S. Barack Obama supports mediatory efforts undertaken by Merkel; but on the other hand, he cannot control those people who seek to escalate the conflict.
Nevertheless, we should not overstate the level of irritation in Berlin caused by Breedlove’s behavior. As Executive Director of the Aspen Institute in Germany Rudiger Letz told Lenta.ru, “US–German relations have become more complicated, but there is no reason for serious concern. Our relations with the U.S. have reached their lowest point, but Breedlove’s statements did not cause this. There are certain disagreements between us, but at the same time there is much more that unites us. We are partners, and we have to develop a common approach to the solution of the problem created by Moscow. I’d underline that Germany is much closer to the U.S. at this point than it is to Russia.”
Loss of trust
The spy scandals in 2013–2014 mentioned by Letz have also contributed to disagreements between the partners. After the revelations, a number of German politicians called on Chancellor Merkel to revisit US–German relations. In late 2013, following the efforts of former NSA officer Edward Snowden, it was revealed that the Americans are harvesting around 500 million phone calls and messages every month. Moreover, phone calls made by German government workers and the German Chancellor herself were monitored. Trying to avoid further deterioration of US–German relations, Angela Merkel commented on the situation in a very reserved and vague way. In attempts to get some answers from the U.S., she sent Minister of Interior Hans-Peter Friedrich to the U.S.. He came back to Berlin, however, with nothing to show for his trip.
In Germany, the issue caused a storm of criticism of the Chancellor. In light of the scandal, the opposition even called for Merkel’s resignation. She was accused of failing to defend the national interest and allowing the U.S. to spy on Germans.
Following this affair, Barack Obama personally promised Merkel that the U.S. would stop monitoring her calls. However, despite these assurances from her ally, Merkel has since gotten a new anti-spy phone, equipped with a сrypto-chip. All phone calls made by the Chancellor are now encrypted.
The second scandal took place in summer 2014, when it was revealed that over the previous two years a 31-year-old double agent, who worked as a technical assistant at one of the departments of the German Federal Intelligence Service, had sold over 300 sensitive documents to the American intelligence community. All contacts with the American agents were made in Austria. The agent was granted 10,000 euro for each portion of classified information. Allegedly, the U.S. intelligence services were interested in documents from the Bundestag’s investigation commission that was looking into U.S. spying activities against German citizens.
Within a few days, a new story came to light, when the secret services caught another American agent, who worked either for the German Defense Ministry or for the counterintelligence service. Experts immediately stated that this person could have caused significant damage.
Joachim Gauck, President of Germany, described recent events as “cardsharping between two close allies.” The CIA agent was expelled from Berlin, and media on both sides of the Atlantic considered this event unprecedented. At the same time, Angela Merkel made only some reserved statements suggesting that US–German relations might be called into question.
Americans are also dissatisfied
The Munich security conference that took place in early February revealed another stumbling block between the allies. The main issue of the conference was the delivery of arms supplies to Kiev, which was lobbied for by American hawks but rejected by Angela Merkel. As the German media pointed out, such significant disagreements between allies have not taken place since 2003, when Berlin refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq.
A number of American policy makers criticized Berlin’s position. Senator John McCain accused Merkel of not caring about “how many more people in Ukraine should die before they have an opportunity to defend themselves.” The German Minister of Defense, Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen, was also criticized, since she did not believe in Ukraine’s military victory in the war. The Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, referred to Merkel’s visit to Moscow — where Merkel had negotiated with the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the French President François Hollande — as “bullshit,” and she claimed that Germans did not want to strengthen sanctions against Russia because they did not want to hurt their economy.
In Berlin, complaints persist that after the Ukrainians meet with Americans, “it takes great effort to get Ukrainians to a negotiation table.” At the same time, American mass media reports on Washington’s dissatisfaction with its allies’ actions. It is reported that the Obama administration is helping Brussels to resolve the crisis, but that it hopes for the EU’s — and in particular Germany’s —further lead and involvement in settling the dispute. At the same time, Berlin, according to The American Interest, “is caught between its willingness to go back to normal relations with Russia and acknowledgement of the fact that Russian–German relations would remain strained.”
“There is no doubt that an obvious distrust expressed by its closest ally irritates the Germans. At the same time, Germany, due to various historical and political circumstances, is afraid of getting into conflict with the U.S.. Over the last 60 years the development of German–American relations has been at the core of German foreign policy,” as the main editor of “Russia in Global Politics” Fyodor Lukyanov told Lenta.ru. According to him, a conflict with Washington is fraught with severe repercussions for any country. Moreover, right now Berlin finds itself in a difficult position: basically, Germany is trying to transform relations within the EU, but not so many people in Europe feel that excited about it. Under these circumstances, Germany has no desire to place a new burden on its shoulders by getting into conflict with the U.S..
However, according to another expert, Dmitri Suslov, vice-president for research programs at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, tensions between Washington and Berlin are likely to increase. At some point, Germans will become worried about being perceived as U.S. satellites in Europe. Sooner or later, they will realize that there is no benefit in following U.S. policy, since on the global scale the role of Europe will be reduced to the level it used to be at during the Cold War — subject to US–Soviet relations. Germans also dislike the U.S. attitude toward Europeans, which is arrogant and scornful. Spying scandals have also proven that the relations between the allies are based on mistrust.
However, we should not expect any changes in the short term. According to Suslov, the Ukrainian crisis means that the U.S. and Germany are currently in the same boat. Moreover, Angela Merkel, as her pro-Atlantic and anti-Russian rhetoric has shown, stands in defense of German big business that is connected to the U.S.. “It is worth remembering that Germany has a much higher turnover with the U.S. than with Moscow. From the economic point of view, Berlin is interested in the U.S. and the transatlantic free trade area.” As this political scientist suggests, this Atlantic trend reveals European uncertainty about its future competitiveness.