Notwithstanding all the praises sung to the German-US partnership, often described as a bedrock of the transatlantic relationship, the new German government is trying to stand up to pressure from the US. It has to. The country has been hit hard by the Russia sanctions and is looking to end them.
Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Washington on April 27 — her first top-level meeting since she was reelected for her fourth term in March. Potential exemptions from the US sanctions against Russia will be one issue on that agenda. The US Treasury’s new sanctions list was released on April 6. Germany wants to shield its business community from a big financial blow, with a waiver on restrictions granted to German companies such as Daimler and Volkswagen, the engineering giant Siemens, the software maker SAP, the Deutsche Börse’s securities firm Clearstream, etc. The blacklist makes German banks hesitant to provide funding for the Nord Stream 2 gas project that is under construction and scheduled to be operational in 2020.
Germany paid lip service to the US, UK, and French air strikes against Syria that were delivered on April 13. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has said he wants to maintain a dialog with Russia, as he believes the Syrian conflict cannot be resolved without Moscow. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has warned against demonizing Russia. He claims that his country has played a historical role in maintaining that dialog. He has urged that Russia and its people not be portrayed as an enemy.
Germany’s Europe Minister, Michael Roth, wrote in a Die Welt article that the EU should work to reduce tensions with Russia. He warned that “anti-Russian reflexes” were dangerous. The leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, Andrea Nahles, also stressed the importance of Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. The party’s rank-and-file oppose the “hard-line” position on Russia. Angela Merkel aligned herself with them, questioning the effectiveness of the sanctions policy. The view is widely shared by the public. For instance, 69% of Germans opposed the decision to expel four Russian diplomats in the wake of the Skripal affair. Eighty-six percent of Germans believe the West should make more of an effort to improve ties with Moscow.
Germany has led the European opposition to US sanctions that could penalize Western companies for doing business with Russia, especially the sanctions that threaten Nord Stream 2 — the project Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz openly supports despite US pressure. On April 16, the European Union foreign ministers supported sanctions against Syria, but not Russia, carving out a stance distinct from that of the United States.
China stands tall. Russian-Chinese trade is expected to top $100 billion this year. According to Gao Feng, the spokesman at the Ministry of Commerce, that relationship will not be affected by the external environment.
Turkey could face US sanctions for the purchase of a Russian S-400 air-defense system. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell said so during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. Turkey has vulnerabilities America could exploit; for instance, it could suspend shipments of technological equipment, thus freezing the operations of Turkish airports. Or it could hit back at banks that were involved in the deal. The planned purchase of 120 F-35 fighters might never take place.
Some nations have already lost. Japan has stopped buying aluminum because it cannot pay for it, due to the American sanctions. The payments were made in US dollars. Russia accounted for about 15% of Japan’s aluminum imports. The sanctions enacted by the US last week immediately stung Australia, a very close and faithful American ally. The new sanctions on Russia hike oil, aluminum, and other commodity prices, hurting US allies and benefiting Russia. With higher profits it will become stronger and more influential, while many of those who are blindly following Washington’s instructions will suffer and find themselves less able to contribute to NATO’s overall expenditures and other plans related to the West’s activities aimed at curbing Moscow’s influence.
Russia does not appear to be feeling the sting of the sanctions, as it is staying the course while the American allies are losing out. Washington’s relationship with them is becoming more and more complicated, as resistance to the policy of sanctions keeps on growing. Perhaps it is the wish to demonstrate a willingness to be tough on Russia, coupled with the realization that that policy is futile and backfiring that is making President Trump seesaw back and forth from announcing new sanctions one day to suddenly hitting brakes the next.
It looks like the president will have a hard time on April 27. Ms. Merkel will speak not only about the role being played by Germany but also Europe. She’ll raise very complicated issues. The Russia sanctions are hitting the allies, who are increasingly wary of Washington as it tries to make them buy its own shale gas instead of the cheaper Russian product. The growing resistance to the American sanctions policy will inevitably widen these cracks in the West’s much-vaunted unity, while Russia continues its policy of reasserting itself. The only tangible result of the sanctions imposed on Russia for supporting Syria is the latest plan to supply that country with more sophisticated weapons, such as an S-300 air-defense system. By imposing more and more sanctions on Russia, the US seems to be acting like its own worst enemy.