It’s time to play hardball with Germany, and to pull out all the stops to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine (Updated January 25: 2022)

The defeatism in the air is palpable, with American officials apparently resigned to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and now talking about increasing the “costs” to Russia if Putin invades.

Worth recalling is the fact that Barack Obama used similar language about “costs” to Russia if it invaded Ukraine, back in 2014. Such threats of unnamed “costs” did not deter Putin then, and they are not likely to deter him now. This is particularly true in view of the fact that the two greatest “costs” that might be imposed on Russia are illusory, and are not really on the table.

The first is the expulsion of Russia from the SWIFT international payments system. Such a measure would have a crippling effect on the Russian economy, and if the threat were real it might well deter Russia from invading Ukraine.

Even if it were to fail as a deterrent, its implementation would at the very least help persuade Russia to withdraw its forces quickly as the effects of the expulsion from SWIFT were felt. These effects would be felt very swiftly.

See Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “The EU’s ‘unforgivable failure’ over Ukraine; Germany’s strange ambivalence is at the heart of this diplomatic travesty,” The Telegraph, January 25, 2022 (1:00 p.m.).

Germany is blocking active consideration of this measure.

The second potential sanction that might make Russia think twice would be German cancellation of the Nordstream II project, by committing to refuse to to authorize its operation on German territory–ever.

Germany is blocking active consideration of this measure.

There is little left that might deter Putin from invading Ukraine.

German apologists of Russia who favor appeasement of Putin (the so-called Putin Versteher or “those who understand Putin”) make the wholly specious argument that Nordstream II is a private business matter, and should have nothing to do with Ukraine. This is true of many sanctions, including those adopted against many countries. The head of the SDP made this specious argument during the last week.

The new German coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Green Party, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) is led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the SDP. The SDP is no longer the party of Chancellor Willy Brandt, the staunch anti-communist former mayor of Berlin, but rather it has become a party with many pro-Russian sympathizers and apologists.

Former SDP Chancellor Gerhardt Schrōder (Chancellor from 1998-2005) promoted the Nordstream II project, and joined its board of directors after leaving office. He is now chairman of Nordstream A.G. and of the Russian energy company Rosneft, Russia’s third-largest company and its second-largest state-controlled enterprise.

Schroeder is a good friend of Vladimir Putin, who helped him celebrate his 70th birthday party in St. Petersburg in 2014, after Russia invaded and seized the Crimea. Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft, is a close ally and adviser of Putin. Both Sechin and Rosneft have been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2014.

It is now time for the U.S. to play hardball with the German government, which is the weak link in the West’s deterrence strategy against Putin.

If Germany won’t make sacrifices for NATO, Biden should withdraw American troops from Germany and restation them in a country which takes standing up to Putin and Russia more seriously.

Having said that, EU and NATO member countries should find a mechanism through which they can assist Germany in paying any damages for cancellation of the Nordstream II pipeline it may incur. We’re only talking about $10 billion, which is not a significant number given what is at stake in the Ukraine. Moreover, it’s not even clear that under a force majeure clause, Germany would be liable for damages.

Joe Biden doesn’t have the spine to stand up to Putin and his threats. The U.S. needs all the help it can get from allies and those in Congress to strengthen Biden’s backbone and getting him to stand up against not only Putin but also Germany, which is undermining NATO’s entire deterrence strategy against Russia.

Germans and business keaders in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere need to understand that if Russia invades Ukraine, it will not be some minor thing like the Russian military intervention in Georgia in 2008, or even tbe invasion of the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Such an intervention would in the intermediate term destroy business relations between the West and Russia, and entail significant risks of escalation to a much wider war, one involving NATO members and the potential invocation of Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

The U.S. could be drawn into defending one or more NATO countries under the mutual defense obligation in Article 5.

If these events were to unfold, the risk of a nuclear confrontation would become great, with the attendant risk of something accidentally setting off a nuclear conflict.

In short, if Russia invades Ukraine, the world as we know it is likely to change, in drastic and unforeseeable ways.

Putin faces a fateful decision, like Hitler’s fateful decision to invade Russia in June 1941. History can swerve as the result of a stupid decision made by a delusional dictator.

Now is the time for the U.S. and other NATO members to play hardball with Germany, and to deter Putin, before not after any invasion.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.