Europe's Libya Intervention: Germany and Russia

10 MINS READMar 29, 2011 | 12:53 GMT
Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment in a five-part series publishing in the next few days that will examine the motives and mindset behind the current European intervention in Libya. We began with an overview and follow with an examination of the positions put forth by the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Spain. Germany and Russia abstained in the March 17 vote on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force in Libya. Moscow's decision not to exercise its veto power made the ongoing Libya intervention under U.N. auspices possible. Since the vote, Russia has criticized the intervention vociferously, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin comparing it to a medieval crusade. For its part, while Germany does not have a veto, its abstention has brought criticism on Berlin — both domestically and internationally — for remaining aloof from its traditional Atlanticist allies. Domestic politics heavily influenced Germany's decision to abstain from the vote and its subsequent decision not to participate in the intervention. In the run-up to the March 17 vote, German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced six difficult state elections. Elections in Saxony-Anhalt, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg have since been held. The last one, in Baden-Wuerttemberg, ended March 27 — with disastrous results for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). (click here to enlarge image) Despite the heavy role domestic politics played in Germany's decision, considerable geopolitical calculations also influenced both Berlin's and Moscow's decision-making.


Baden-Wuerttemberg is Germany's third-largest state in terms of population and gross domestic product and has been a CDU stronghold since 1953. Faced with a potential electoral disaster in Baden-Wuerttemberg elections and following a number of political setbacks through the first quarter of 2011, Merkel's decision to abstain from the intervention was a fairly obvious call. But even the decision not to intervene could not save the CDU from losing the state. In the run-up to the election, however, Berlin was not taking any chances with the intervention in Libya. This was especially true for German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is also the leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the CDU's governing coalition partner. Reports in the German media — from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Der Spiegel — following the U.N. vote even suggested that Westerwelle sought to vote "no" on Resolution 1973 but decided against it after consultations with Merkel. The pro-business, center-right FDP has lost much support over the past year for signing off on Germany's bailouts of Greece and Ireland as well as its inability to deliver on the campaign promise of lower taxes. It failed to cross the 5 percent electoral threshold in Rhineland-Palatinate, and only barely managed to do so in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a considerable embarrassment for the party considering that its support in the two states is traditionally strong. The decision to stay away from the intervention has brought criticism against Merkel both domestically and internationally. It is difficult to argue that it hurt the CDU in state elections, however. According to various recent polls, between 56 and 65 percent of the German population supported Berlin's decision not to participate in the intervention. That said, a majority of Germans — 62 percent — favored an intervention in general terms. This means the German public approves of military action in Libya so long as Germany does not participate. Berlin's decision perfectly tracked this sentiment, keeping German forces out of military action in Libya but facilitating NATO's participation by offering to send airborne warning and control system crews to Afghanistan so Western forces could make more resources available for the Libyan theater. One obvious explanation for the German public's reticence toward military intervention is the German aversion to using Germany's military abroad. German President Horst Koehler resigned in May 2010 after coming under criticism following a trip to Afghanistan in which he said, "In emergencies, military intervention is necessary to uphold our interests, like for example free trade routes, for example to prevent regional instabilities which could have negative impact on our chances in terms of trade, jobs and income." A week later, he had left the German presidency, largely a ceremonial office, due to heavy criticism that he had equated Germany's role in Afghanistan to a 19th century-style war for trade routes and markets. Still, the statement launched a wider discussion about using the German military abroad when it is in the country's national interest to do so. To date, Germany has participated in military missions abroad as part of a broader alliance, such as Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan, but the issue of doing so for its own interests remains controversial. The decision not to intervene in Libya was not purely an effort to pander to historical public sensitivities ahead of crucial state elections. For Germany, two further strategic factors come into play. First, the United Kingdom, France and Italy all have energy interests, or want more of them, in Libya. This is not to say Germany does not — energy company Wintershall is particularly involved — but it is not as critical to its national interests. The French also consider the Mediterranean their sphere of influence and have previously disagreed with Germany over how seriously the Mediterranean Union, a proposed political bloc of Mediterranean Sea littoral states, should be pursued. Germany, however, is essentially landlocked. Its access to the open ocean is impeded by the Skagerrak and the United Kingdom, a superior naval power. Throughout its history, it therefore largely has shied away from direct competition for political influence outside the Eurasian mainland so as not to invite a naval blockade that would cripple its trade. Instead, it always has sought to expand its sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, where exerting its influence is easier due to proximity and historical trade relations. This is the concept of Mitteleuropa, Berlin's political and economic sphere of influence on its eastern borders. In many ways, the eurozone project — and Berlin's strong interest in seeing Poland and the Czech Republic ultimately join it — is Germany's 21st century version of Mitteleuropa. But Germany's not having considerable interests in Libya does not explain its unwillingness to join its allies in the intervention. After all, Germany's interests in Afghanistan are tenuous, and yet Berlin has participated in military operations there. The willingness to stand against all of its Atlantic allies because of domestic politics and a lack of national interests therefore represents a form of assertiveness: Germany is showing its willingness to place its domestic politics above its commitments to its allies, at least with regard to a non-critical military intervention. Whether Germany would have refused to participate in the intervention even if it did not have six state elections coming up is the central question. Had it not faced state elections, Berlin might have opted to send a token force of a handful of fighters to enforce the no-fly zone, as have Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. But we suspect that Berlin might have chosen to oppose France either way to undermine one of Paris' main motivations for the intervention — namely, to prove that Europe without a militarized France falls short of great power status. France wants Germany to hear the message that despite Germany's leading economic and political role in the last 12 months of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, France is still a leader in foreign and military affairs. By not participating, and therefore not following Paris' lead, Berlin essentially is ignoring this message. German-Russian agreement on abstaining from the resolution comes as Berlin and Moscow continue to align more closely on energy, business and even military matters. There is no evidence, however, of coordination between the two on Libya. That Germany voted with Russia is more an example of Berlin's independence in foreign policy affairs than of its increased like-mindedness with Russia. After all, Russia's interests in abstaining are different from those of Germany.


Russia's abstention was a calculated move designed to facilitate the Libya intervention. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia's veto would have torpedoed the intervention. But Russia has an interest in seeing the West, and particularly the United States, involved in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. First, ongoing instability in the Arab world has caused a jump in energy prices, a boon for energy-rich Russia; the unrest in Libya will further raise those prices. Furthermore, during Moammar Gadhafi's last eight years in power, Libya had become a stable and relatively reliable energy exporter to Europe, particularly to Italy. An intervention that leads to a stalemate in Libya, leaving the country in a state of instability, would eliminate a potential oil and natural gas alternative to Russia, giving Moscow greater market share in Europe in general and in Italy in particular. 
The second issue for Moscow is that the United States is now, however minimally, involved in a third conflict in the Muslim world. Russia has worried for the past 12 months that U.S. President Barack Obama's determination to disentangle the United States from two conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would give Washington greater flexibility in dealing with Russia's own regions of interest, namely Central-Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. This would close Russia's "window of opportunity" to consolidate its dominance over its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. The last thing the Kremlin wants is a Washington eager to pick a fight. And so even though Libya only marginally ties down U.S. forces, it still offers the potential for complications or even deeper involvement — and any further American involvement is welcome for Russia. Third, the Libya situation gives Russian leadership yet another public relations opportunity to criticize the United States. When Putin made his comments comparing the Libya intervention to a crusade, he did so at a ballistic missile factory on the same day that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in St. Petersburg meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to talk about missile defense. Putin's choice of words and the place he delivered them was symbolic, driving home the message that the United States has expansionist and militarist aims against Russia, aims that Russia is justified in taking steps against. Russia and the United States still have considerable disagreements, starting with the U.S. plan to proceed with its ballistic missile plans for Central Europe. The intervention in Libya affords Moscow yet another opportunity to criticize the United States as an aggressive power and yet another avenue through which to voice its continued disagreement with Washington. Editor's Note: In the final installment of the series, we look at Spain's decision to join the international coalition intervening in Libya.

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