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Analysis: Unfavorable Outcomes

Over a month into the conflict, battle lines have stalled, and Russian forces are reorganizing while diplomatic negotiations continue behind the scenes. With more context emerging from Russia, Ukraine and Western NATO and EU members, it is possible to piece together a potential theory of the course of events. While the responsibility of Russia’s decision to attack Ukraine ultimately falls on Russian government and military officials, the context of events leading up to the conflict may potentially shine a light on its geopolitical significance.

Germany, with its anti-militarist constitution and a cultural resistance nuclear weapons, has balanced NATO’s deterrence strategy with anti-war and pacifist ideals of some of its people. During the Cold War, West Germany was the main bulwark against a potential Soviet attack on Western Europe. This pitted two conflicting political aims of West Germany and the West against each other – the need to include West Germany in a defense policy against the Warsaw Pact, and the desire to manage a newly-demilitarized Germany’s fighting potential. As Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary-General famously stated, NATO’s post-war goal was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

While much has changed since the heady days of post-war Europe, the spirit of non-aggression persisted in Germany’s hesitation to fully militarize and host American nuclear weapons through the Nuclear Sharing Agreement. Berlin’s sporadic interest in disarmament puts NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy in a precarious position, as a pivotal point in the alliance’s defense strategy could be entirely reliant on the electoral cycle. While the Bundestag’s initial 2010 effort to withdraw American nuclear weapons from German soil failed to gain traction, protests against their presence have persisted.  Nuclear sharing, according to Deutsche Welle, allows Germany to host somewhere around 20 American warheads at Büchel airbase.  Control codes reside in Washington, with warheads requiring a US order to be loaded onto German planes for launch. The US would be responsible for the order and authorization to use these weapons, but German pilots would deliver them to their intended targets.

While much has changed since the heady days of post-war Europe, the spirit of non-aggression persisted in Germany’s hesitation to fully militarize and host American nuclear weapons through the Nuclear Sharing Agreement. Berlin’s sporadic interest in disarmament puts NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy in a precarious position, as a pivotal point in the alliance’s defense strategy could be entirely reliant on the electoral cycle. While the Bundestag’s initial 2010 effort to withdraw to withdraw American nuclear weapons from German soil failed to gain traction, protests against their presence have persisted.  Nuclear sharing, reports Deutsche Welle, allows Germany to host somewhere around 20 American warheads at Büchel airbase.  Control codes reside in Washington, with warheads requiring a US order to be loaded onto German planes for launch. The US would be responsible for the order and authorization to use these weapons, but German pilots would deliver them to their intended targets.

Elements within the newly-elected coalition under the Social Democratic Party (SPD), until recently, resisted the nuclear sharing agreement. While Chancellor Scholtz’ plan to modernize its nuclear sharing capabilities assuage NATO’s concerns of a denuclearized Germany, the initial doubts have led to suggestions of moving American warheads further east. A US Ambassador suggested moving the nuclear sharing program to Poland, which “which pays its fair share” of GDP towards military defense. A remnant of former President Trump’s approach to European security, the call to increase military spending has continued to echo within Europe – and until now – was met with reluctance.

During Germany’s uncertainty, NATO’s Secretary-General Stoltenberg again brought up the issue of eastern alternatives to German nuclear hosting last November. In the case of a German withdrawal from the nuclear-sharing program, “nuclear weapons [may be stationed] in other countries in Europe, also to the east of Germany.” While stationing warheads in Poland may already be a provocation to the Russian government, the implication of new eastern members possessing shared nuclear capabilities plays into the Kremlin’s nightmare scenario.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lacked the influence necessary to prevent former Warsaw Pact from joining NATO. As the alliance admitted members further east, Russia’s unease and vulnerability grew. As a country whose heartland was situated on the Eurasian Plain, rulers of Russia, the Soviet Union and now the Russian President felt the threat from an exposed flatland that stretched from Paris to the Urals. Post-Soviet Russia lacked the defensive depth that its Warsaw Pact allies granted it, and it no longer controlled the steppes of Ukraine or the marshes of Belarus. Although Russia was unable to prevent the Baltic states joining in 2004, its growing strength proved able to block both Ukraine’s and Georgia’s ambitions to join the alliance. Russia’s red lines included further admissions of former Soviet republics, a decision that was backed by force in the Russia-Georgia war four years later.

Ukraine, on the other hand, is far more important to Russian ambitions and security. Russia’s vision of itself as a great power inherently included an integrated Ukraine, independent or otherwise. While political neutrality was acceptable, it is undoubtedly true that Russia’s ambitions required the full alignment of the Ukrainian state and economy. Following 2014’s Maidan and Ukraine’s shift away from Russia’s sphere, the strengthening rhetoric of NATO and increased training, arms supplies and support for membership increased the possibility of military confrontation with Ukraine and the West.

As long-term geopolitical strategy relies not only on current events but risks of unfavorable developments, the possibility of a non-nuclear Germany triggering the move of American warheads east – to perhaps a NATO Ukraine – was deemed unacceptable. While the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO, and being approved as a nuclear sharing partner, is unlikely, it may have played into the geopolitical calculus of the current conflict. Pre-emptively attacking a non-nuclear power to achieve military goals, by this logic, would be preferrable to a hostile nuclear neighbor that is more resistant to both military and political pressure.

This outcome, while undoubtedly a humanitarian catastrophe, also creates an anti-Russian sentiment within the people of Ukraine and the diaspora. The difficulties Russia faces in holding territory will only be compounded by national resistance against the Russian presence, which will only increase as the civilian death toll mounts. The Russian military may face a series of increasingly unfavorable decisions in Ukraine, and only time will tell if the political outcome will be worth the price.

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