Vladimir Putin sailed to victory in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. He secured a fourth term in office with 77% of the vote. The result was hardly a surprise. Putin’s grip on power in Russia is ironclad and he faced no serious challengers in the campaign. The election was hardly fair, by Western standards, and has been described by some people as a sham. Even Edward Snowden was critical of the election results in his adopted homeland. It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin reacts to his criticism.
As tradition dictates, many world leaders have sent formal congratulations, and spoke of desires to work together with Moscow on common issues. Behind the polite façade of diplospeak, there is less of a consensus about Putin and future relations with Russia. In Europe, many leaders and political parties are wary of Russia’s ambitions, and view Putin as a growing threat. Nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, or under the thumb of Moscow during the Cold War make up the bulk of this group. Other European nations, mainly EU member-states in Central and Western Europe, are less critical. From Brussels to Berlin the priority has been to repair relations between Russia and the West. Germany has led the repair effort in recent years, though Angela Merkel has little to show for it. EU sanctions against Russia remain in place but they have not persuaded Putin to cooperate on the Ukrainian issue or any of the other matters simmering between Russia and the West.
The current diplomatic crisis between Russia and the United Kingdom over the use of a nerve agent against a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil will affect relations between Europe and Russia in one form or another. The EU is standing beside Britain in calls for Russia to disclose its development of Novichok, the agent used. The United States joined the leaders of France, Great Britain, and Germany in condemning the use of a nerve agent on British soil, and agreeing Russia was the party responsible for the attack. London expelled 23 Russian diplomats and Moscow mirrored the move a short time afterward, expelling 23 British diplomats from Russia. Tensions remain high, with Russia denying it had anything to do with the attack.
With the election behind him now, Putin might be looking to use the crisis with England to his advantage. Russia could use a victory of some type. In Syria, and Russia it appears to be mired in military and diplomatic stalemate, with no change in sight. It’s unclear exactly how Putin can turn the current issue to his advantage, but if anyone can bring it about, it’s him.
Angela Merkel has her coalition. The Social Democrats voted in favor of forming a new government along with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union conservatives. Merkel will stay in the chancellery in Berlin, and political stability is set to return to Germany, at least for the moment. Forming a coalition after months of deadlock is assuredly a victory for her, though the scope and magnitude of it is up for debate. During the next few months, Merkel needs to tread carefully. One errant slip can turn it into a Pyrrhic victory and then the coalition becomes an albatross around her neck.
Make no mistake about it, Merkel has her work cut out for her. In spite of the grandiose proclamations of a ‘Grand Coalition,’ the government that has been put together more accurately resembles a diminished coalition at best. Germany was rattled by the political paralysis that followed the September elections, leaving many to wonder if the nation will ever be the same again. Support for the coalition is dropping, according to polls. At the same time, the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is building momentum. AfD is also setting itself up to be the main opposition party in parliament, raising the prospect of a clash with the new government somewhere down the line.
Merkel has promised to place more focus on domestic issues, though this might be a matter of too little, too late. Immigration is what brought Merkel and Germany to this point. The clumsy way she went about opening of Germany’s borders to the migrants is what caused German voters to turn on their chancellor. Merkel finds herself having to make amends, and possibly even give some of the new government’s positions and policies a slight tilt to the right. Last week she openly admitted that there are no-go zones in Germany after vehemently denying their existence for years. There are reports that Germany could even be seeking a reset in its relations with the United States. It’s a well-known truth that Merkel’s relationship with President Trump has been cool to say the very least.
The fact that she is making these moves now, and that Germany finds itself in this position shows the clout that right wing political parties, and populist movements now hold in Germany.
With the political situation in Germany still unresolved, the German government is unable to make firm decisions on any matters involving the budget, including defense spending. Until a new coalition government is formed, the Germans cannot move ahead on existing proposals to increase the defense budget. As the political paralysis continues, voices both at home and abroad are warning the German government about the current levels of spending, and the readiness of the Bundeswehr. In a nutshell, even though German defense spending has risen slightly over the past four years it remains below the 2% of economic output that is mandated for NATO members to follow. To make matters even worse, the current readiness level of the Bundeswehr is poor to say the least, and some of Germany’s closest allies have taken notice.
On Monday, US Army Secretary Mark Esper cautioned Germany that if it does not increase its defense spending the result will be a weakened NATO alliance. Esper’s comments were made to reporters during a visit to US troops in Germany. Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, and Germany’s former ambassador to the US echoed Esper’s warning. He criticized Germany’s contribution to the war on ISIS which did not include a combat role. Ischinger also pushed for Chancellor Angela Merkel to make certain Germany lives up to its NATO commitments.
2017 was not a stellar year for the Bundeswehr. The German Navy’s Baden-Wurttemberg class frigates were heralded as a new type of warship for the 21st century. Unfortunately, the lead ship of the class was riddled with so many hardware and software defects that the German Navy refused to commission her and sent the frigate back to the shipbuilder. Surface ships are not the only headache for Germany’s naval arm. It has no operational diesel submarines for the moment, a result of low funding, and a general lack of spare parts.
Every service branch is suffering from similar problems. Only half of the German Army’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks are currently operational even though the service is in the midst of upgrading and expanding the MBT force. Just 30 of the Luftwaffe’s 95 Tornado fighters are currently operational. Given these current conditions it’s not likely that Germany could put together a strong military force at short notice should Russia suddenly expand its adventurism to the Baltics.
As Mark Esper said on Monday, a weakened German military is not only a problem for Berlin. It is an even greater problem for NATO.
It all comes down to this for Angela Merkel. This week brings about what will likely be her final attempt to form a coalition government and end the political stalemate in Germany. Discussions are underway between Merkel and the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, with the German chancellor attempting to bring the SDP back into the fold of a new coalition. In the past, SDP had been part of a coalition led by Merkel, but when the party’s voter support for it diminished, SDP withdrew. This time around, even if Merkel receives the support of SDP leader Martin Schulz, he will need to gain the support of party membership before a formal agreement is reached. Given the proclivities of SDP voters concerning domestic issues, as well as Merkel’s polarizing effect, there is no guarantee the party will support joining a coalition that will reverse her political fortunes.
If Merkel fails to forge a coalition, her options are limited. She can continue ahead with a minority government. Without a stable majority in the Bundestag, it is unlikely that Merkel’s government will be able to pass any major legislation, or tackle significant issues. The support simply will not be there for such ventures.
Another alternative is to hold new elections. Returning to the electorate would be a risky proposition which could see the government lose even more seats and muddle the situation in the Bundestag even more. Simply reaching the point where snap elections can be held is almost impossible for Merkel. To call for the elections, she must first request that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier dissolve the Bundestag. Since Merkel is the head of a caretaker government, she cannot do this. A third, less realistic option is for Steinmeier to nominate her for an election by parliament however, the road there is also complex and fraught with potential pitfalls.
With its own agenda tied to Merkel’s political fortunes, the European Union is keeping close tabs on events in Berlin this week. The EU realizes it cannot make any major strides with Germany remaining on the sidelines and preoccupied with its own political drama. Brussels is eager to move forward, though its hands are tied until the mess in Berlin is resolved.
All things must come to an end and that includes political eras. The Merkel Era is drawing to a close. Germany and Europe are anxiously peering ahead into an ambiguous future. Regrettably for them, the Merkel Era does not seem to be going gently into that good night. Instead of a quick death, it appears destined to linger for an extended period of time before dying off. Its current status is comparable to a patient entering hospice care. The end is inevitable, and family members have gathered around to say goodbye, though no one is certain when that will be. And, to quote Tom Petty, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’
Germany is in a period of political stasis. Politicians, and political parties alike have been behaving out of character since Angela Merkel’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Nobody wants to join a coalition government chaired by the chancellor. Her efforts to build a coalition have been rebuffed and stonewalled by friend and foe alike. The Free Democrats (FDP) stepped away and are now pursuing their own path to power, while the Social Democrats (SPD) have been carping over the details so much they have made it readily apparent that they want nothing to do with a Merkel-built coalition. Eventually, a coalition will be formed and Merkel will be the head of it, but she might do more harm than good. Her political capital has been exhausted and the September elections made it clear that a significant number of Germans want to move away from Merkelism. She may not cede power for another year or two, but German politicians are already positioning themselves for the post-Merkel Era future.
The European Union is in an even more delicate position. The political crisis in Germany has stopped the EU agenda dead in its tracks. Efforts to figure out the shape institutional reforms cannot move ahead until the situation in Germany resolves itself. France’s president Emanuel Macron has his own set of ideas, and reforms which he would like to be considered. Unfortunately, the EU is reluctant to even begin discussing Macron’s ideas until the German situation resolves itself. In other words, the EU is not going to be making consequential decisions, or moving forward on major issues without Germany. With or without Angela Merkel in power, Germany continues to be central to all things Europe in the eyes of the EU. It’s unclear if this will remain true as the political fortunes of Emanuel Macron rise, but at present, most in the EU appear reluctant to rock the boat.
Even with the Merkel Era waning away, and the current German government adopting a caretaker status, Germany remains the undisputed Godfather of the continent.