Joe Biden confirmed at his press conference on Wednesday what has been apparent for weeks – Nato remains divided over how to respond to Russian aggression against Ukraine.
His admission of a split was overshadowed by his passing remark that a minor incursion would be treated differently to a full-scale invasion. The White House afterwards cleared up the definition of minor incursion to mean cyber-attacks, as opposed to a physical move of Russian troops into Ukraine sovereign territory.
None of this is academic since Biden said he thought Vladimir Putin would take the risk of an invasion, however much Nato tries to change the Russian president’s calculus with threats.
The greatest tension over the correct response is between the US and Germany, hence Antony Blinken’s visit to Berlin on Thursday ahead of a meeting with Russian officials in Geneva.
Some of these points of difference are manageable. Neither of the two main sides of the German coalition are willing to sell arms to Ukraine, saying it is longstanding German policy, based on its war experience, not to inject weapons into a conflict zone.
The current German climate change minister, Robert Habeck, in May caused a storm last year when he suggested the Greens might provide defensive arms, reversing a German government policy of not selling weapons. He beat a retreat. By contrast the US, the UK and Turkey do supply arms.
Critics point out the underlying morality guiding Germany’s approach to arms exports is opaque. It was reported this week arms sales to Egypt boosted Germany’s arms exports to record levels in 2021, according to government figures released on Monday. Preliminary figures rom the Economic Affairs and Climate Action Ministry showed that Germany exported arms worth €9.35bn (£7.79bn/$10.65bn) last year – 61% up on 2020. This leaves open the question of why it is acceptable to sell arms to a repressive regime such as Egypt but not to a country seeking to escape repression such as Ukraine.
On the issue of energy dependency, the tensions are deeper. A compromise reached last summer between the US and Angela Merkel, reaffirmed by the Merkel’s successor as chancellor, Olaf Scholz, this week, implies that the huge Nord Stream 2 pipeline built to carry gas from Russia to Germany will be affected if an invasion goes ahead.
In the absence of an invasion, the Greens and the SPD have for now parked their differences by waiting to see if the pipeline receives regulatory approval in Germany and the EU. It is clear the SPD would like it to go ahead and the Greens do not, but the German approach – not just in the SDP, the home of detente – may be shifting. A letter from more than 73 eastern Europe security experts in Die Zeit urged Germany to end its three-decade policy of standing idly by in the face of Russian aggression.
Solely in deference to Germany, Biden has worked hard with Democrat senators to prevent them backing sanctions now, but the issue is still live in US politics, and patience with Germany among Republicans is thin.
Separately there has been a dispute about whether Russia can be detached from SWIFT, the international payments season. Some of this is a technical dispute about the legality and effectiveness of the action, and voices do not all go one way. Katarina Barley, a vice-president of the European parliament and a member of Germany’s Social Democrats, for instance, is a supporter.
But the fact that the EU does not want to meet formally to discuss sanctions in advance suggests it wants to avoid a row.
The risks of fracture stretch beyond individual punishments to the wider principle of the extent to which the EU should be running an independent Russia policy.
The Americans have undoubtedly made strenuous efforts to involve European capitals. But on Wednesday the French president, Emmanuel Macron, once again raised the principle of not just an independent EU security policy, but explicitly an independent European policy towards Russia – something he has proposed before to little effect in Moscow.
His proposal blindsided the European Commission and led to frantic reassuring calls to the Americans.
Clearly this is a familiar French refrain, but if the US finds it dispiriting, it should review the wisdom of going behind France’s back to sign the Aukus nuclear submarine deal to confront China in September, leaving France humiliated. In diplomacy loyalty has to be earned, not just demanded.