German Angst & Western Elite Anxiety

Оповідь українською

Story by Sergej Sumlenny

Illustrated by Maksym Palenko

The picture of Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) for the cover of Der Spiegel magazine was almost black, evoking the mood of a sleepy and impenetrable Black Forest in winter, reflecting the seriousness of the situation in and around Germany: dark times, troubling thoughts, great responsibility. The German Chancellor is sitting in the dark, his face turned away from the camera as he looks down at something. One can only guess the direction and source of the light barely illuminating his forehead, nose, and part of his chin. In large red letters above him the cover reads: “What are you afraid of, Mr. Scholz?”

This scary scene is reminiscent of the fairy tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm — nearly all of their stories, which for more than 200 years have made countless generations of children in Germany and around the world tremble with fear, involve the ancient, frightening, and to this day mysterious German Black Forest, which was once the border between Roman civilization and the “barbarian” world. Barely a single ray of sunlight can break through its impassable canopy of branches to reach the ground, and danger lurks behind every tree for the accidental (or not) traveler…  

The photo of Scholz dates to the latter half of April 2022, nearly two months after the senior official gave his speech to the Bundestag about Zeitenwende (“the turning point”) — the epochal change of German policy in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But Germany still wasn’t willing to give Ukraine weapons.

In the lengthy interview, the journalists from Der Spiegel asked the Chancellor what he was afraid of and what was the reason for his policy. Scholz explained he was not giving Ukraine weapons because of a deep understanding of the risks. In a casual tone, he explained to them that his policy based on fear, namely the fear of escalation, the fear of uncontrolled growth of the conflict, the fear of dragging Germany into the war, and finally, the fear of nuclear war, was the only sensible policy, unlike the policy of those “daredevils” proposing Ukrainians should be helped now without worrying about the consequences. Because, he claimed, the consequences could be a nuclear strike by Moscow on Berlin should Germany send heavy weaponry to Ukraine.

Satisfied with his answer, the journalists didn’t dig any deeper: in April 2022, this argument still seemed convincing.

For years, the West in general and Germany in particular, built their vision of the future based on a fear of change. This applied not only to relations with Russia or (non)support of Ukraine. For a long time, a fear of the future stemming from the fear of losing the status quo of their comfortable way of life paralyzed the elites in the West and it continues to impede their development to this day.

The concept of fear as the prism of one’s worldview, the optics through which a person sees the world, is a common trait of German society. And without a doubt, the Brothers Grimm contributed to it, having collected folk tales to create the fairy tale canon of Germany, spawning the myth of the Black Forest and scaring young readers with the robbers, wolves, and witches who allegedly live there. In the early 20th century, Western literature found a name for this phenomenon: German Angst, lending the word angst, meaning fear in German, to the English language. This followed the earlier adaptation of blitzkrieg (lightning war), flak (originally meaning anti-aircraft fire but today referring to obstructions or criticism), and schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune), all German words introduced into the English language. When talking about German angst, it is usually noted that when looking at the world around them, Germans underscore risks and exaggerate their threats, attempting to avoid any potential danger so much, it eventually leads to constant neuroticism. This caricature-like image of Germans applies rather well to all of Germany: a prosperous country which is always trying to scare itself with fantasies about a horrible future.

From a certain perspective, this image is true. It’s the reason the average German has multiple insurance policies, and getting them is like a national sport in Germany. The average German resident has obligatory medical and pension insurance, unemployment insurance, and long-term care insurance for disability and old age. Many people also opt to get other voluntary insurance: civil liability insurance (including for damages caused by minors), accident insurance, additional dental insurance, legal insurance, renters insurance, pet insurance (for their pet’s health and potential damage caused by them), insurance against theft of items paid for by credit card, train or flight cancellation insurance, bicycle insurance, and the most cautious may even get insurance for bad weather when they’re planning a family vacation to a resort.

According to Statista, in the last 70 years, insurance penetration in Germany tripled, increasing from 2.36% in 1950 to 6.3% in 2021.[1] Insurance penetration is a key indicator of insurance development and is the ratio of premiums underwritten in a particular year to the GDP. As of 2020, there were 523 insurance companies in the country.[2] Along with the UK and France, the German insurance market was one of the three largest in Europe.[3]

Even Germans themselves admit to the existence of this collective psychological disorder and agree they are too preoccupied with their fears. This has led to the public being sold a secondary product, a spinoff of the first — the fear of their own fear, advancing the idea “things are so bad in society because of our fears that soon enough, we’ll all be screwed.”  

In 2019, Frank Biess, a German historian working at the University of California San Diego, published the book Republic of Fear: Another History of the Federal Republic in which he explained the origin of this phenomenon as the Germans’ post-war experience: immediately after the end of the WWII they were driven by a fear of potential retribution; in the 1950s it was the fear of nuclear war and communism; then the fear of automation and resulting unemployment, etc. This book quickly became a bestseller. Sabine Bode, journalist and writer, author of Traces of War: The German Disease German Angst (2016), reached a similar conclusion, deriving the origins of German fear from the legacy of their absolute loss in WWII in 1945. Equally important was the fear of losing a comfortable and prosperous lifestyle, like what happened in Germany from hyperinflation in the early 1920s.

It’s hard to say whether this explanation of the genesis of fear is true or not, but the presence of fear is surely hard to deny. Several German polling agencies regularly study fear among Germans and the findings show they believe their way of life is very fragile. For example, in 2022,[4] what German society feared most was consumer inflation (67%), increasing housing rental costs (58%), and recession (57%). Germans also feared increased taxes, increased expenses to pay for the EU debt crisis, natural disasters, rise to power of authoritarian leaders globally, climate change, inability of the country to cope with the large number of refugees (ranging from 54% to 44%). They were also afraid politicians would be overloaded by the complexity of challenges (44%). So, in a sense, Germans were once again afraid of fear.

The covers of Der Spiegel confirmed these observations. In 2022, the covers of Germany’s most popular weekly news magazine showed, among other things, headlines about the fear of living in a society where people are afraid of vaccines (issue No. 3); fear of increasing rental costs (issue No. 5); fear of people being overloaded by the challenges of modern life (issue No. 20); fear of high loan rates (issue No. 25); fear of losing their prosperity due to inflation (issue No. 27); fear of being cold in their homes due to high heating prices (issue No. 38); fear of nuclear war (issue No. 44); fear of Europe being destroyed by climate change (issue No. 45); fear of family bankruptcy due to inflation and rising housing prices (issue No. 47). The interview where Chancellor Olaf Scholz explained his apathetic inactivity due to fear of nuclear war was the quintessence of fear.

These German fears don’t only exist for the anecdotal scaredy cats who keep their money in savings accounts but are still afraid of losing it or fear their world of cozy cafes which don’t accept credit cards and don’t provide free Wi-Fi will be turned upside down by English-speaking migrants. While apocalyptic optics are indeed typical of Germany, they are not an exclusively German invention. When German Oswald Spengler published his book The Decline of the West in 1918, he wasn’t writing about the end of the German nation-state but about the decline of the entire Western world, and his views were shared by those in other countries as well.

Similar pessimism was characteristic of authors from countries which fought against Germany in world wars. When Englishman Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932 and his fellow countryman George Orwell conquered the world in 1948 with his novel 1984, they created two potent dystopias, both of which are still quite convincing today. Interestingly, both visions of the future were written after victories by Western countries in two world wars. A fear of the future in the form of tyranny, poverty, war, manipulation, and endless slavery obviously resonated with readers. The rosy visions of the future presented by Thomas Friedman (Lexus and the Olive Tree) or Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man), whose books were written in the 1990s, are considered overly optimistic dreams, or at worst — weak manipulations. At the same time, the understanding that the future will bring us more threats than peace and happiness is becoming increasingly clear.

The present-day Western world was built on the ruins of two world wars and based on the consensus of generations from the early 20th century asserting civilization is very fragile and there is nothing worse than world war (the same understanding came fifteen hundred years earlier to the Romans, whose empire collapsed from the onslaught of the German “barbarians”). What’s more, the unique growth in prosperity after WWII reinforced the idea the world had finally found the secret formula for happiness, and the main goal was not to disturb this balance, so as not to forfeit good fortune. The fear of war guided generations of civil activists, and demonstrative de-escalation or even the willingness to total capitulation was considered a sign of great responsibility and high intellect.

In 1958, the British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1950) and renown 20th century pacifist, said, “If no alternatives remain except Communist domination or extinction of the human race, the former alternative is the lesser of two evils.” He stated this more succinctly: “Better red than dead” (the idea that it was better to be ruled by communist Moscow than to die in war) in his 1961 book Has Man a Future? attributing the phrase to his “West German friends of peace.” The slogan was first picked up by the nuclear disarmament movement in Great Britain and then in other countries. Fortunately for protesters in Germany, this slogan also sounded good in German: “Lieber rot als tot,” and it was adopted by thousands of pacifists in West Germany who were protesting to reduce the size of the Bundeswehr, to negotiate with the Soviet Union, and other “détente” policies.

By this logic, American President Ronald Reagan, who in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983 quoted a young father in California he overheard say: “I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God,” looked like a warmongering genocidal maniac. But the lesson that his rhetoric of escalation led to the USSR overstretching itself and collapsing, and thus liberating of millions of people in Europe from Moscow’s slavery, is ignored to this day.

Looking through the prism of debates surrounding Russia’s war against Ukraine, it is remarkable how arguments from the 1950s have survived to the present time and how the fears of escalation and loss of prosperity dominate in the modern Western world the same way they did half a century ago.

In 2012, Australian researcher and professor of history at Cambridge University Christopher Clark published his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Released on the eve of the centenary of the start of WWI, it was a huge success in Europe and turned into an historical “bible” of analysis of the first Great War because it explained in clear terms how a series of irresponsible decisions by different governments and populist attitudes led to the terrible global catastrophe.

This context was the source of logic behind attempts by Western states to negotiate with Russia at the expense of Ukraine in 2014 and afterwards. The co-owner of Der Spiegel Jakob Augstein referenced The Sleepwalkers in his column in March 2014 where he asserted the West had been pursuing a policy of escalation with Moscow since 1989 and was leading the world to a war similar to the one in 1914. That’s why, Augstein wrote, it was necessary to negotiate with Moscow and deescalate (that is, agree to the occupation of part of Ukraine) in order to avoid the horrible consequences.[5]

The same arguments were used by Gernot Erler, the Merkel government’s Coordinator for Inter-Societal Cooperation with Russia, who in his speeches warned against an “escalating spiral” around Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and also referenced Professor Clark’s book.[6] 

In 2018, Christopher Clark was awarded the European Prize for Political Culture from the President of the Bundestag Wolfgang Schäuble, who in his speech underscored the importance of The Sleepwalkers as a call to politicians to be responsible, especially today, when the “world is less transparent than during the Cold War.”[7]

Between 2012 and 2022, German parliamentarians regularly referenced this book during debates on defense policy, particularly in the context of relations with Russia. The fact that in 2022 Professor Clark himself, personally and decisively, repudiated such analogies and urged his research not be used to justify appeasement with Moscow,[8] didn’t change anything: the Germans’ desire to find scientific reasoning for their fears in the form of a book by a history professor carried more weight than the warnings from the researcher himself. 

The concept “rash decisions and a desire for simple solutions lead to disaster, while long negotiations and flawless work by diplomats can prevent terrible consequences” had, and continues to have, many supporters in Western countries. In a way this is the primary modus operandi of the West. Similar ideas shaped the most important decisions made by Western states for decades. In one of the most triumphant moments for the collective West — the collapse of the Soviet Union — the fear of victory and the consequences of the break-up of the USSR held the West back and ultimately prevented it from consolidating this victory into a lasting peace.

During his three-day visit to the Soviet Union, on that searingly hot day of August 1, 1991, American President George Bush Sr. visited Kyiv, or rather Kiev, because at the time it was still the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). On the way to the airport, where Bush was greeted by Leonid Kravchuk, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR, hundreds of Ukrainians waving national flags (the blue and yellow flag was forbidden under Soviet law and was punishable by two years of imprisonment) welcomed the US president while shouting “Freedom for Ukraine!” But the purpose of his visit was different: he wasn’t there to support Ukraine’s independence; on the contrary, he was there to preserve the integrity of the Soviet Union. At around 4 PM, George Bush Sr. walked up to the podium of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR to address the people’s deputies. Starting his speech with every cliché imaginable (including the remark the name “Ukraine” supposedly means “frontier”), Bush’s main appeal to the parliamentarians was this:

“We will support those in the center and the Republics who pursue freedom, democracy, and economic liberty… We will work for the good of both of us, which means that we will not meddle in your internal affairs. Some people have urged the United States to choose between supporting President Gorbachev and supporting independence-minded leaders throughout the U.S.S.R. I consider this a false choice… We will maintain the strongest possible relationship with the Soviet Government of President Gorbachev. But we also appreciate the new realities of life in the U.S.S.R. And therefore, as a federation ourselves, we want good relations — improved relations — with the Republics… Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”[9]

In other words, President Bush openly urged the deputies of the Ukrainian SSR to abandon the idea of independence and follow a course of loyalty to Moscow, putting his hope in the democratic character of the new leader in Moscow, whom the American President trusted. Ivan Drach, the Chairman of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Rukh) commented on the speech for the Washington Post: “Bush came here in effect as an emissary for Gorbachev. In many ways, he sounded less radical than our own Communist politicians on the issue of state sovereignty for the [sic] Ukraine. After all, they have to run for office here in the [sic] Ukraine and he doesn’t.”[10]

Fortunately for Ukraine, the American President’s appeal fell on deaf ears and three weeks later, on August 24, 1991, the same parliamentarians who heard Bush Sr.’s speech adopted the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine. Four months later, on December 1, 1991, 90.32% of voters in an all-Ukrainian referendum supported the independence of Ukraine.

What was behind this ill-advised speech? Why did nobody on the American President’s team see its moral weakness and political inexpedience? Obviously, the ability of Bush Sr. and his team to assess reality was spoiled by fear, and this fear clouded their vision, preventing them from seeing the obvious: the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and there was no point in trying to save it. However, for George Bush, the collapse of the USSR presented a frightening future, and this fear forced the American President and the speech’s co-author Condoleezza Rice (who will go on to become U.S. Secretary of State under Bush Jr.) to try to resuscitate that which was already dead.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union, which was a familiar “great evil,” was seen as more dangerous than the birth of new — democratic, but unfamiliar (!) — states. This irrational fear forced the US President to invest his authority in saving the USSR despite all signs pointing to the fact these new states would not be run by insane dictators. This is the reason why in his speech Bush Sr. said: “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism.” Overcome by his own fears, he foresaw local despots coming to power, even though there were no indications at all of this happening. 

Several years later, it was this fear which drove the US and Great Britain to, on the one hand, demand Ukraine’s nuclear-free status, but on the other — not do anything to make Russia give up its own nuclear weapons. On the contrary, all the nuclear weapons taken from Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan were given to Russia — a supposedly more serious, mature, and responsible state. The preservation of a nuclear Moscow seemed like less of a risk because it preserved the existing global security architecture. Moscow even inherited (although in complete violation of the UN Statute[11]) a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and continued to be a mini-USSR, with all the privileges of the latter.

Today we know this status very quickly pushed Russia to commit its first acts of aggression: in 1992 in Moldova and in 1992–1993 in Georgia, followed by the First Chechen War in 1994–1996, the Second Chechen War in 1999–2009, the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, the invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Donbas in 2014 and eventually leading to nuclear blackmail and a full-scale war in Europe using all types of non-nuclear weapons by 2022.

Was this possible scenario obvious to the collective West in the early 1990s? Not at all. On the contrary, it seemed the real threats would only come from the uncontrolled development of events. The patriarch of modeling scenarios of potential conflicts, American writer Tom Clancy, published a book in 1991 called The Sum of All Fears in which East German and Palestinian terrorists planned to blow up a nuclear bomb to provoke a nuclear war between the US and the USSR which would destroy both superpowers: the former for supporting Israel, and the latter for betraying global socialism.

This book was made into a movie in 2002. In the revised plot, the threat of nuclear war comes from terrorists, but this time it’s neo-Nazis who supposedly build a nuclear bomb on an abandoned military base on the territory of Ukraine (!) to detonate it in the US and blame it on the progressive (!) Russian president, who looks like a hawk but is really a dove trying to preserve peace. The terrorists trick Russian strategic bomber crews into attacking an American aircraft carrier group, thus deepening the conflict.[12] In this movie, only the wise and coolheaded presidents of the US and Russia can save the world from total nuclear war.

Neither Clancy nor the screenwriters could have imagined it wouldn’t be fringe terrorists but Russian President Vladimir Putin (he was already ensconced in the real Kremlin at the time the movie was released) who would openly blackmail the world with nuclear weapons and Russian strategic aviation pilots would be methodically bombing European cities.

Was this belief in the danger caused by change limited to relations with Russia? No. Events in Belarus in 2020 showed the extent to which fear of change paralyzed the will of the West and prevented it from taking decisive action. Elections were held there on August 9, 2020, in which dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka ran for president for the sixth time. The only candidate from the opposition was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who united the votes of all those opposing dictatorship. According to election commissions controlled by Lukashenka, he received 80% of votes, but independent vote counts showed the opposite: on August 20, based on 1,310 voter tally sheets, independent observers stated it was Tsikhanouskaya who received more than 80% of votes.[13]

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Belarus. It was at this moment Lukashenka’s power began to falter. Middle rank and junior police officers resigned, and city mayors cooperated with demonstrators. At the time, I was working for the Heinrich-Böll Foundation in Kyiv and was responsible for Ukraine and Belarus. A representative of the European Parliament asked me a direct question: What would be the best strategy right now? My advice was simple: recognize Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the legally elected president. This would create an additional vacuum of legitimacy around Lukashenka in Belarus, since he had already obviously lost the election, and it would embolden those government officials who seek change but were waiting for formal signs of a transition of power to side with the people.

As we know, Tsikhanouskaya was not recognized as the legitimate president. Representatives of the government did not side with protesters, and the protesters themselves did not take the risk of seizing any city halls or police precincts. The protest lost its momentum and was suppressed, despite all of Europe’s lofty declarations about solidarity with the Belarusians. The fear of making a radical decision resulting in possible negative repercussions had terrible consequences. Vladimir Putin gained enormous, unparalleled influence over Belarus, effectively annexing the country. The Russian Army was given unlimited access to Belarusian territory, first to put pressure on Ukraine, and then to be used as a springboard for the full-scale invasion. This in turn created new risks, because without Belarus the Russians wouldn’t have been able to approach Kyiv from the northwest and fire missiles at Ukraine from the north. The fear of conflict in Europe because of the diplomatic recognition of the obvious victor in the presidential election from the Belarusian opposition led to a political and military mistake that made war in Europe possible.

Seeing over and over again how fear made strong democracies defenseless against а brazen dictatorship, one can ask: Why is this losing strategy regularly repeated even though it leads to undesirable results? Instead of increasing global security, the world is becoming more dangerous. Instead of limiting risks, new risks are created.

The problem arises when we, who come at the issue from the perspective of societies or traditions seeking decisive actions to survive in a constantly dangerous environment, can’t always appreciate the perspective of Western politicians and bureaucrats. From their point of view, nothing bad can happen because of their careful, considered decisions; on the contrary, verified actions with a minimum of initiative seem capable of achieving positive results. Bureaucrats and politicians in the West are not individual actors with a will of their own: a bureaucrat is the representative of massive, powerful systems incorporating economic weight, scale, and stability. The European Union (EU) believes its victory depends not on acting quickly and decisively, but from the fact that even though it moves slowly, it has enormous influence and ultimately will win. From this perspective, not recognizing Tsikhanouskaya in September 2020 or not giving Ukraine support in March 2022 are not problems. If we’re playing the long game, then the Belarusians or Ukrainians could (or should) hold out (or pay the price for their own weakness), but the EU or collective West will not take any overly quick or risky steps.

Of course, this is a very simplified explanation, and there could be lots of different factors at play (including corruption and other criminal influences), but one should remember: in the European bureaucrat’s world, negative consequences of a decision made by them will never be seen as their fault if the bureaucrat followed protocols and formal requirements; on the contrary, especially in a case when a protocol is violated, the bureaucrat can easily be held responsible. In German society, there are an infinite number of TV shows dedicated to this paradox. For example, journalists find a case where a city government continues to maintain railway tracks which for many years have not been connected to the railway network only because they are formally on the city’s balance sheet and the law requires city hall to allocate funds for this. The Germans are traditionally against such spending, but it would be too radical to allow civil servants to make decisions based on common sense.

The same happens on the level of state policy. No politician would risk taking responsibility and waver from the established decision-making processes or traditional ways of conducting foreign policy. A typical example of such a trap was the behavior of Western politicians during meetings with Vladimir Putin. For years, everyone knew the Russian President was deliberately late to meetings: he was forty minutes late to his meeting with Barak Obama in 2012; three hours late to his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016; and he made German Chancellor Angela Merkel wait for him for four hours and fifteen minutes in 2014.[14] Each of these world leaders wasted their precious time passively waiting instead of changing the nature of relations with a dictator by taking one decisive step towards the door.

The last such scandalous situation happened when Vladimir Putin, on his way to Milan for the Tenth Asia Europe Economic Forum, stopped in Belgrade to take part in a military parade honoring the 70th anniversary of the “liberation” of the Serbian capital by Yugoslav partisans together with the Red Army. In his speech he “questioned Kosovo’s sovereignty, took a swipe at President Obama in the Serbian news media and reached a summit meeting in Milan so far behind schedule that he was hours late for a private evening meeting with Europe’s most powerful leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany,” the The New York Times wrote.[15] This time he made Merkel wait until late at night. When the journalists asked the daughter of Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev Nina what the Russian President’s behavior could mean, she said quite frankly: “[Putin’s] an exhibitionist.”

Nina Khrushcheva wasn’t alone, any Russia expert could have easily explained the actions of the President of the Russian Federation — Putin let Western politicians know he does not respect them. The only proper response should have been a firm refusal to wait for the Russian President and cancel the meeting after he was already a few minutes late. This is the only way a Western politician could have set boundaries and, perhaps, brought Putin back to his senses.

But this kind of reaction requires decisiveness and a readiness to act in unknown territory, and that means letting go of fear. What they should have done was turn the game board around and make their opponent play by their rules, beating him at his own game. This would have meant a major leap forward for Western politics, but at the same time reveal new threats and new fears. Obviously, such a reaction would have been perceived very negatively by Western society. If Angela Merkel had canceled the meeting after an hour of waiting, she would have received endless criticism from German citizens. She would have been called irresponsible, unreasonable, and impatient. The chancellor’s job is to serve the country, and for this she should look for ways to negotiate rather than take affront. The average voter didn’t understand that the Chancellor’s patience, waiting hours for Putin, looked like a position of power and dignity only in the eyes of the Germans; in Putin’s eyes, it was confirmation of her weakness. And even if Merkel herself understood this (and most likely she did), she wouldn’t dare take the right step out of fear of looking bad in the eyes of her own population.

Perfectly understanding Merkel’s limited space to maneuver, Putin took advantage of it with sadistic pleasure. As someone for whom working in the KGB was a calling, he relished exploiting the fears and weaknesses of other people and demonstrated his power over them using all possible means. Back in 2005, during Angela Merkel’s first visit to the Kremlin as German Chancellor, the Russian President gifted her a dog. “I know you have a problem with dogs,” he said, sneering. Merkel had been attacked by a dog as a child and was afraid of them ever since. Obviously aware of this weakness, Putin demonstratively pressured her. In 2007 he went even further. Angela Merkel came to his residence in Sochi on the Black Sea. While they were sitting in the reception room, officers of the Federal Protective Service let in Putin’s big black Labrador, and he immediately jumped on the Chancellor and began sniffing her. The Russian President smiled widely as he watched Merkel try not to panic. And, once again, not only did she not exhibit any indignation, the Russian dictator’s scandalous prank didn’t even make the news. The story remained a rumor until it was confirmed a few years afterwards.

French President Emmanuel Macron was also guided by fear of escalation in his relations with Putin. Trying to avoid “escalation,” the French leader flew to Moscow in early February 2022 to convince the Russian president not to attack Ukraine. During this “diplomatic offensive,” Macron spent six hours with Putin trying to articulate his position and obtain a promise from Putin not to carry out his planned invasion of Ukraine. The result was a joint press conference during which Putin quoted almost verbatim from a song by the Russian Soviet punk rock band Krasnaya Plesen (“Red Mold”) about the rape of a dead girl: “You may like it, you may not, but you’ll have to endure it, my precious.” Putin was openly referring to Ukraine fulfilling Russia’s demands. But it seems the French President did not understand the Kremlin’s master had openly outlined his own plans and the plan of action for the Russian military.

Two weeks later, Russia would launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, killing and raping thousands of people. Despite this, for a month after the failed meeting in Moscow, until mid-March 2022, Macron called Putin ten times and talked with the Russian dictator for some 20 hours,[16] hoping in vain his exemplary rhetoric would convince the aggressor to stop the war. It’s hard to say whether fear of escalation was the main factor driving Macron, but he obviously thought civilized dialogue could influence the Russian leader. Moreover, it seems the French President truly believed this war was about Russia looking for security guarantees and not about destroying Ukraine, and thus, that is exactly what he constantly offered Putin — which, logically, didn’t yield any results.

In fact, the only Western leader who was able to fight back against Russia was the authoritarian leader of Turkey. In November 2015, he authorized the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Syrian-Turkish border. It was precisely because of his authoritarian rule that Recep Erdoğan took this decisive step to defend his country’s airspace, reducing the risk of danger to the Turkish people. Paradoxically, he did what a more responsible, transparent, and democratic country would not have dared to do.

The fear of looking like irresponsible autocrats has held Western politicians back from taking necessary decisive actions. And the belief that long consultations and careful steps bring better results (a claim which has much support) has been transformed into a complete prohibition of quick reactions. In the end, this restriction was based on the fears and expectations of voters: afraid of the unforeseen consequences of quick decisions, the voters created conditions making decisive actions by politicians almost impossible, and only tolerated those who, from a strategic point of view, acted foolishly, but acted according to the “rules.”

All these examples of poor decisions were not infused with malicious intent. They were solely based on laziness, fear, and populism. And many of the decisions even looked smart and balanced in the eyes of modern observers.

There is one thing all these decisions have in common: someone has to pay for them. In the case of foreign policy decisions made out of fear, most often other countries have to pay for weak and cowardly choices. The price for strengthening Russia and ignoring Moscow’s imperial ambitions is ultimately being paid now — with the lives of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

Arguments in support of this fact are perceived as being non-political, emphasizing moral responsibility, which is something which cannot be a primary factor in political debate. “Ukrainians are trying to put politics in a moral plane, without understanding that international politics is built on the interests of countries and norms of international law,” we keep hearing from those who not too long ago signed the Budapest Memorandum providing Ukraine security guarantees. 

The rejection of NATO membership for Ukraine based on the fear of antagonizing Moscow (as if the attack on Ukraine was caused not by the West’s demonstrative weakness but the legendary expansion of NATO) led to war, even though it was seen as an instrument of de-escalation. In the near future we will hear similar arguments against the liberation of the Crimean Peninsula, as if the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s presence on the territory of Ukrainian Crimea will be a threat to Moscow and lead to even greater escalation.

Paradoxically, in the framework of this logic, which requires the preservation of the status quo to reduce risks (because any change carries risks), the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, which has lasted since 2014, is seen by the West as the status quo and must be preserved at any price. The fear of change held the West back from responding resolutely to Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian Crimea because the fear of nuclear war was even greater. Now, that same fear of nuclear war demands the West put pressure on Ukraine not to liberate the Crimean Peninsula because this could add turbulence to world politics and provoke a global conflict. For them, the continued occupation of Ukrainian territory seems like a small price to pay for world stability. 

Similar arguments are being used against Ukraine’s membership in the European Union: allegedly its membership will change the balance of power in the EU by strengthening Poland (which scares Germany); it will allow entry into the EU for a country not ready for membership, with radical political parties, corrupt politicians, and a poor population; it will threaten the prosperity of the EU; and it will expose the eastern borders of the EU to invasion. They may have nothing to do with reality, but these arguments fit perfectly into the traditional models of fear. The only way of defeating them is a swift and decisive change in the status quo, demonstrating the world has ALREADY changed, and understanding that a demand to return to the old unjust state of affairs is far more dangerous than accepting a new one. Only this will transform the difficult to overcome fear of the future into an acceptance of the present. Fortunately for Ukraine, it has sufficient experience and skills in this matter. A sleepy, scary forest isn’t such an insurmountable obstacle for those who aren’t afraid of the dark. Especially when you’re walking along the path holding a weapon.

Other stories written by Sergej Sumlenny

Other stories illustrated by Maksym Palenko

Sergej Sumlenny — German political scientist, founder of the European Resilience Initiative Center in Berlin, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kyiv from 2015–2021.

[1] Statista. Insurance penetration of primary insurers in Germany from 1950 to 2021. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed June 2023].

[2] Statista. Number of companies operating on the insurance market in Germany from 2011 to 2020. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed June 2023].

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