Yesterday, a very high-level Western envoy met with Vladimir Putin. No, it wasn’t the American secretary of state or the British prime minister. And it wasn’t President Obama, who was quietly extolling the virtues of NATO in a speech in Brussels. Instead, it was someone who really matters: Joe Kaeser, the CEO of the giant German firm Siemens, whose company all by itself had nearly $3 billion in sales to Russia last year. It might look like the important diplomacy is taking place amid talks between the US delegation in Brussels with its European counterparts, but the visit to Moscow by Kaeser and parallel actions by many of his German colleagues is where the action is.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Kaeser met Putin, and he had this to say:

Siemens has been present in Russia since 1853—a presence that has survived many highs and lows. We want to maintain the conversation even in today's politically difficult times. For us, dialogue is a crucial part of a long-term relationship.

And 1853 was just before the Crimean War, I do believe. The Journal goes on to report:

German industry has been hard at work under the radar of official avenues to establish an informal diplomatic channel, shuttling between Berlin and Moscow to prevent an all-out economic war. In the days ahead of the Crimean vote to secede from Ukraine, officials from lobbying group Ostausschuss—which represents German companies with investments in Eastern Europe—held meetings with senior Russian, Ukrainian and German officials in an attempt to find a compromise that could ward off tit-for-tat sanctions.

And the paper added this tidbit:

In Berlin, a small circle of politicians and industry lobbyists that include Mr. Cordes and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have met regularly throughout the crisis at the Russian Embassy with Ambassador Vladimir Grinin, a person familiar with the gathering said. Since leaving office in 2005, Mr. Schröder, who has close ties to Mr. Putin, has worked as an adviser to Gazprom. Messrs. Grinin and Schröder couldn't be reached to comment.

As reported in my blog not long ago, it will be capitalism, not politics, that prevents a new Cold War.

In fact, the Germans—with deep economic ties to Russia that create a German national interest in which business supersedes any concern about Crimea—want to normalize things again with Russia, and fast. The Russian news outlet RT, that faithful propagandist for Mother Russia, approvingly cites yet another former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, writing in Die Zeit, who said that Russia’s land grab in Crimea was “completely understandable” and that that economic sanctions against Russia are a “stupid idea.”

Commenting on the response so far by the current German leader, Angela Merkel, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian writes:

In contrast to the posturing and empty rhetoric in London and Washington is the calm voice of Germany's Angela Merkel.… Merkel grew up in East Germany under the KGB's lash and has tried to see Putin through Russian eyes. She sees the absurdity of Barack Obama preaching international law at Russia, of punishing it over Crimea while scheming to bring Ukraine into the western camp. She sees the 1914 danger, of vague ultimatums, unenforceable red lines and ill-considered alliances.

In contrast, President Obama’s speech in Brussels, which wandered this way and that but which focused on the theme of NATO’s role in defending freedom, contained this empty phrase:

Today, NATO planes patrol the skies over the Baltics, and we’ve reinforced our presence in Poland.  And we’re prepared to do more.  Going forward, every NATO member state must step up and carry its share of the burden by showing the political will to invest in our collective defense, and by developing the capabilities to serve as a source of international peace and security.

And, weirdly, describing the current West vs. Russia divide, Obama said: “The contest of ideas continues.” As if the current crisis were the result of competing ideologies, and not power politics, Putin’s vainglory and the price of natural gas.

If Ukraine does complete its move away from Russia and toward the European Union, the EU’s $15 billion aid package, plus another $14 to $18 billion from the International Monetary Fund, is what will do the trick, and not the outmoded, useless and underfunded NATO.

The New York Times, writing about the downward spiral of NATO and the withdrawal of US forces from Europe, reports today:

The United States, by far the most powerful NATO member, has drastically cut back its European forces from a decade ago. European countries, which have always lagged far behind the United States in military might, have struggled and largely failed to come up with additional military spending at a time of economic anemia and budget cuts.

And it notes that US forces have declined from 400,000 at the height of the Cold War to about 67,000 today. Hawks in Europe and the United States would love to reverse the trend, stepping up the US military presence in eastern Europe and prodding European governments to spend more on their militaries.

But Defense News, hardheaded as always, notes that Russia would not have been deterred even by a stronger NATO. Its source is the British defense minister:

"I think my own judgment is that it is unlikely that any realistic change in level of defense spending in Europe would have made a difference to Putin’s calculus over these events,” Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told a small group of reporters during a meeting at the British Embassy in Washington.