Germany still struggles to understand its Eastern neighbours
The full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine has deeply shocked Germany and its political elite to the core. Ukraine and the West expected Berlin to step up and show leadership in this war. But has anything changed substantively in German foreign policy and its intellectual and institutional ability to handle this invasion? The answers are mixed and disappointing to many in Ukraine and Europe.
Until the last moment before the invasion, very few policymakers in Germany wanted to believe that an invasion would take place. This belief speaks to the inability of large parts of the German political class and punditry to see through Putin’s revisionist agenda since 2008.
Russia’s full-blown invasion on February 24th questioned the conviction held by most of the German political class to engage with Moscow and seek constructive relations by enhancing trade ties. The war caused great debate in Germany. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was the first to openly admit that he was “wrong” to hold on to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project as a bridge to Russia.
The debate, however, did not change much. Public opinion has turned decisively against ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the Kremlin’s chief lobbyist in Germany. But so far, there are few signs that society, let alone the Social Democrats, are willing to continue debating the errors of German Russia policy, Russian strategic corruption, and the country’s high dependency on Russian fossil fuels.
When Putin ordered his army to attack Ukraine, Olaf Scholz’s coalition had been in office for less than 100 days. While sanctions were being prepared behind closed doors, the German government would not send any lethal weapons to Ukraine prior to the invasion and merely offered 5,000 military helmets.
However, the Russian invasion appeared to quickly change things. Within the first few days of the war, the government greenlighted the first shipments of arms and ammunition, including portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. On February 27th, Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered an important speech in the German Bundestag, announcing the delivery of light weaponry to Ukraine and outlining the unprecedented sanctions that the West has unleashed on Russia. Scholz also stressed his commitment to the defence of NATO members along the Eastern front. To boost Germany’s own defence capabilities, Scholz announced the creation of a special fund of 100 billion euros that would be used for necessary investments and armament projects which was recently approved by the Bundestag.
Despite the cancellation of Nord Stream 2, Germany is reluctant to employ the most drastic sanctions. The country remains the single largest buyer of Russian fossil fuel and has imported more than 8.3 billion US dollars of mostly oil and gas since February 24th. However, under the leadership of the Green Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, the country’s dependency on Russian gas decreased from 55 to 35 per cent. The government announced that it would permanently phase out Russian oil by the end of 2022 and gas by 2024.
At the same time, the German government has kept saying that the costs of a gas embargo for German industry would simply be too high. In several interviews, Chancellor Scholz and various business representatives have alleged that an abrupt end to gas flows would cause “mass unemployment” and big disruptions to entire sectors of the German economy. This would also undermine the competitiveness of Europe’s largest economy and thus its ability to withstand Russia in the medium and long term. Discussion in the public discourse has largely focused on the economy and consumers and not on the cost of the war for Ukraine or Germany’s contribution. For over three months, the country debated the limits of its support to Ukraine.
One primary issue now present in discourse concerns fears that the war could spiral out of control. The ultimate fear voiced repeatedly by Scholz was that of a nuclear war and World War Three. Such framing resonates deeply with the public and allowed the chancellor to justify the limits of his government’s action. Even deliveries of idling German infantry fighting vehicles and old main battle tanks were denied to Ukraine because Russia, according to the German government, might perceive the delivery of these weapons as an act of war. The fact that Poland, Czechia and other partners transferred a lot of their Soviet era arsenal to Ukraine was outright ignored. After a long debate and significant international pressure, the government announced the delivery of 50 anti-aircraft guns and seven artillery systems in April. The Ukrainian military is currently training to use these complex weapon systems.
With a limited willingness to deliver its own weapon systems to Ukraine, Germany has focused on the so-called “ring swaps”. The German army first delivered or promised to deliver weapon systems to Central and Eastern European partners such as Slovakia, Czechia and Poland. In return, they would send their Soviet systems to Ukraine. These swaps have so far shown mixed results. Recently, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda alleged that Berlin violated promises to deliver modern German tanks to Poland.
All of Germany’s communications regarding its support to Ukraine have been erratic. The government decided not to speak about weapon deliveries to the country, citing security reasons. This has only increased suspicion among critics that Berlin is dragging its feet. The German public is now almost evenly split on weapon deliveries. Between March 30th and May 26th, the German government delivered only a few thousand mines. Moreover, it seems that the country lacks a clear strategy of what it wants to achieve in Ukraine. At Davos, Scholz recently said that “Putin must not win his war and I am convinced that he will not win it.” Unlike many other western partners, Scholz refuses to embrace Ukrainian victory as the primary goal. Moreover, the government has failed to explain what a Russian “loss” in Ukraine would look like and what resources are being deployed to realise it.
Self-centred debate and incongruent communication have revealed that Germany still struggles to think strategically despite rousing speeches to the contrary. Different government actors, especially the ministries and the chancellery, lack the institutional capacity to define national interests and strategise in any adequate sense. In the absence of a proper institutional framework, like a real “National Security Council”, each ministry thinks about its facets of the war in a compartmentalised way. This is part of the reason why debate has focused so much on the costs of sanctions but so little on the broader costs for Ukraine in this war, let alone the cost of a Ukrainian defeat for Germany and Europe.
These issues have also revealed that Germany struggles to understand its neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe and cope with new expectations that muddling through is now not an option. The growing sense of disappointment felt by its neighbours and Ukraine in particular is not properly understood in Germany. While many of Berlin’s Eastern neighbours led by Poland and the Baltics championed Ukraine’s European perspective, Germany has been sceptical. The administration does not seem to comprehend the geostrategic importance of linking Ukraine’s future, including its reconstruction, to its potential membership of the European Union in the future.
Ultimately, Russia’s war has changed only a few things in Germany. In the early stages, Germany stepped up and for the first time delivered weaponry that was used by Ukraine. For the first time, the country has significantly reduced its dependency on Russian oil and gas. Such a reduction will limit Berlin’s vulnerabilities. However, it has done little to significantly reduce the Russian regime’s cashflows and its ability to finance the war in the short term.
Germany is still busy discussing its limits of support for Ukraine and its fears of a possible escalation. The self-centred German debate has revealed a lot about the country’s limits in living up to expectations as a European leader. The vacuum is now being filled by Great Britain and Poland in Europe. Growing disillusionment and its long-term strategic costs are simply not understood in Berlin.
So far, Germany has not increased its institutional capacity to pursue a more robust foreign policy. It continues to fail to strategise and work out what it really wants to achieve in Ukraine. Indeed, Berlin talks more about what it wants to avoid. More than three months into the war, it seems that the chosen German approach is one of muddling through, of doing the bare minimum after significant pressure. This is likely to fuel growing disappointment in Europe and Ukraine and undermine Germany’s long-term standing across the continent.
Mattia Nelles is a German political analyst and expert on Ukraine.