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Germany’s robust indecisiveness or winking at Russia?

As Ukraine faces renewed Russian offensives in spring, Kyiv is more reliant than ever on its allies in the West. Despite this, Germany continues to avoid concrete decisions on providing weaponry. Berlin must now take decisive action if it is to remain the so-called unofficial leader of Europe.

January 25, 2023 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Difficult hero for difficult times. Drawing by NEE's illustrator Andrzej Zaręba

In its reluctance to help Ukraine decisively, Germany looks bad in the eyes of its European and North American allies. Berlin’s equivocations and numerous unfulfilled promises only provide more strategic advantage to the Kremlin. What in the past appeared to be caution dictated by Germany’s dark history, now has apparently morphed into an unprincipled waiting game. Berlin seems ready to side with any victorious party in whose favour the war may turn. Despite protestations to the contrary, democracy does not feature in this calculation.

Russia’s imperial war

On the fateful Thursday of February 24th 2022, peace and stability in Europe came to an unexpected, but long foretold, end. The Europe of the Helsinki Accords, resting on the cornerstone of the inviolability of borders, reached its date of expiration. In an unprovoked and unjustified war of imperial conquest, Russia attacked Ukraine from the east in Donbas, from the south along the shores of the Azov and Black Seas, and from the north. The last onslaught was the most treacherous, because it was Belarus that allowed Russian tanks to roll onto the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

In the face of this military juggernaut, only thanks to the unprecedented bravery of Ukrainians themselves (inadvertently helped by the Kremlin being overconfident in its ability to win in a couple of days), the massive three-pronged offensive was stopped in its tracks. Kyiv was saved. In the second half of March 2022, the Ukrainian counteroffensive compelled the beleaguered Russian troops to withdraw from the capital’s vicinity.

“Peace for Russia’s genocide in Ukraine”

In April and May 2022, it happened that I was teaching at Jena University in Germany. After the disorderly withdrawal of Russian forces from around Kyiv, the mind-boggling scale of the destruction and loss of life became known to all. This was an unprecedented tragedy for post-war Europe. Russia’s genocidal massacres in Bucha and Borodyanka shocked the world. Meanwhile, the Russian siege of the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol was coming to an end. The Russians razed the city and buried tens of thousands of civilian victims under the rubble of apartment blocks.

During this time, various groupings and parties, including members of Germany’s ruling SPD party, organised “peace rallies” in Jena and across Germany. Openly or tacitly, the intended peace entailed that Germany would not be sending any weapons to Ukraine, while Kyiv would eventually have to surrender to Russia.

It did not matter to these German pacifists that in such a scenario the Kremlin would press on with its genocidal programme of liquidating Ukraine and the Ukrainians as a state and as a nation, that the Ukrainian elite would be exterminated and the country “ruralised”, while most of its inhabitants would end up either exiled to Siberia or in forced labour concentration camps. It did not matter that Ukraine would be turned into another Russian province, and its human and economic potential harnessed for the Kremlin’s future neo-imperial conquests of the countries located between Russia and Germany. Russian propagandists threatened the Germans with Russian tanks rolling through Berlin again, so that they would not dare to oppose Moscow.

German confusion

A couple of days after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the German government officially condemned the Kremlin and promised to send weapons to aid Ukraine’s defence. Yet, what followed was a long period of procrastination and equivocation. Not a surprising outcome, given the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder remains a card-carrying SPD member. He is a close friend of Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin and bears responsibility for making Germany overdependent on Russia’s oil and gas. Schröder and his SPD party allowed Putin to make hydrocarbons into a tool of political pressure and blackmail for dividing the European Union and NATO.

Schröder and his friends also got rich through this process. Now they want to keep their ill-gotten wealth but retain respectability as “exemplary democrats”. They hope for a return to the old, corrupt status quo of cheap oil and gas for the Germans in return for allowing the Kremlin to pursue its imperialist ambitions in the “intermediary zone” between Berlin and Moscow. This would be a new-style appeasement in the name of “business as usual” at an “acceptable” cost, including, eight million refugees from Ukraine and 6.5 million internally displaced within the country, alongside 40,000 civilian casualties. In the near future all these three stats will only go up.

Berlin’s prudence

Following Ukraine’s recapture of the southern city of Kherson in November 2022, the front stopped moving. It remained immobile, despite fierce continual exchanges of fire of an intensity and duration not seen since the Second World War. This stalemate lasted until mid-January 2023, when Russian troops captured the mining town of Soledar, near Bakhmut in Donbas. The moment of reckoning is coming.

Meanwhile, in spring 2022, Berlin promised to send 100 tanks to Ukraine. But shortly afterward, the German government went back on its words, claiming that in a situation of heightened insecurity in Europe, Germany must keep these tanks for itself. What a great example of honesty and spectacular prudence.

In May 2022, Germany promised to send 15 anti-aircraft Gepard tanks to Ukraine. A welcome new development, but initially with next to nothing by the way of ammunition. This was an ideal outcome for Russia, with Ukraine ending up with western guns without any ammo. By autumn last year, Kyiv received double the number of Gepards promised. However, this did not help much. During the last quarter of 2022, Russian rockets destroyed half of Ukraine’s energy and other critical infrastructure. In the dead cold of the 2022-23 winter, at any given time, two to ten million Ukrainians are deprived of electricity and heating.

Time is over

It does not matter for the Germans who, unlike millions of Ukrainians, do not live in makeshift emergency housing or half-destroyed blocks of apartments. The Germans do not have to make do in sub-zero temperatures with no power or heat. They do not starve or suffer thirst. Getting food and water in present-day Germany does not entail ducking mortar fire or facing the ever-present danger of death, courtesy of Russian rockets periodically falling from the sky.

Obviously, at present, the Kremlin is preparing a spring offensive. Materiel and troops are being amassed on the Donbas front. Last autumn, the Russian army mobilised 300,000 reservists. Now, Moscow is considering mobilising half a million conscripts. It does not matter for Russia and the country’s public opinion that over 100,000 Russian soldiers have already died in this war. More are eager to enlist or will be compelled into the Russian war’s meat grinder.

On the other hand, the situation is critical for Ukraine and Europe. What is being decided now amounts to an existential question of whether the Ukrainians and Europeans will live under democracy or if Russia’s neo-imperialist totalitarianism triumphs. Post-communist and post-Soviet EU and NATO members share with the Ukrainians an acute awareness of this stark choice that now faces the continent. After all, it is Estonia and Latvia that sent almost one per cent of their GDP to Ukraine in aid, while Poland almost 0.5 per cent. On the other hand, the biggest donors in absolute terms are the US, EU and UK. Germany with the largest economy in Europe and the fifth largest in the world lags considerably behind Britain and is just marginally ahead of Canada in helping Ukraine. It is not good enough. Since September 2022, calls have grown for Ukraine to receive modern and versatile Leopard fighting tanks.

Importantly, Germany and its European NATO allies have these tanks in abundance, around 2,000. Russia already lost 2,000 tanks in Ukraine, but still has 2,000 more to send to the front. That is why the Leopards are urgently needed for breaking the impasse on the front. These tanks would help Ukraine gain the upper hand in the face of Russia’s advantage regarding its sheer number of tanks and mobilised troops.

Berlin: a new opening?

At long last, the reality of Russia’s total war of utter destruction against Ukraine appeared to dawn with crystal-clear clarity on the German government and the country’s elite. Finnish politicians tried to shame Berlin into handing Leopards over to Kyiv. Berlin did not rule out this possibility. But only a day later, a statement was issued that there were no plans to this end. Frustrated with another of Germany’s equivocations in the context of an existential danger to both Ukraine and Europe, France and Poland leaned on Berlin hard to change tack. Warsaw even declared that it could pass its (rather meagre) stock of Leopards to Kyiv, even without Berlin’s consent.

A new German minister of defence was sworn in in Berlin on January 19th. NATO and EU allies hoped this occasion would herald administrative and symbolical steps toward Germany sending Leopards to Ukraine. But to everyone’s frustration, on January 20th, at the meeting of 50 countries at the US military base in Ramstein, the new German defence minister equivocated just like his predecessor. He ambiguously stated, “I’m very sure there will be a decision in the short term, but I don’t know how the decision will look.” To control the damage incurred to Germany’s already tarnished reputation, the minister subsequently tweeted that his country “will not stop supporting Ukraine”.

Under non-belligerent circumstances, this “assurance” would sound like an ironic “No”. Yet, at the turning point in this war that will decide Europe’s immediate future, “no decision” on this matter is a strategic win for the Kremlin. This indecision is killing even more innocent Ukrainians. And inadvertently or not, Berlin has granted the Russian president more time to prepare a successful offensive this spring. In turn, Kyiv and Europe are left short-changed by the country that styles itself as the leader of democracy and the West in Europe.

Is the incumbent German government really so myopic? Does it have to see eye to eye with the likes of Putin and Schröder on the “Russian peace” (Russkiy mir) plan for Ukraine (and Europe)? Are totalitarianism and imperialism still so desirable in 21st century Europe, with or without oil? For the time being, Germany’s allies seethe. But Moscow approves and simultaneously wields the pedagogic stick of Soviet tanks rolling across Berlin in 1945. Will the Germans succumb to Russian propaganda, their well-established links with Moscow, and as a result forsake democracy and an integrated Europe?

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His recent monographs include Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War (Routledge 2018), Politics and Slavic Languages (Routledge 2021) and Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.

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