As Russia continues its military buildup along Ukraine’s borders, NATO and the EU are trying to project a strong, united front on these extraordinary and dangerous developments. But Germany is undermining that unity, leaving the West weaker and more divided. Below, Strategic Europe editor-in-chief Judy Dempsey digs into what’s driving Germany’s actions on this latest crisis.

Why is Germany reluctant to follow NATO allies on Ukraine?

Publicly, Berlin toes the NATO line on sending troops and equipment to the Baltic states and Romania in order to boost the alliance’s eastern flank. In practice, it does not want to send any defensive weapons to Ukraine. It blocked Estonia from sending such equipment, which had been made in Germany, and a UK aircraft carrying military equipment to Ukraine detoured around German airspace. The German political establishment believes such moves will destabilize Europe and make it more difficult to have a dialogue with Russia.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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But isn’t Russia trying to destabilize Ukraine?

Germany doesn’t see it that way. There is a part of the German establishment that sees Ukraine through the prism of Russia. For historical reasons, this group views Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia as a cordon sanitaire between Europe and Russia. There’s a legacy of both centuries-old rivalry and cooperation between Russia and Germany. And there’s the immense historical guilt of Germany’s role in World War II. Ukraine and Belarus suffered horribly under Adolf Hitler’s occupation, but somehow, these facts don’t enter into the public discourse. The historical guilt is centered on Russia, and German politicians often refer to this legacy.

Don’t Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine one day want to join both NATO and the EU?

Yes. Joining the EU is a long way off, but that is their goal. That is what drives the reformers when it comes to strengthening democracy, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary. That’s what scares Russia: truly independent, democratic countries on its border. And NATO is its red line. Putin does not want any Eastern European countries joining this Western security alliance. If they did, the United States would, from the security and military points of view, dominate not only Western Europe but also Eastern Europe. Russia would lose any leverage to influence events among its immediate western neighbors. NATO would defend these countries if they were threatened or attacked.

That is why Putin is threatening Ukraine and demanding a water-tight commitment from NATO that Ukraine will not join. He does not want Ukraine integrated into the Euro-Atlantic structures of NATO or the EU, nor does he want a secure and democratic Ukraine on his doorstep. The fear of contagion would be too big.

How are NATO allies reacting to Germany’s reluctance?

With anger. The Baltic states and Central European countries believe Germany doesn’t understand their security concerns or Russia’s intentions. They believe the German political and business establishments are so close to Russia that they don’t want to upset those decades-long ties.

Does Germany’s stance have any support?

Yes, from France, but for different reasons. President Emmanuel Macron wants a European, not a U.S-led, response to this crisis. He wants Europe to have its own security and defense policy that would create a kind of “strategic autonomy.” In Macron’s view, the global geostrategic context has changed so much that Europe has to develop its own instruments to defend itself and shape policy. But Germany has no strategic compass. Because of World War II, it is locked into a pacifist way of thinking. This explains why it is uncomfortable with Macron’s idea, as are the Baltic states, Poland, and other Central European countries.

Why is that?

The Ukraine crisis has made Central Europe even more pro-NATO and pro-American because of Germany’s closeness to Russia and Macron’s ambitions to have a militarily and strategically capable Europe. These countries will likely put a brake on any future EU integration, especially when it comes to security, defense, and foreign policy, where consensus would give way to simple majority voting under proposed reforms. They don’t trust France’s intentions, which they see as weakening Europe’s relationship with NATO. They don’t trust Berlin because it is seen as too pro-Russia. This is bad news for the EU.

How then are EU and NATO members seeking a way out of this crisis?

With the threat of more sanctions and with an increased NATO and U.S. military presence in the Baltic states, Poland, and other Central European countries. The United States is also stepping up its diplomatic efforts with Moscow to deescalate the crisis. As yet, there’s no consensus among members of either the EU or NATO on the scope of the sanctions.

How does energy factor into Germany’s relationship with Russia?

Currently, natural gas from Russia—which accounts for more than half of Germany’s gas imports and an average of 40 percent of the rest of Europe’s imports—must transit through Poland or Ukraine. But the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will allow Russia to directly send more gas to Europe under the Baltic Sea. Some European countries want Germany to stop the pipeline, which will likely make Germany become more dependent on Russian gas. And because Poland and Ukraine won’t be needed to send Russian gas to Europe (one of Moscow’s goals in building Nord Stream 2), Ukraine will be even more vulnerable to pressure from Moscow, particularly when it comes to gas deliveries. Nord Stream 2 weakens Ukraine’s leverage as an access point for Russia to the European energy market. Yet for all that, Germany refuses to stop the pipeline.

What about German public opinion?

It’s divided. For instance, some 47 percent are opposed to the delivery of defensive weapons to Ukraine, but at least 42 percent are in favor. But something is changing—not among the political establishment but in the media. Influential newspapers, such as the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the left-leaning Der Spiegel news magazine, are now openly critical of Berlin’s ambiguity toward NATO, as well as the chancellery’s reluctance to openly support Ukraine and its perceived blindness about how Russia is trying to destroy Europe’s U.S.-anchored security architecture.

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel bowed out of office just a few months ago. Has the new government changed direction when it comes to Russia?

Yes and no. The foreign ministry is now led by a Greens minister, Annalena Baerbock. She opposes Nord Stream 2 and wants a more robust policy toward Russia. But the chancellery has the upper hand when it comes to the Russia dossier.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz and (generally) his fellow Social Democrats do not want to discard the party’s commitment to Ostpolitik—engaging with Russia through dialogue and economic links. This position is in the DNA of the Social Democrats. Indeed, it was the Merkel way, too—she never tried to stop NordStream 2. So Germany’s stance toward Russia will only change if Scholz realizes that Ostpolitik is over, if public opinion exerts pressure, and if Germany exercises some much-needed proactive leadership in Europe. Failing all these things, Europe will become weaker, more vulnerable, and more susceptible to meddling from Russia and China.