Daniel BaerActing director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
“Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” Henry Kissinger is said to have asked, to make a point, when he was secretary of state. In the last six weeks, as Russian President Vladimir Putin once again menaces Ukraine and therefore the European security order, one might wonder who to call when you want to call Germany.
One of the perils of a coalition government—especially a new one—is that sometimes the predictable singing of different notes (by the foreign minister, the defense minister, the chancellor, etc.) does not harmonize into a common sound.
Would it be better and present the strongest possible deterrence if Germany were more vocally in solidarity with NATO allies and European security principles at this moment? Of course. Is it embarrassing that the first Social Democrat-led government since Gerhard Schröder—who has since become a kind of adopted oligarch of Putin’s—is obstructing aid to Ukraine? Sure.
But whether you chalk it up to (persistent) delusions about who Putin is or simply amoral mercantilism, one shouldn’t fret too much over the occasionally mealy-mouthed German position. When push comes to shove, Germany will stand with allies if Putin decides to invade anew.
Krzysztof BledowskiCouncil Director and Senior Economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
Unfortunately, it is.
Dialing down tensions with Russia requires dialing up European military buildup, indirect assistance to Ukraine, and trigger-ready crippling sanctions against the aggressor. These should be biting, such as the denial of technology or using the euro as a financial weapon. Germany, as the most consequential power in Europe, is telegraphing silence.
Over long decades Germany’s public debate has elevated a close partnership with Russia to be the guarantor of peace in Europe. However, Russia’s definition of peace now includes not only a dismembered Ukraine, but also a Europe that is split internally and divorced from the United States.
Poland and the Baltics took Germany’s place as the EU’s Eastern frontier. Essentially, Germany has outsourced its security to these countries and the United States. Germany’s peace does not depend on good relations with Moscow; it depends on Europe’s East and North holding up, and on the U.S. taxpayers’ willingness to underwrite it.
The EU holds strong cards with which to repel Russia’s aggression. Germany should ditch its ineffective Ostpolitik in favor of brokering EU unity based on security needs of the Nordics and the Baltics.
There is another argument for Germany’s role as the EU’s unifier. The U.S. military umbrella for Europe is only as good as the Europeans’ willingness to defend themselves. Now is the time to prove it.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
Germany has made it harder to achieve a united European response to Russia’s threats to Ukraine. No one wants a war in Europe, and everyone would like to find a peaceful outcome.
Germany’s role in World War II still casts a long psychological shadow. But that war and its aftermath should make Germans even more sensitive to the kind of ethnonationalism that underlies Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attitude to Ukraine—his mistaken belief that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and that any move by Ukraine to distance itself from Russia is not an expression of the popular will of Ukrainians, but a CIA plot.
Germany has to be clear about who the aggressor is and who the victims are in Ukraine. If Berlin refuses to countenance the delivery of weapons to Ukraine to enable it to defend itself, then it is in effect siding with the Russian aggressor.
German policy also seems influenced by its over-reliance on Russian gas. It should not be necessary to wait until Europe is at the brink of war for Berlin to consider delaying or cancelling Nord Stream 2: the geopolitical value to Moscow of this pipeline has been obvious to everyone except German politicians for many years.
Kate Hansen BundtGeneral Secretary of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee
Seen from Moscow, Germany is the weakest link in Europe’s attempt to stand up to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Berlin is vulnerable when it comes to Russia for several reasons.
Firstly, Germany is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas both for heating and electricity generation after closing its own nuclear power plants and promising to phase out coal by 2030. For Europe’s industrial powerhouse, Nord Stream 2 might be the only answer how to square the energy circle in the foreseeable future. The Social Democratic Party’s (SPD’s) new Secretary General Kevin Kühnert left little doubt when he recently urged to forget the opposition to the pipeline.
Secondly, Germany is Europe’s largest exporter and will suffer most from any additional trade sanctions.
Thirdly, there is a strong positive view of Russia in the German population and there are disagreements between the coalition partners in the new government, and even within the SPD and the Greens, on how to deal with Russia, the United States, and military power as such.
Fourthly, Germany has a weak national defense capability and a strong pacifist opinion with no appetite of spending the committed 2 percent of GDP on defense pledged at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales.
All these reasons tie into the fifth and final reason: Germany’s twentieth century history and the slogan “never again.” While understandable, the German anti-war attitude might end up undermining a united transatlantic deterrence that would prevent future wars in Europe.
Caroline de Gruyter European affairs correspondent for NRC Handelsblad
As counterintuitive as it may sound, it probably is not.
Any common European position on Ukraine is bound to be itself a compromise between the so-called hawks and the appeasers. Germany is not the only European country that is more on the appeasing side. And the German position is in itself also a compromise.
On the one hand, Germany is, more than any other country, interested in peace, stability, and prosperity on Europe’s eastern flank. Germany needs rich neighbors. Germany does its bit in NATO as a reliable and predictable ally. Former chancellor Angela Merkel would always go the extra mile, even trying to befriend former U.S. president Donald Trump or understand the UK for the sake of the greater good.
On the other hand, Germany likes to take the moral high ground, not least for historical reasons, and consider all violence as bad in and of itself. To be reluctant to resist armed aggression by force is of course risky.
Many Germans see their country as a bridge between their friends in the West and the bad guy in the East. Meanwhile, the said friends in the West would love to see the Germans 100 percent on their side.
Germany needs to maintain its internal balances, and that leads to its support for the European compromise. For the greater good, and for its own sake.
Martin EhlChief analyst at Hospodářské noviny
Yes. Germany is damaging Europe’s position on Ukraine. Germany is the biggest European economy. Its prosperity is based on international business, which is based on rules and order respected by all players. Berlin should accept its share of responsibility in keeping this order working. Germany is supposed to lead not only in the economic realm but also in other areas.
The lack of strategic culture is only part of the problem of Germany’s missing leadership. The other part is German relations with Russia itself. There is no place for centuries-old sentimental relations between the two that were emphasized by the guilt of World War II atrocities.
If Germans would like to apply their historical guilt principle, there is no better place than Ukraine to do just that. It is historical irony that Germany is shying away from helping a country that lost about a fifth of its pre-war population in the Second World War and which constituted about 40 percent of all USSR casualties.
Germany, in the ongoing crisis, looks like a hypocritical country with a cowardly leadership. That’s not promising for the future of the EU. And it is terribly damaging to NATO’s main deterrence tool, which is political unity.
Liana FixResident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Washington
Berlin’s performance in the last weeks has been underwhelming, to say the least. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Germany is responding to criticism. On Nord Stream 2, divergent voices have been brought into line, although specific details on the consequences for the pipeline in case of Russian aggression are still lacking. At the policy level, the United States and Germany seem finally aligned on financial sanctions.
Defensive weapon deliveries are not (yet) on the agenda, but there are indications that Berlin will become more strongly engaged with reassurance measures for Eastern allies.
Is this enough? Certainly not. Berlin provides only the basics of what is expected. Germany’s foreign policy has always been slow and incremental. But now, Berlin appears to be trailing behind and kicking the can down the road, leaving the heavy lifting to the United States. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz barely tries to fill the shoes of Angela Merkel when it comes to assuming leadership in Europe.
Because Germany has so prominently discussed its ambition to take on more responsibility in international affairs in the past years, expectations are high and disappointment comes fast. And of course Germany’s position matters more than Spain’s or Italy’s, for example.
Germany is not the problem child of NATO. Let’s not get distracted. Russia’s threat of invading Ukraine is the problem. And if the Normandy format keeps the Russians at the table, it is certainly worth pursuing. As long as Berlin does not forget that not only dialogue, but also deterrence is needed to move us forward.
Julia FriedrichResearch fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute, based in Kyiv
It certainly is not helping. Instead of serving as a bridge and mediator between East and West, as Berlin likes to think it does, it risks becoming the weak link in the West’s chain.
While the German government seems to believe that signaling “everything will be up for discussion” when it comes to sanctions against Russia is sufficient to express solidarity with Ukraine, Kyiv is in fact furious and the allies disappointed. This is a result both of how long it took the new coalition to work out internal disagreements, and of remaining doubts among partners that Berlin is serious about taking a tougher stance on Moscow.
Germany’s (in)action risks creating division at a time when unity is deemed the most effective deterrent when it comes to Russia. It will have a lasting diplomatic impact no matter what happens in Ukraine.
Since 2014, Berlin has heavily invested financially and politically in Ukraine, which until recently almost made up for its hesitance to hit the Kremlin where it hurts. Now that every move is potentially decisive, Germany’s incoherent Russia policy becomes a liability.
The German government must get its act together and start listening to how others perceive its mixed messaging. Otherwise, it risks standing alone.
John LoughAssociate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House
Yes. Germany is paralyzed on the issue and unable to take a leadership position as it did in 2014. Its default instinct is to resolve disagreements with Russia through dialogue rather than deterrence. It is uncomfortable thinking in terms of hard power. There is a broad consensus across the main political parties that Germany should not supply weapons to Ukraine because this would violate Germany’s commitment to expiate its sins of the past and pursue peaceful relations with Moscow.
The German position on weapon deliveries is clearly contributing to splits within NATO and is playing into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands. There are reports that Germany has been pressuring the Baltic states to tone down their response to Russia’s behavior and avoid making a bad situation worse.
Berlin’s failure so far to define the range of sanctions that it is prepared to contemplate is also undermining Western efforts to deter Russia. Germany’s decision to close its nuclear power plants and make itself more dependent on Russian gas has been a gift for the Kremlin. To make Putin think twice, Germany needs to signal that it will, if necessary, seek alternatives to Russian energy deliveries.
Nora MüllerExecutive Director of International Affairs at the Körber-Stiftung
Germany’s navy chief resigned over controversial Russia remarks. Reports have been popping up about Berlin blocking Tallinn from transferring Soviet-made D-30 howitzers to Ukraine. Bavaria’s minister-president plead to take harsher sanctions against Moscow off the table.
Last weekend’s news were clearly not the kind of news that would alleviate concerns over a German Sonderweg in the Ukraine crisis. Mixed messages from Berlin and a hesitant, sometimes wavering course have drawn criticism—and rightfully so. If you want to build up a credible deterrent, it is never a good idea to exclude instruments—economic or military—that raise the cost of action for your adversary.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Germany is firmly rooted in the political West. Despite some controversial points, the federal government does support the Western approach of diplomacy and deterrence. Its efforts to de-escalate—and to raise Europe’s profile in the conflict—by seeking to revive the Normandy format are not a waste of diplomatic time and resources. Exaggerating the narrative of Berlin being an outlier is not helpful. On the contrary: it helps those who want to make the West look divided.
Milan NičSenior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
Above all, Germany is damaging its own credibility. Not only toward Ukraine but also with its EU and NATO partners. The paradox is that not much has changed on substance in Germany’s official position. A restrictive position on arms exports to Ukraine or ambiguity on Nord Stream 2 have been there under previous governments. Still, these days of confusion in Berlin were hard to imagine just few months ago.
This security crisis comes much too soon for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his new government—they have been in office for merely two months. During the fast-track coalition talks, this first ever traffic-light coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and liberals packaged some tough divisive issues into creative writing rather than clear policy lines. That was also the case on how to deal with Russia, defense, or energy security.
Now it has come back to haunt them, with infighting inside the three parties, not just among them. Given his weak starting position as chancellor, along with other voices within the SPD Olaf Scholz has opted to speak on Russia sanctions only when it is inevitable and to quietly steer the ship in the right direction. Coordinating with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock seems to work better than with his fellow Social Democrat, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht who is so far the weakest part of Berlin’s firefighting team.
So, what to expect? Improved communication. Determination to maintain unity and previous commitments, including on Nord Stream 2. But not much leadership.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)
Almost overnight, the public discourse in several EU countries and beyond has begun to cast the German government no longer as a stability anchor in Europe but rather as an outright risk to stability. The immediate issue of contention is Germany’s position on not sending military assistance to Ukraine. Narrowing the debate to this issue, however, deflects from the key problem, namely the lack of a coherent EU policy toward Russia and the varying levels of importance different EU member states assign to Ukraine or Eastern Europe more generally.
A strong EU position does not depend on and cannot be measured against the military assistance provided now.
Moreover, publicly negotiating policy divisions inside the EU or NATO in a severe crisis sends a strong signal about the lack of a coherent underlying position and the culture of internal communication. This is the central problem. The Kremlin tends to be the beneficiary of this lack of coherence.
The debate about military assistance should also not distract from the fact that it has taken the German government too long to formulate its position—especially with regard to Nord Stream 2. The project has crept onto the list of potential sanctions against Russia by default rather than by design. It is here that the German government should have been much clearer early on.
Eugeniusz SmolarBoard member at the Center for International Relations, Warsaw
Yes. And Germany’s position in Europe.
Germany’s emphasis on NATO’s importance and its relations with the United States is appreciated. However, after years of skirting the real issue, Berlin’s stance on Nord Stream 2 reflects a lack of solidarity. It is putting German and Russian interests before the internal cohesion of the EU. It comes at the expense of the security of Poland, the Baltic States, and Ukraine. And it is undermining the EU’s common energy policy.
Then there is Germany’s refusal to sell defense armaments to Ukraine, including through NATO countries. When Ukraine used drones after several days of Russian artillery shelling in Donbas,;Germany called on both sides to exercise restraint, mentioning only the drone attack.
And remember the diplomatically unprepared and eventually rejected initiative by Germany and France to enter into direct EU talks with Putin over Ukraine? In contrast, where is Berlin’s support for any EU participation in negotiations with Moscow on European security and the future of Ukraine?
More recently is what now-resigned German vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach said. Crimea was Russian. He denied Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine. His views reflect a part of the German establishment.
When it comes to strengthening the EU’s foreign and security policy by introducing majority voting, as suggested in the German government’s coalition agreement, who will agree to that now, given Germany’s position with regard to Ukraine and Russia?
After 1989, we learned to trust Germany. That trust has been eroded, and this erosion has been compounded by Germany’s position on Ukraine. Just to set the record straight, I am not a Polish sovereigntist.
Ulrich SpeckVisiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Berlin
The problem with the current German government is that it refuses to lead. Former chancellor Angela Merkel played a leading role during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014-15, shaping the Western response together with then U.S. president Barack Obama.
By contrast, Germany currently doesn’t behave like the major power it is, especially when it comes to relations with Russia. Rather, it acts like a small power that is happy to follow and keen to keep its head down, afraid of confrontation.
That’s not enough.
We now know for certain what the Kremlin’s intentions are because Putin has told us. This crisis is about the future of Ukraine, and at the same time it is about the very principles of the European order that has been built jointly by Europeans and Americans after the Cold War. The foundations of this order are now being called into question by Moscow, and they are shaking.
For German security, freedom and prosperity this order is vital. The new chancellor urgently needs to get out of his comfort zone and move to the forefront of Western diplomacy, offering Russia not only carrots but also showing the considerable sticks Germany has at its disposal.
Daniel SzeligowskiHead of Eastern Europe program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)
Germany has long walked a thin line between supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and “[keeping] in mind what was tolerable for Russia,” as famously put by former chancellor Angela Merkel’s key advisor Christoph Heusgen. This indeed brought some results, as it has been Germany that has played a decisive role in maintaining the EU’s sanctions on Russia.
Yet such an approach worked only as long as Moscow kept its powder dry and did not attempt to challenge the status quo that followed the flawed Minsk Agreements.
With the recent Russian military buildup around Ukraine, however, Germany has become increasingly at odds with its European allies who stand ready to provide Ukraine with more than empty words and a false sense of moral superiority.
It matters little that Germany would not be in a position to tip the power balance between Ukraine and Russia. Berlin’s decision to supply Ukraine with weapons would primarily be a powerful message of solidarity with Kyiv and a clear signal to all those in Europe who until now have been hiding behind Germany’s back to avoid taking action.
Regrettably, so far Germany’s credibility has only been shattered as it begs the question if Berlin really regards Ukraine as an integral part of the European security architecture?
Paul TaylorContributing editor at Politico Europe
Germany’s new government is on a steep learning curve concerning Ukraine. It inherited a pusillanimous policy—no arms deliveries to crisis zones like Ukraine, keep Nord Stream 2 off the table, preserve business ties with Russia—cloaked in self-serving talk of historical responsibility.
Within a few short weeks, German Chanceller Olaf Scholz has put Nord Stream 2 into question if Moscow invades, and there are hints of a rethink of the untenable arms embargo. At the least, Berlin should stop preventing Ukraine from using NATO’s procurement agency, and European partners from passing on German-supplied defensive weapons to Kyiv.
Germany is right to press for a diplomatic solution, if possible reviving the Normandy format for talks on a political settlement for Donbas. That doesn’t weaken Europe’s position. If Russia chooses military action instead, Berlin understands it will have to join tougher sanctions, including suspending Nord Stream 2 and hitting Russian banks.
The harder choice will be deciding when and how to respond if Moscow continues destabilizing actions below the threshold of war. As Europe’s biggest economy and trading partner with Russia, Germany carries most weight. It’s easy but unfair for others with less to lose to accuse Berlin of selling out Europe.
Olga TokariukNonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
From the Ukrainian perspective, it certainly is. Germany’s repeated refusal to send defensive weapons to Ukraine—in contrast to actions of other European countries such as the UK, Czechia, and the Baltic states—is perceived as a worrying sign that Berlin is not serious about supporting Kyiv and is not ready to stand up to increasingly aggressive Russia.
The promise to provide a field hospital instead was seen as a bad joke in Ukraine, considering that Germany is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world and has been selling weapons to undemocratic regimes such as Egypt.
It looks like Germany lives in a parallel reality, where the threat of a major war in Europe doesn’t exist or is not realistic. Berlin’s stance on Russia and Ukraine not only undermines European and transatlantic unity, but it might also embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue further aggressive actions.
There are plenty of signs that Moscow interprets Germany’s statements that it will only consider ditching North Stream 2 in case of a new Russian attack on Ukraine and Berlin’s doubts about harsher economic sanctions on Russia, such as removing it from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), as a weakness and an invitation to escalate.
Frustration over Germany’s ambiguous position is growing, and not just in Ukraine, but in other Central European and Baltic states. The moment of truth is nearing, and Berlin’s actions these days will ultimately determine whether Germany, in spite of all its earlier efforts, will be able to preserve trust and be seen as an ally rather than an aggressor’s enabler.
Andreas UmlandAnalyst with the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs
Germany has, after World War II, developed a number of foreign policy prerogatives that, in their sum, have turned out to be unsuitable for dealing with the current confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
These features include its conciliatory Ostpolitik toward Moscow, its reluctance to face military threats, its reliance on other powers when it comes to hard-power issues, its emphasis on dialogue and diplomacy when dealing with international conflicts, and some other similar concepts.
What is worse, many German decisionmakers have only lately started recognizing that these ideas may be unsuitable for the current context and how the Kremlin is purposefully utilizing them for its own purposes. Some politicians, diplomats, and experts are still refusing to accept the oddity of the current situation. This needs to change soon.