The great reluctance – how can Germany’s lack of leadership vis-a-vis Russian aggression in Ukraine be explained?

The President Nausėda and German Chancellor Scholz visit the General Silvestras Žukauskas Training Area. Photo Robertas Dačkus, the Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania

Germany’s indecision following the Russian invasion of Ukraine has tarnished its reputation. Centre – and Eastern European countries, in particular, have grown frustrated in view of the German government’s slow pace of delivering heavy arms and weaning itself off Russian energy imports. This is an attempt to explain German attitudes toward Russia by someone who grew up in Germany, Benjamin Bathke writes.

I don’t have any memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Born in Western Germany just two years earlier, I grew up in the 1990s in a reunited Germany surrounded by allies. It felt normal to me. School lessons and field trips were a lot about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and very little about oppression in the GDR and in countries occupied by the Soviet Union.

My generation came of age in a wealthy country in the middle of the European Union. Being shaped neither by hardship nor war, unlike our parents and grandparents, allowed us to lead sheltered and carefree lives. We felt like the world was our oyster, and it was easy to take it for granted.

Benjamin Bathke at the TDS Sept 2019

Looking back, it feels like a privilege and a historical exception to have grown up in these three decades of peace and prosperity. Sometimes I wonder if choosing military service – like most of my friends, I did nine months of social service instead – would have enabled me to value the central accomplishment of the EU more: preventing wars on European soil.

Five years after I graduated from high school, in 2011, conscription was a thing of the past. I considered this a step in the right direction. Training to defend your country seemed like an antiquated thing to do. But in the weeks following February 24, I thought about what I would do in case Germany was attacked. Would I take up arms and fight? It’s hard to answer if you’ve never fired a gun or had an aggressive and powerful neighbour.

I used to consider myself a pacifist. My thinking – and I think that of many other Germans, too – was guided by assumptions like violence begets more violence, war has no winners, armament only leads to a vicious cycle, and fewer weapons equals more peace. I almost feel ashamed of my naiveté now. But more on that later.

The flag farce

On Sunday, May 8, much of the Western world looked astonished at German police removing a large Ukrainian flag in front of a Soviet memorial in central Berlin. “A huge disgrace for Berlin on May 8. [I’m] simply speechless and sad,” Andrij Melnyk, the former Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, tweeted.

At first glance, it looked like pro-Ukraine and anti-Russian protests weren’t tolerated in Germany. In another tweet, Melnyk called the general flag ban “a slap in the face of the Ukrainian people.” Emotions ran high.

The reality, as is so often the case, was more complicated. German police had banned all flags and uniforms in Berlin on May 8 and 9 in front of 15 places of remembrance to avoid mass brawls between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protestors. Police said they had allegedly reached out to the Ukrainian embassy several times to explain the ban without hearing any criticism.

Nonetheless, the flag farce was another episode that made Germany look unfavourably and eroded trust in German leadership. International news and social media audiences were left with the impression that Germany isn’t taking supporting Ukraine very seriously.

‘Historical failure’

Germany’s reaction to Russia’s war of aggression has been complicated from the outset. 

Despite initial praise for German Chancellor Scholz for taking the appropriate steps and striking the right tone – a €100 billion special budget to boost Germany’s military, sanctioning Russia and proclaiming a “Zeitenwende” (turn of an epoch) –, a wave of reckoning, blame and self-criticism swept over Germany at the same time. For instance, former minister of defence Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer called German foreign policy toward Russia a “historical failure.” 

“After Georgia, Crimea, and Donbas, we have not prepared anything that would have really deterred Putin,” she tweeted, adding that negotiating from a position of strength is vital. “Negotiation always comes first, but we have to be militarily strong enough to make non-negotiation not an option for the other side.”

Suddenly, it fell like a scale from everybody’s eyes that sending €200 million to Russia every day to power our economy and heat our homes had fatal consequences. We were woefully unprepared for Russia weaponizing its energy supply. A staggering 55% of gas imports came from Russia last year. 

Nonetheless, while rockets were reigning down on Kyiv, all the German government brought itself to do was send 5,000 helmets.

It wasn’t until after the massacre of Bucha that Germany changed its stance on sending heavy weapons to Ukraine. As of July 26, Germany has delivered ten self-propelled howitzers, three multiple rocket launchers and five old anti-aircraft tanks, which needed to be spiffed up extensively first.

The bulk of German arms deliveries is to take place via so-called ring swaps, each of which involves three countries – Germany as a donor country, a ‘swap partner’ and Ukraine as the recipient country. The rationale: German tanks must never shoot at Russian ones again. But the ring swaps haven’t materialized yet and never may, for Slovenia, Poland and other ‘swap partners’ are dissatisfied with the German offer.

No country has delivered so few arms to Ukraine relative to how much it has pledged as Germany (behind the US, which has delivered more than ten times the euro amount). The gap between intention and reality is as wide as it’s embarrassing here.

Government support to Ukraine, Committed vs. delivered weapons, € billion, Kiel Institute for World Economy

Even now, five months into the war, Scholz still refuses to take a leading role in Europe. EU and Nato partners have understandably become impatient and angry with the German government’s hesitation and indecision. Perhaps former German ambassador Boris Ruge said it best: “There’s a lot of frustration. Berlin must work hard to rebuild trust & to deliver on the #Zeitenwende”.

But make no mistake, it’s not like all of Germany supports Scholz’s fickle course. On the contrary, not even half of all of Germany approved of his governing style at the end of April, down from more than three quarters in March. According to a more recent survey, only 15% of Germany attest Scholz’s government has a clear concept and strategy for its Ukraine and Russia policy. Discussions around here centred around much of the same topics as abroad, with people often disagreeing vehemently and accusations flying high.

But it’s also true that nearly half of Germans are against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine. In order to understand why, a few digressions into Germany’s history and culture seem helpful.

The long shadow of Ostpolitik

In order to understand Germany’s former closeness to the Russian regime and the dependency on Russian energy imports, one must know a thing or two about ‘Wandel durch Handel’, or change through trade. It’s the belief that mutual investments in energy promote democracy and freedom and peaceful coexistence.

“That dependency grew out of a German belief – embraced by a long succession of chancellors, industry leaders, journalists and the public – that a Russia bound in trade would have too much to risk in conflict with Europe, making Germany more secure while also profiting its economy,” a New York Times article from late April aptly described it.

It began in 1969 when then-Chancellor Willy Brandt ushered in a new approach toward the Soviet Union that became known as ‘Ostpolitik’ (‘Eastern Policy’). Former Chancellor Schröder (1998 to 2005), a social democrat like Brandt, effectively championed Russian interests before and after becoming head of Nord Stream’s shareholder committee, the Russian-controlled company in charge of building the first undersea gas pipeline directly connecting Russia and Germany.

In the NYT article, Schröder, who adopted both of his children from Russia, distanced himself from the war but not from Putin, whom he considers a friend and sees regularly. He notoriously said he did not believe Putin gave the order for the massacre in Bucha. In late May, the government decided to revoke many of the privileges the Kremlin lobbyist enjoyed thus far as former Chancellor, including the roughly €400,000 a year for his office and staff.

Of course, Schröder wasn’t the only German politician who has been accused of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Others also considered Nord Stream I and II purely economic projects, some of them even until after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, thereby dramatically underestimating the geopolitical dimension and failing to see the security ramifications of economic cooperation with Russia.

As Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in a recent speech in Berlin: “Gas might be expensive, but freedom is priceless.”

In this context, it is also important to mention Germany’s export-driven economy and the lobbying power of the German industry. In fact, Germany and some other EU countries have been exploiting a loophole in the EU sanctions on Russia to sell military equipment to Moscow since 2014. A more recent yet equally telling episode was VW chief Herbert Diess calling for a settlement to end the war, which drew outrage from Kyiv.

It’s also true, however, that Germany has been the EU country that provided Ukraine’s most financial, economic and humanitarian support for a long time. Moreover, Germany has taken in more than 800,000 refugees from Ukraine. Among EU countries, only Poland and Romania have accepted more. And only three countries – Poland, the UK and the United States – have committed more military aid to Ukraine between January 24 and July 1.

‘Limited readiness to defend’

At this point, please allow me to share my perspective on Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr.

Its insufficient ability to defend German and NATO territory from a Soviet attack was first exposed nearly 60 years ago in an article in Der Spiegel news magazine titled ‘bedingt abwehrbereit’ (‘conditionally ready to defend’). It led to the so-called Spiegel affair, which cost the then-minister of defence his job and cemented the role of the free press in Germany.

In the following year, West Germany’s military spending peaked at almost 5% of GDP. But it gradually declined over the next four decades, reaching a low of 1.1% in 2005. 

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and German reunification, the role of the Bundeswehr and its place in public life and perception noticeably diminished. Press coverage was less focused on the military missions abroad – Kosovo, Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq, among others – and more on the inefficiency and red tape plaguing the procurement and maintenance of weapon systems. Defence suppliers and the ministry of defence blamed each other for Germany’s weapon woes.

Germany’s rising defence budget since 2014, prompted, among other things, by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has done little to fix the sorry state of Germany’s military. The Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by a massive equipment shortage and failure. One especially dire example is the infantry fighting vehicle ‘Puma’, which took nearly two decades to deliver. When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, fewer than half were combat-ready.

Unlike in Israel or the US, the Bundeswehr doesn’t play a significant role in public life. I would even say that Germans – members of my generation in particular – harbour a certain scepticism against people in uniform and military concepts like unconditional obedience. 

When the then defence minister in 2002 uttered the much-quoted sentence that Germany’s security is also being defended at the Hindu Kush, referring to the Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan, I don’t think it resonated with many people. I honestly never felt thankful for soldiers’ service or that they were somehow protecting my freedom, too. 

Cold shower for Ukraine?

A recent representative survey wanted to find out how far Germans are willing to go to support Ukraine. Would German citizens do their share to enable an energy boycott against Russia? 

The result was sobering. Not even half of the respondents said they were ready to make personal sacrifices in their everyday lives. Roughly one in three Germans even said they were ‘in no case’ ready for any renunciations to help the government suspend Russian oil and gas imports. And only one in ten respondents said they would give up their own car.

Contrast Germans’ apparent unwillingness to do what it takes with a majority favouring a ban of Russian oil and gas imports, and you get cognitive dissonance. Germans also suffer from it when it comes to climate action: When there are two competing interests – in this case curbing climate change and saving money – we tend to favour not the most effective measures but those that require fewer sacrifices.

I don’t know if this kind of self-deception is more pronounced in my home country than elsewhere. But I believe 30 years of wealth and peace made us somewhat complacent in our central European comfort zone with friendly nations on all sides.

We are also a nation that got used to material status. In the aforementioned study, at least 70% of those in favour of an energy boycott said they were willing to accept a speed limit on German Autobahnen, although I’m not so sure they would be willing to walk the talk.

The dream of peace

Time to return to my naiveté and misguided assumptions around war, peace and armament.

Rooted in the ‘never again’ mantra about the carnage of World War I and the horrors of Auschwitz, the German pacifist movement gained steam in the 1950s with the resistance against NATO membership and arming the Bundeswehr with nukes. It culminated in mass protests against the NATO Double-Track Decision in 1981.

Although it largely died down in the years since its ongoing influence became visible again in recent weeks in heated debates about sending arms to Ukraine and how to deal with Russia in general. It manifested most prominently – and most controversially – in an open letter signed by 28 (self-proclaimed) intellectuals and creatives warning of World War III. Their core convictions: sending heavy weapons to Ukraine will dangerously escalate the war, and only negotiations with him can stop it.

As one political scientist called it, the backlash to this ‘submission pacifism’ was damning. Critics pointed out, among other things, that if you are serious about ‘never again’, you cannot ignore the responsibility that has arisen from our past. Pacifism, they reasoned, has an obligation to fight announced genocide and war. But reconciling these two seemingly contradictory ideas isn’t easy.

The same goes for politics. The Greens, currently presiding over the critical foreign and economics ministries, have had to break with decades-old traditions: Although they approved the German participation in the NATO mission in Kosovo in 1999, it always had anti-war solid convictions like Scholz’s social democrats (SPD).

Transforming a relative pacifist society into a rather militaristic one takes time. And reversing long-standing energy, military and foreign policies in a matter of weeks is a painful process. But Ukraine cannot end the war and suffering if we hesitate and are unwilling to make sacrifices.

After all, it’s not only Germany’s reputation that’s at stake. Our shared ideals, way of life and freedom are, too.

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