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Why Germany might be the West's weak link in the Russia-Ukraine standoff

Berlin has resisted pressure from its allies and neighbors to deliver arms to Ukraine while urging “prudence” when it comes to potential economic sanctions against Moscow.

With Ukraine under growing threat from Russia, the United States and its NATO allies across Europe are stepping up their response.

But there is one notable country that appears to be holding back: Germany.

As Russian troops have massed on the Ukrainian border, Berlin has resisted pressure from its allies and neighbors to deliver arms to Ukraine while urging “prudence” when it comes to potential economic sanctions against Moscow.

The reluctance of Europe’s leading economic power to join the more robust Western posture has drawn criticism from Kyiv and threatened to undermine the effort to present a strong and united front against Russian aggression.

President Joe Biden came under fire for suggesting there were divisions within the trans-Atlantic alliance on the issue, but that reticence and the resignation of Germany’s Navy chief over the weekend after pro-Kremlin comments have done little to dispel the idea that Berlin might be the weak link in the West’s stand.

Sending weapons “will not help to defuse the crisis at the moment,” German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told the weekly newspaper Welt am Sonntag over the weekend. Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Tuesday that his country supports Ukraine’s economy and democracy, but not through the supply of arms.

This position is “rooted in the developments of the last few years and decades,” he said, reflecting a determination not to join or accelerate armed conflict that stems from pacifist sentiment that developed in the wake of the Nazis' defeat and during the Cold War.

But Germany's ambivalence came under sharp focus this week when NATO members moved to shore up the alliance's Eastern flank around Ukraine.

Denmark is sending F-16 fighter jets to nearby Lithuania; Spain is sending ships to join a NATO fleet; France says it’s ready to send troops to Romania; the United Kingdom has sent anti-tank weapons directly to Kyiv; and on Monday night the United States said it had placed 8,500 troops on “heightened alert” as it discusses deploying forces to the region in addition to sending “lethal aid.”

And Berlin also appears to be at least delaying fellow NATO members’ efforts to send their own arms to Ukraine. A German Defense Ministry spokesperson said it was "considering" a request from Estonia to send Kyiv howitzer artillery guns after a report that Berlin was blocking the shipment of the weapons, which used to belong to East Germany. They gave no likely timeline for a decision.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has accused Germany of taking a stance that “does not correspond to the level of our relations and the current security situation.” And Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion who lived in Germany for years, went further.

“On whose side is the German government today? On the side of freedom, which means — Ukraine? Or on the side of the aggressor?,” he asked on Facebook this week.

Germany said Wednesday it would supply 5,000 military helmets to Ukraine, according to Reuters. But this was in response to a specific request and holds firm with the country’s opposition to providing military aid.

So why is Germany so hesitant to use its power and influence at a time of crisis? A mixture of short-term economic goals and the long shadow of its 20th century history, experts say.

“It’s something that’s always in the back of German minds when they think about foreign policy where it relates to Russia,” said Marcel Dirsus, a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, Germany.

The Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people in World War II — some of whom were Ukrainian — and Germany’s role in the war is an active factor in Berlin’s decision-making today, Dirsus argued.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock acknowledged the “suffering and destruction that we Germans brought upon the peoples of the Soviet Union” at a joint news conference with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow last week. She added that there would be a tough response if Ukraine was invaded.

Image: German Chancellor Scholz speaks with U.S. President Biden and European leaders about Russia and Ukraine
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz heads a recently installed center-left government. His Social Democrats are steeped in the legacy of Cold War rapprochement.Jesco Denzel / Reuters

“These are the complexities of WWII, and Germany’s dealings in Ukraine and Russia during the Soviet Union times,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst and head of the Penta Center, a think tank. “Economically and politically, they just don’t want to quarrel with Russia.”

Not everyone agrees these are the right lessons to be drawn from the country’s historical misdeeds, with some seeing the shipment of arms to Ukraine as a way to avert a new armed conflict in Europe.

Friedrich Merz, who replaced longstanding Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of the center-right CDU party, on Monday called for Germany to intervene specifically because of its historic responsibility to secure peace in Europe.

Germany’s status as a trusted ally took a further blow when its Navy chief, Kay-Achim Schönbach, resigned on Sunday after telling an Indian think tank that it was “nonsense” to suggest that Vladimir Putin wanted to invade Ukraine and that he deserved “respect” rather than enmity. 

Yet for all its ambivalence, Germany remains a key NATO member and insists it stands united with Western allies on Russia’s military threat to Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters Monday that NATO member states would act jointly if there is an invasion and that Russia would pay a “high price.” 

But German leaders have been unwilling to name that price.

Germany relies on Russia for about a third of its natural gas — a dependency that will only increase with the activation of Nord Stream 2, a multibillion-dollar pipeline finished last year and designed to send even more Russian gas to the country via the Baltic Sea. 

Image: FILE PHOTO: The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is seen on a pipe at the Chelyabinsk pipe rolling plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia
German officials believe that being a large customer of Russian gas can give Germany leverage and help relations, but critics say its reliance is unhealthy.Maxim Shemetov / Reuters file

Dubbed “Putin’s pipeline,” the project is strongly opposed by much of the West, particularly by Baltic nations who feel threatened by Russian militarism. While Germany has not ruled out including Nord Stream in a package of sanctions, it says it would only do so if Russia used energy as a weapon. 

Critics say the energy reliance and reluctance to challenge Russia are linked.

“Germany feels so secure they can afford to trade with everybody and anyone, for the last couple of decades,” Dirsus said. “That’s a very comfortable position to be in, and it’s difficult to convince your population that things need to change because the world has changed,” he added. 

With 100,000 Russian troops massed on its neighbor’s border and tensions escalating by the day, that position may not be sustainable.

“It’s becoming more difficult for Germany to be seen as a reliable ally to the Americans and central Europeans, and to maintain a strong relationship with Moscow,” Dirsus said.

“It’s going to be either/or.”