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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forces Germany into diplomatic U-turn

Sweden and Switzerland did almost nothing to oppose Hitler, but they're sanctioning Putin now for attacking Ukraine.
Image: A demonstrator holds a sign during an anti-war protest in Bern, Switzerland, on Feb. 26, 2022.
A demonstrator holds a sign at an antiwar protest Saturday in Bern, Switzerland. Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has accomplished what four years of hectoring by former President Donald Trump failed to do — persuade Germany to double its defense budget and boost its military contribution to NATO.

And Germany is not the only country that has made a diplomatic U-turn since the Russian leader launched the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, top diplomats say.

“I was talking to my wife and saying that Biden did a good job in uniting the West,” said Ian Kelly, the former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as the nation of Georgia. “She said, ‘No, Putin did a good job of uniting the West.’”

Kelly, who is also the ambassador in residence at Northwestern University, spoke out as Putin’s offensive entered its seventh day and Russian invaders continued to be stymied by stiff Ukrainian resistance while much of the world was now aligned against Moscow and imposing punishing economic sanctions.

“We are seeing the West united as never before,” Kelly said.

The sentiment echoed that of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., after President Joe Biden on Tuesday condemned the Russian invasion in his State of the Union speech.

“You are seeing everybody on their feet praising Ukrainians’ courage but also celebrating the fact that in this really tough time, alliances like NATO have really proven their worth,” Kaine said. “Remember, President Trump would kind of cozy up to Putin and trash NATO.”

For four years, Trump denigrated NATO, which was a bulwark against Moscow through the Cold War and is now helping solidify the defenses of NATO countries that neighbor Ukraine, like Poland and Hungary.

While Trump was in the White House, key member countries, like France and Germany, began striking out on their own with “diplomatic moves with Moscow independent of the European Union and calling for European ‘strategic autonomy’ separate from the U.S. and NATO,” Kelly said.

That’s why the speech German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave last weekend was so “extraordinary,” Kelly said.

“He called the Russian invasion a turning point in the history of Europe,” Kelly said. “The line that stuck out to me was ‘Putin freed Germany of its historic guilt’ from World War II. Then Scholz announced he was essentially doubling his country’s defense budget.”

Trump had called Germany “a captive of Russia” and said it was unfair to U.S. taxpayers that Germany buys oil and gas from Russia while enjoying the umbrella of defense provided by U.S. dollars.

But since Russians invaded Ukraine, Scholz has scrapped the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bring Russian natural gas into Germany, bypassing several other NATO-allied countries.

That was seen as a major sacrifice, because Germany is highly reliant on Russian natural gas, the experts said.

Scholz also dramatically boosted defense spending by committing $113 billion to a special armed forces fund after years of criticism from Trump for failing to hit a target of spending 2 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product on defense.

“At the heart of the matter is the question of whether power can break the law,” Scholz said. “Whether we allow Putin to turn back the hands of time to the days of the great powers of the 19th century. Or whether we find it within ourselves to set limits on a warmonger like Putin.”

Scholz said that to counter Putin, he would do what Germany had avoided doing since it lost World War II and reduced much of Europe to ruins — restore its armed forces into a force to be reckoned with.

So far there doesn’t appear to have been any negative reaction to Germany’s increased militarization from neighbors and fellow NATO members like Poland, which lost nearly 6 million people in World War II, half of them Jews.

“There is always the possibility for unintended consequences,” said David Phillips, who heads the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University. “But this is a new Germany that takes its leadership role seriously.”

Evidence of that can be found in the 1,000 antitank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles the German government has sent to Ukraine, Phillips said.

That is a complete reversal from Berlin’s long-standing and restrictive arms export policy, which forbade Germany from shipping arms to conflict zones, Kelly and Phillips said.

Germany had also banned other NATO countries from shipping German-origin weapons to Ukraine, causing an outcry when it initially blocked the Netherlands from transferring 400 rocket-propelled grenade launchers to Kyiv.

The Germans also found themselves being mocked internationally after they initially offered to help Ukraine by sending its army 5,000 military helmets.

Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, called the offer “a joke.”

“What kind of support will Germany send next?” he asked. “Pillows?”

In addition, Germany was among the last countries to sign on to crippling the Russian economy by kicking Moscow out of the SWIFT international payment system.

Putin’s invasion has made a lot of historically neutral countries rethink their diplomacy and their relationship to Russia, as well, Kelly said.

“Look at Switzerland,” Kelly said. “They didn’t do a thing to sanction Hitler during World War II. But they’re sanctioning Russia’s banks now. Sweden didn’t do anything during World War II, and now they’re sending lethal aid to Ukraine.”

Sweden has sent 5,000 antitank weapons to Ukraine. It is the first time Sweden has sent arms to a country at war since 1939, when it aided its neighbor Finland against a Soviet invasion.

Finland, which was neutral all through the Cold War, is moving along with Sweden toward possible membership in NATO, Kelly said.

Even Hungary, whose far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is an ally of Putin and reportedly helped poison Trump’s view of Ukraine and Zelenskyy, has come out against the Russian invasion.