22 April 2022

What is behind Germany’s shameful reluctance to help Ukraine?

By Robert Tyler

Since Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, most of Europe has rallied round the Zelensky government, with a combination of sanctions, military support and help resettling millions of refugees. The response of Germany’s SDP-led government, however, has been at best ambivalent, if not outright obstructive.

Few countries have done more to facilitate Putin’s war machine. In January of this year alone, as Russia’s troops massed at the Ukrainian border, Olaf Scholz’s government spent €4bn on Russian crude oil imports – enough to purchase the thick end of 1,000 T-90 tanks.

But rather than cutting off Russian hydrocarbons, Berlin has made great play of faux-altruistic measures such as cutting Russian coal imports (worth $3bn in a $3.8tn economy) or cutting oil imports (by the end of the year) – neither of which will make a blind bit of difference as long as Berlin keeps paying for oil and gas in the here and now.

Likewise, the early announcement that Germany would ramp up its military spending was greeted with lavish praise in the media, even though it will take the best part of five years to get started and does precious little to help Ukraine in the short term. The congratulatory messages for Germany finally agreeing to spend 2% of GDP on defence really just confirmed Donald Trump’s point about Europe’s Nato members not paying their fair share.

Nor has Germany’s humanitarian effort been particularly noteworthy. Only 60,000 Ukrainians refugees have settled in the country so far, compared to well over 3 million in neighbouring Poland.

But worst of all is the ruling SPD’s near total reluctance to send Ukraine the military aid its government has been crying out for.

Just this week the German tabloid Bild Zeitung reported that German manufacturers had presented Scholz with a 48-page list of weapons that could be immediately delivered to Ukraine. For reasons that remain unclear, by the time that list reached Kyiv on April 20 it had been heavily redacted, reduced to 24 pages and shorn of any of the equipment the Ukrainians had actually asked for. Put bluntly, Ukraine has been denied the chance to buy the tanks and artillery that could help save its statehood, from a country sitting on a historic stockpile.

Berlln has been nothing if not consistent here. Even as US intelligence was warning of an imminent invasion, Scholz refused to send arms to Kyiv, preferring to send 5,000 helmets. Defence minister Christine Lambrecht said her government did not want to ‘fuel the situation’ by sending lethal aid to the Ukrainians – thankfully not a reservation shared by her British counterpart Ben Wallace. Even after Russia had invaded, while the US, UK and Poland were sending advanced weapons, Germany sent only a set of Strela missiles which had been declared obsolete in 2014 and were rusted to the point of being unusable. 

To add insult to injury, former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has spent much of his time recently spinning against the rightfully outraged Ukrainian ambassador – who provided evidence that arms were being withheld in the first place. Gabriel’s rhetoric has been matched by Germany’s notoriously Russophile president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier – who accused Zelensky of ‘meddling in German domestic politics’ when he refused to welcome him to Kyiv. Given that Steinmeier had spent the early days of the war calling for a negotiated settlement (read – capitulation to Putin’s territorial demands), he should hardly have been surprised at the rebuff.

What, then, is behind this consistent prevarication and hesitancy on the part of Germany’s most senior politicians?

Part of the answer, we’re told by official sources, stems from deep-seated fear of escalation from a group of politicians’ who grew up in the shadow of potential nuclear war with the Soviet Union. If your formative years were spent in a country that was on the frontline of a civilisational struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, perhaps that’s understandable. It is, however, hard to accept that escalation is a ‘threat’ when Ukrainian cities already lie in ruin and mass graves are being discovered all over the country. How much more can Moscow ‘escalate’ when it is already engaged in full-throated genocide?

Nor does fear of the Russian menace account for the kind of enthusiastic relationship-building undertaken by some senior German political figures. Exhibit A here is Gerhard Schröder – the former SPD Chancellor most recently employed by Nord Stream and Rosneft – who spent his time in office pushing for closer relations with Russia and famously called Putin a ‘flawless democrat’, even after his armies had razed Grozny to the ground.

It would be unfair to single out the SPD, however. The CDU’s Angela Merkel was just as guilty of hanging the Ukrainians out to dry. Her adherence to the Minsk agreements – which effectively froze the conflict in the Donbas for seven years – gave Putin the room to engage in the deadly revanchism we’re now seeing. The persistent and blinkered belief that the conflict in Ukraine should be treated as an internal struggle is what allowed the Kremlin the cover it needed to fabricate an independence movement in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and lay false claims of genocide to justify an invasion.

Merkel and her supporters badged her policy towards Russia as a way of avoiding tensions. But the fact she signed up to the Nord Stream II pipeline suggests the real issue here was energy. Many in central and eastern Europe raised concerns about Berlin’s stance and the time, however stubbornly Merkel’s government rejected the charge. What we’ve seen since the end of February, with billions of euros flowing to the Kremlin’s coffers, has only vindicated Germany’s critics.

The sad reality is that Germany has fallen to a form of establishment capture. In both mainstream and fringe parties (AFD and Die Linke), Russian influence now runs deep. Among the many pernicious pieces of Kremlin propaganda that has seeped into German political discourse is the idea that the country must remain neutral out of some kind of ‘collective guilt’ for the Nazis’ barbarism in the Soviet Union.

And whatever Scholz’s government says about ending oil exports by the end of 2022, that doesn’t change the reality that it’s German money funding Putin’s bloodthirsty war of aggression. Every drop of oil Berlin buys from Russia is effectively paying for the destruction of Ukraine and the death of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Every Germany product, every plate of German food and glass of beer is coming at the expense of a fellow European nation struggling to defend its very statehood. And if the Russians can buy hundreds of high-tech tanks with one month’s oil revenues, just imagine what they could do with eight months’ worth.

In German there is a phrase for when one feels a sense of sadness and melancholy for the discovery that they don’t live in an idealised world – Weltschmerz. It’s a feeling that more and more Germans will soon have to come to terms with.

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Robert Tyler is the Senior Policy Advisor at New Direction Foundation for European Reform based in Brussels.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.