The Ukrainian military is on a tear. After announcing a southern counteroffensive in August, Ukrainian troops instead struck the hardest in the northeast, liberating thousands of square kilometers of land from Russian occupation in less than two weeks.
As retired Lt. Gen Ben Hodges told me on Monday, “the key will be for Ukraine to keep their foot on the gas, to not back off, to not give the Russians the chance to stand back up and figure out how to stop this counteroffensive.”
But there’s a snag. The war has entered a critical period, and the Ukrainian government says it needs more heavy armor to keep the counteroffensive going. To satisfy that need, Ukrainian officials have turned their attention to Germany where a stockpile of armored infantry fighting vehicles and tanks is sitting unused. The German response has been a resolute nein.
Earlier this week, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht explained to reporters that transferring the equipment to Ukraine would risk “the defense of the country by giving everything away.”
Of course, Germany will not lose its ability to defend itself by helping Ukraine defeat the only country Germany has to fear. Recognizing that, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter that there is “not a single rational argument on why these weapons can not be supplied, only abstract fears and excuses. What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?”
Germany’s unwillingness to transfer the heavy armor to Ukraine is as disheartening as it is unsurprising. For decades, Germany pursued idealistic policies that strengthened Putin and allowed for Russian aggression. While German officials publicly announced a sea change in foreign policy in February and again in April by stating they would provide heavy weapons to Ukraine, their actions have left much to be desired.
Under Chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s, West Germany started to pursue its new ostpolitik, or eastern policy, backed by the theory of “change through rapprochement.” Rather than harshly challenging the leadership of East Germany, West Germany would instead work toward greater collaboration and diplomatic interaction. A half-century later, the legacy of ostpolitik lives on.
Since Putin came to power, Germany has been almost uniquely slow in recognizing the threat he poses to the world order. As Germany reels from crippling shortages of natural gas––something politicians assured the public would never happen––its policies appear especially misguided.
Russia’s stranglehold on the German energy industry is a predictable disaster two decades in the making. In the early 2000s, Angela Merkel’s predecessor, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, negotiated the creation of the Nord Stream pipeline shortly before he left office in 2005. Then, virtually the moment Merkel replaced him as chancellor, Schröder left the German bankroll for the Russian, taking a lucrative position at Gazprom, the state-owned oil producer behind Nord Stream.
Rather than questioning Schröder on corruption charges, Germany moved forward with the Nord Stream project, and it was made operational in 2011. That same year, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan spooked the Germans, and the government declared it would phase out nuclear energy entirely, making the country even more reliant on Russian gas. In 2018, Russia began construction on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Putin gained leverage as Germany moved large swaths of its energy needs into the autocrat’s control. Germany, on the other hand, saw it differently. Merkel and other top German officials said that the power dynamic was flipped––actually, Germany had leverage over Russia because Russia needed their money. It was a comforting idea, and obviously wrong. As Europe now reels from soaring energy prices that could threaten solidarity with Ukraine, it’s clear who had the upper hand.
To make matters worse, over the last few decades, Germany let its military atrophy. In 1980, Germany had 500,000 soldiers in the Bundeswehr. By 2010, that number had shrunk to just 178,000. The country consistently fell short of its NATO-pledged 2 percent of GDP in defense spending, and crucial equipment fell into disrepair. Military preparedness declined as the public rejected the very idea of ever needing to resist Russia. As late as 2019, 60 percent of Germans thought that if Russia attacked a NATO ally, Germany should ignore its collective defense obligations and sit idly by. Two-thirds of Germans wanted their country to cooperate more with Russia, while only half wanted it to cooperate more with the US.
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and Zeitenwende
Three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared it to be the Zeitenwende, or a watershed moment, that would force Germany to rethink its long-held policies. While Scholz had previously refused to send any weapons to Ukraine, now Germany would supply defensive weapons. Perhaps even more importantly, Scholz pledged an additional €100 billion to German defense to increase its annual budget to 2 percent of GDP.
Unfortunately, the watershed moment hasn’t corrected all of the German leadership’s mistakes. While Germany stopped blocking other countries from sending German-made equipment into Ukraine shortly after Putin invaded, their own military commitments have been lacking. For months, Germany refused to provide Ukraine with heavy weaponry, worried it would trigger a nuclear war, despite the fact that other countries were providing similar aid. When German leadership finally changed their minds, Germany struggled to transfer anti-aircraft tanks because it didn’t have enough ammunition stockpiled to make them useful. As a percent of GDP, German aid has been miniscule for a supposed European and global leader. Even Scholz’s pledge to increase military spending to 2 percent of GDP seems to be an empty promise. And all the while, members of the German chancellor’s own party, the SPD, have been publicly lobbying the government to cut off military aid to Ukraine.
That the Greens, a traditionally pacifist party skeptical of NATO, are the loudest supporters of aid to Ukraine is an indictment of the German mainstream political class. If the Greens can recognize Russian aggression, there is no reason the political establishment cannot follow suit.
After the Second World War, Germany accepted pacifism as the ultimate ideal. That decision was a mistake. Germany should have recognized that resisting totalitarianism, not simply avoiding war, was the far more important lesson to take from the bloodshed. Now, Ukraine is suffering the consequences of that misstep. As security expert John R. Deni wrote, “Germany must still overcome the habit, conditioned by decades of subordinated geopolitical ambition, of being the last to do what is necessary when it comes to international or even European security.”
The world could use German leadership, and Ukraine could use German weaponry. If Scholz and the German government are serious about correcting past wrongs and defending democracy in Europe, they should immediately accommodate Ukraine’s call for aid.
The battle to liberate Ukraine is well underway, and there is no time to waste. Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to President Zelensky, told the Washington Post earlier this week that “Germany needs to understand that the timeline for the end of the war is dependent on its position.” If Germany wants peace, it should help achieve it.