Ukraine crisis: Why is Germany out of step with the US, Europe?

Germany has refused to send weapons to Ukraine and adopted a relatively softer line on Russia.

Ukraine troops
A Ukrainian service member fires a next generation light anti-tank weapon (NLAW) supplied by Britain during drills at Ukraine's International Peacekeeping Security Centre near Yavoriv in the Lviv region, Ukraine [Reuters]

Brussels, Belgium – Every time the European Union has to make big decisions on migration, trade or foreign relations, Germany takes the lead.

But Berlin’s restrictive stance on how to deal with Russia to deter the crisis in Ukraine has raised eyebrows among its allies, while experts accuse Germany of watching from the sidelines.

While the United States and some EU nations have sent military support to Ukraine, Germany has offered only medical aid and has been ridiculed for its promise to send helmets. It has also banned Estonia from supplying German-origin Howitzer weapons to Ukraine.

Germany’s navy chief Kay-Achim Schönbach, who has since resigned, earlier downplayed the crisis, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin “deserved respect.”

These developments have frustrated Germany’s NATO allies, who are eager to secure unanimity to deal with the Kremlin.

“European security cannot be done without a German leading role. At this moment, when we’re looking at how they’re acting on European defence and NATO, the readiness of the Bundeswehr, the hesitance to use military force, it’s absurd for the current times,” Latvia’s Minister of Defence Artis Pabrik told the Financial Times, referring to the German military.

Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz insisted the country is in tune with EU and NATO policies towards Russia, but stuck to his stance, telling reporters in Berlin: “We don’t provide any lethal weapons.”

Stefan Scheller, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations said the position of the current German government, a coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democrats – is rooted in history.

“The SPD has a longstanding legacy from what they consider a successful Cold War strategy of rapprochement towards the Soviet Union. However, seeking rapprochement in the current situation with 100,000 Russian soldiers on the border to Ukraine is naive,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The Liberals and part of the Greens have a more assertive perspective towards dealing with Russia. However, the Greens – having their roots in the peace movement – have also historically had huge concerns about any kind of arms deliveries.”

Why is Germany uneasy with arms exports?

Germany’s cautious approach towards deterring Russia has not gone down well in Ukraine.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba recently tweeted: “Statements by Germany about the impossibility of transferring defence weapons to Ukraine, in particular due to permission to third parties, the futility of returning Crimea, hesitations to disconnect Russia from SWIFT- do not correspond to the level of our relations and the current security situation.”

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock responded quickly, saying Berlin is acting in a “historically responsible” manner; because of its role in the second world war, the country’s policy against sending arms to crisis zones.

But Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, believes the idea that Germany has to fulfil a special responsibility towards Russia because of its second world war legacy is groundless.

“In this WWII responsibility paradigm, Germany owes Ukraine much more than Russia, given the fact that all Ukraine was occupied from 1941-42 and we suffered more under The Third  Reich,” he told Al Jazeera.

“On the other hand, Germany would need to shoulder the burden of negative outcomes if Russia indeed launched an all-out war against Ukraine.”

Markus Ziener, Helmut Schmidt fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the US, told Al Jazeera: “This historical stance of the German government is lopsided. In the past, Germany’s actions had made Ukraine suffer and while the uneasiness to supply weapons is understandable, in the current scenario, supplying arms to fortify Ukraine would actually help the country.”

After Germany’s offer to send 5,000 helmets and medical aid to Ukraine, Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko joked to the German newspaper BILD Daily: “What will Germany send next? Pillows?”

Scheller told Al Jazeera Germany should consider providing “substantial numbers” of protective vests and night vision equipment.

“Moreover, the country should not block European partners from supplying arms to Ukraine and should refrain from comments which weakens European cohesion,” he said.

He added that the country has at times been flexible with its arms export policy.

“While exporting arms to conflict zones is not a part of Germany’s foreign policy tradition, Germany has at times – and for good reasons-  been flexible with its own benchmarks when it provided weapons to support the Kurds in Syria, who were fighting the Islamic State,” said Scheller.

Nord-stream 2 exposing Germany’s weakness?

Germany’s economic linkages and its gas pipeline project – Nord Stream 2 – with Russia, could be behind Germany’s softer approach.

The contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline – which Washington fears Moscow is using to increase its leverage in Europe – is meant to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany.

While Germany works towards a renewable future, GMF’s Zeiner said that at present, if Germany decides to stop the Nord Stream 2 project, it is bound to hurt the country.

“Germany’s reliance on gas is high and will increase till there is sufficient renewable energy. So the country will need gas and energy supply from elsewhere,” he told Al Jazeera.

Of Nord Stream 2, Rachel Rizzo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, said: “What we’re seeing is a situation where those economic links hinder how [the West] can respond during a crisis that involves Russia.

“When it comes to Germany, the country has a pacifist bent to it and it has for decades, especially after World War II. But I also think there are political elements at play here. The SPD, which holds the German chancellor, has historically been more friendly with Russia, whereas the Greens who are in charge of the foreign ministry and the economic and climate ministry, for instance, are much more hawkish and are famously anti-Nord Stream 2.”

Keen to show Germany’s interest in defusing the crisis in Ukraine, German foreign minister Baerbock is set to visit Ukraine on February 7 and announced at the Bundestag that the country is working on a “strong package of sanctions” against Russia, should it launch an attack.

She highlighted that this package covers several aspects, including Nord Stream 2.

Yet, Scheller explains that sanctions alone will not solve all problems.

“Putin tests the West and tries to change the post-cold-war security order to his liking. Right now, Germany should refrain from comments which weakens European cohesion and find a compromise with its allies,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera