During his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday, US President Barack Obama said that Russian aggression has only reinforced the unity between the US and Europe. Even a casual observer of the war in Ukraine knows that these words do not match reality. Just look at the divide over providing weapons to the Ukrainians.
Merkel made it very clear during her speech at the Munich Security Council last week that she does not support the idea of arming the Ukrainians – although Germany happily arms the Kurds against ISIL.
True to form, Obama is dithering and has not made a final decision on the matter – even though it is clear that many in the US support arming the Ukrainian armed forces with defensive weapons. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have supported arming the Ukrainians. The incoming US secretary of defence, Ashton Carter, has also expressed his support to do so.
Germany’s ties to Russia
Germany’s reluctance to arm the Ukrainian military should come as no surprise. Berlin has also been reluctant to back some of the more robust measures to beef up NATO’s defences in Eastern Europe, such as the establishment of permanent NATO bases.
Germany’s close economic and political ties to Russia, in part, shape its policies towards Moscow. Although Merkel is the most powerful politician in Europe, she has been remarkably meek in her dealings with Russia.
She has been careful not to alienate powerful business interests at home, which have significant economic interests in Russia and close ties to Moscow’s ruling elites.
The facts speak for themselves. According to an Economist report, 6,200 German companies have operations inside Russia, with 20 billion euors ($22.3bn) invested in the country and 300,000 German jobs at stake.
Germany is heavily energy-dependent on Russia, with a third of the country’s oil and gas coming from there. German exports to Russia account for nearly one-third of the EU’s total.
Prominent members of Germany’s political elite have also sided with Moscow. For example, Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroder, has been particularly supportive of Moscow. He serves as a board member of Russian energy giant Gazprom – a position to which he was appointed just weeks after leaving office. Last year Schroder celebrated his 70th birthday with Vladimir Putin at a lavish party at St Petersburg’s Jussapov Palace.
Self-defence is a right
Every country has the inherent right to self-defence. This is why the West should arm the Ukrainians to give them a fighting chance to defend their homeland against external aggression. There are two main reasons why now is the right time to send arms to Ukraine.
There is a front-line and a traditional linear battlefield. The Ukrainian military has consolidated. Although it has a long way to go, recruitment and training is taking place.
First, the people of Ukraine have demonstrated, whether on the streets of the Maidan or through the ballot box, that they see their future in the West and not under Russian domination.
There was a time not too long ago that closer ties with the West were discouraged by Ukraine’s leaders. In fact, until a few months ago there was even a law that prohibited Ukraine from ever joining NATO. Since the disposal of the Russian backed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich this has all changed.
Second, the security situation has stabilised when compared to several months ago. When Russia first started backing the separatists the situation on the ground was chaotic. Nobody knew how far the separatists would go and where they would be stopped. The Ukrainian military was in disarray.
Now the situation is different. There is a front-line and a traditional linear battlefield. The Ukrainian military has consolidated. Although it has a long way to go, recruitment and training is taking place. Also, there is a less of a chance that western weapons will end up in the hands of the separatists.
Part of a larger strategy
Defensive weapons alone are not a panacea but they can be an effective part of a larger strategy by the West.
For the US and Europe, this means implementing a greater range of targeted sanctions aimed directly at Russian officials responsible for violating Ukrainian sovereignty and marginalising Russia in international fora, especially the G-20.
For the US, specifically, this means immediately and comprehensively eliminating barriers to US energy exports. The benefits of this are obvious – reducing Europe’s dependence on Russia to keep the lights on and the fires burning. The US should also withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The difference between Russia and the West is that Russia has a strategy that it is willing to follow, while the West is hoping the problem disappears. Russia has been able to exploit the situation in eastern Ukraine for its own benefit, calculating that the West will not respond in any significant way.
It is time to acknowledge that Russia’s imperial ambitions have no limits – and develop a strategy that helps Ukraine defend itself.
Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.