Op-Ed: What will it take for Europe’s heavyweight Germany to stand up to Russia?

As the savage war in Ukraine continues, the world expects Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and a political heavyweight, to play a pivotal role in the fight to isolate and stop Russia. But how serious is Germany in supporting Ukraine?

On February 27, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a “historic change”. In a widely supported speech, Scholz reversed Germany’s foreign policy. Abandoning its stance of not sending arms to crisis regions, Germany would now send armaments to Ukraine to defend against Russia, Scholz said. Germany would increase military spending, which Scholz’s party, the Social Democrats, campaigned against as recently as last fall. This would target Russia economically, supporting sanctions and potentially denying it access to the SWIFT banking system. Scholz froze the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, which would have ensured Germany’s energy dependence on Russia.

These measures were a 180 degree change from Germany’s longstanding policy “Wandel durch Handel”, or change through trade – the idea that Russia would be more effectively engaged through trade and economic integration. What neighboring countries and foreign critics saw as a risky reliance on Russia, a series of German governments saw themselves as building better relations with an important regional power.

Yet nearly two months after Scholz’s historic announcement, not much has happened on any of those fronts. Despite criticism from international observers and its own ministers, the German government has slowed its support for Ukraine.

Military aid has not yet arrived. Estonia and the Czech Republic, countries much smaller than Germany, have given Ukraine more arms and weapons than Germany since the start of the war. No heavy weapons such as tanks, artillery or advanced air defense systems were delivered.

Ukraine offered to buy 100 German tanks, but Germany balked, arguing that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must first reach a joint decision among its members on the deal. Even as the new Russian offensive in the Donbass region began, with indiscriminate shelling of population centers, the German government stood still. Instead, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht announced that supplying additional weapons to Ukraine would compromise Germany’s defense capabilities.

Last week, Scholz announced that Germany would provide $1 billion to Ukraine. This is expected to gain parliamentary approval, but a decision has been postponed until June. Meanwhile, Russia gets $1 billion one day of Germany and other European countries from the sales of its oil and gas. Germany is more dependent on Russian gas and oil than the rest of Europe, so cutting its dependence would be a strong signal of credible commitment to Ukraine. Moreover, this will not necessarily have disastrous economic consequences for Germany.

Polls show that the German public supports sending military and financial aid to Ukraine, with the majority backing Scholz’s policy reversal. Although the Germans fear cutting off Russian energy supplies, their support for Ukraine is widespread.

So what’s stopping Germany? The inertia of economic and military aid cannot be explained by the lack of popular support, the potential damage to the German economy or even government coalition politics. Nor is it a question of German guilt over his Nazi heritage.

Instead, the inaction illustrates a persistent attitude within the German political establishment that there could be “no peace in Europe without Russia.”

In practice, this has meant putting Russian interests first. For decades, German elites have ignored the security interests of smaller countries around them, like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the shared opinion of many Russian and German leaders, places like Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states are simply “the lands in between” – upstart countries whose interests should not be taken seriously. . Germany ignored their warnings about Putin and dismissed his opposition to Nord Stream 2. Ukraine now poses a difficult dilemma: it is difficult to justify a partnership with Russia when it is determined to invade and eliminate Ukrainian sovereignty and national identity.

The ties between German and Russian political elites reinforce this deference to Russia. Perhaps most notoriously, Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, quickly secured a seat on the board of Russian energy company Rosneft after leaving office and then lobbied aggressively for Russian interests. Just weeks before the Russian invasion, Schröder was appointed to the board of directors of Gazprom, the Russian state company behind the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Other politicians have championed what they see as common German and Russian interests. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German President, last year championed Nord Stream 2 as “one of the last bridges between Russia and Europe” and, despite Russian aggression, argued that “we must not lose sight of the big picture”. Sigmar Gabriel, the former Social Democratic leader and energy minister, called for the “federalization of Ukraine” after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, widely understood to mean a permanent Russian role in Ukraine. Even Scholz, the current chancellor, previously sought friendly ties with Russia, while ignoring Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2014 aggression against Ukraine. For many German elites, placating Russia fits perfectly with what they see as Germany’s economic interests: not just energy, but the billions gobbled up by Russian oligarchs in German real estate and industries.

With this mindset, addressing Ukraine’s survival without first considering Russian interests is nearly impossible. After all, Scholz’s predecessor, Chancellor Angela Merkel, also “kept in mind what was tolerable for Russia,” as one of her top foreign policy advisers put it.

Germany is the political and economic leader of the European Union. Yet time and again he deferred and submitted to the autocratic government of Russia. If the horrific invasion of a sovereign European country cannot change the minds of politicians in Berlin, Germany is not only failing in its moral obligations, but also cementing its government’s reputation as beholden to Putin.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is a professor of political science at Stanford University.