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What Kind of Ally Is Germany?

Since the current Ukraine crisis began, Germany has been accused of free-riding, fence-sitting, and money-grubbing cynicism. Why has the country been so reluctant to take a strong position on Ukraine, and what steps should it take to restore its credibility in the eyes of other Western governments?

BERLIN – Last month, Germany promised to send 5,000 combat helmets to Ukraine – a pledge that supposedly demonstrated its solidarity with the country. The move – which comes at a time when an estimated 130,000 Russian troops are massed by Ukraine’s border – was met with near-universal derision. But Germany had already come under fire for weeks for its weak response to the standoff between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, with some even questioning its reliability as an ally.

Since the crisis began, Germany has been accused of free-riding, fence-sitting, and money-grubbing cynicism, with some – the so-called Putinversteher – even presuming hidden sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In any case, it seems clear that the coalition government, led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, was not prepared for a major crisis.

Yet Germany’s stance is not new. It opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya. And while the country’s military has participated in numerous missions since the 1990s – including in Afghanistan, Mali, Kosovo, and Somalia – broad public support was lacking. One does not win an election in Germany by championing higher military spending, let alone military action.

This points to the first major reason why Germany has not taken a stronger stance on the Ukraine crisis. Raised in a culture of remembrance and atonement, Germans remain acutely aware of the atrocities their armies have committed in Europe (including Russia and Ukraine) and elsewhere – for example, the Herero and Nama massacre in Africa. Germans take the “never again” mantra seriously.

Beyond their own historical guilt, Germans understand that any display of military might could alarm their European neighbors. They might be close allies and partners, but resentments and suspicions still fester. For example, Poland’s government continues to insist that Germany owes it war reparations, and historical antipathies likely compounded anti-German sentiment in Greece during the eurozone crisis.

Against this backdrop, it should be no surprise that Germany is a highly pacifist country, firmly committed to diplomatic, rather than military, solutions to conflicts. In fact, in security and defense matters, it prefers to keep its engagement to a minimum. While Germany is one of the world’s leading exporters of military hardware, it regulates weapons sales strictly, and has long made it a policy not to send weapons to potential conflict zones. Sending helmets may seem bizarre, but for Germany, arming Ukraine today is a non-starter.

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Yet Germany is not committed to diplomacy only because it is averse to war. Diplomacy works. That was a key lesson of the Cold War – or, more specifically, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Each step might be small, but enough steps eventually lead to progress. Such diplomatic perseverance is both less costly and less risky than Ronald Reagan-style military build-ups.

This goes a long way toward explaining why Germany’s military has been chronically under-staffed and under-financed. Even as it pledges to increase its defense spending, it continues to fall far short of NATO’s threshold of 2% of GDP.

When it comes to the Ukraine crisis, however, there is a third factor to consider: Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear and coal power, which implies increased reliance on imported – mostly Russian – gas. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to carry Russian gas directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, will further entrench this status quo.

And it’s not just gas. Germany is doing more business with and in Russia than any other European economy. So, a lot is at stake for Germany in declining to take a strong position on Ukraine beyond lip service.

If the conflict intensifies, however, Germany’s ambiguous stance – which does have an air of free-riding, and even self-righteousness – will quickly become untenable. This does not mean that Germany would commit troops or export military hardware to Ukraine or other parties that could be involved in the conflict; it is likely to do that only under some NATO, European Union, or United Nations mandate.

But it does mean confronting the risks inherent in Germany’s dependence on Russian energy and examining the sustainability of its business relations with Russia. And, should Russia invade Ukraine, it means imposing tough sanctions, including putting pressure on Russian business interests, limiting travel by Russia’s elite, and suspending cooperation with Russian institutions. Indeed, Germany should spearhead hard sanctions alongside the United States, in much the same way as the United Kingdom joins the US in matters of military deterrence.

Germany must also be prepared to scrap Nord Stream 2 – which is complete, but has not yet been approved by German and EU officials – and significantly reduce its imports of Russian gas as soon as possible. Whatever consequences such actions would have for Germany’s energy supply and businesses, the country will simply have to adapt.

For now, Germany’s government must make clear its willingness to take these steps. It must let both Russia and its NATO allies know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that while it is no champion of hard power, it is willing to bear the high cost of countering aggression against Ukraine. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s recent statements in Kyiv are an encouraging sign that the coalition government understands this, and one hopes that it will uphold the commitments she announced.

In particular, the government must prepare the German public for such an outcome, beginning by coming clean about the extent of Germany’s business relations with Russia. Only then can it rid the government of the corrupt coziness that has characterized some German business leaders’ dealings with Russia for a generation, beginning under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Finally, following his consultations with US President Joe Biden, Scholz should announce that it will support Ukraine in any non-military form possible, and prepare to act immediately. NATO membership may be off the table, but Germany certainly must back Ukraine’s bid for an ever-closer relationship with the EU.