Compared with the vocal and lavish support Ukraine has received from the US and the UK, that of Germany seems lukewarm, almost reluctant, especially to Ukrainians themselves. The moderation may be morally questionable, but it makes historical and political sense. Both Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the country he leads are already way out of their comfort zone. Yet notwithstanding these mental constraints, Germany has made clear its stance against Russian aggression.
Scholz is among the few Western leaders who haven’t visited Kyiv since Russian troops retreated from its outskirts. Though Scholz finally agreed to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine, his decision intensified an impassioned public debate, in which open letters to the chancellor flew back and forth — there is still no clear majority in favor of the deliveries or against them. Some major public intellectuals, notably the philosopher Juergen Habermas, have weighed in against the “moral blackmail” of the fervent pro-Ukrainian camp, making the case for a “compromise” to end the war and arguing that supplying weapons to Ukraine will only multiply suffering.
The German establishment has not seriously considered an embargo on Russian gas, which fuels much of the German economy, even though some of the nation’s top economic experts have argued that the fallout wouldn’t hurt as much as the Covid-19 restrictions did. As other European nations have stopped gas imports from Russia, the Nord Stream pipeline to Greifswald has been Russia’s biggest and most reliable export channel.
Ukrainians sense and deplore the lack of German enthusiasm. No Ukrainian streets are being named after Scholz, in contrast to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. No German flags wave at Ukrainian rallies next to the flags of the nation’s biggest supporters. On the social networks, Ukrainians were indignant when the Berlin police banned Ukrainian flags at war memorials on May 9, along with Russian flags.
A lingering diplomatic spat has followed Kyiv’s snub to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was told not to visit because of his role in trying to negotiate the previous compromise between Russia and Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. Authority-respecting Germans are slow to forget the insult that Andrij Melnyk, the combative Ukrainian ambassador, tossed at Scholz for refusing to go after the president had been disinvited: “Beleidigte Leberwurst” — literally, “an offended liver sausage,” someone who sulks childishly. “Olaf Scholz is no sausage, he is the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Wolfgang Kubicki, a vice president of the German parliament, defended the Social Democratic Party’s leader.
Melnyk, characteristically, has refused to apologize. He has been haranguing SPD politicians about their earlier softness on Russia for weeks, and some of them — notably former vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel — have been ready with some angry retorts. “Tanks and missiles cannot be a long-term replacement” for diplomacy, Gabriel told the ambassador.
One might get the impression that, despite an outpouring of sympathy for Ukrainian refugees among ordinary German citizens, their country, the land of Never Again, doesn’t really want Ukraine to win its just war against Vladimir Putin’s invading armies.
And yet in reality, it indisputably does. “Putin may not and will not win the war,” Scholz has declared. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, currently the most popular cabinet member, has traveled to Kyiv and said clearly that she wants and expects Putin to fail. Even Gabriel has said that, as a result of the Ukraine war, Russia will be “reduced to a shadow of its former self.”
Rather, the German elite — and many ordinary Germans — recognize that Russia will still be there in some form, no matter the war’s outcome, and Germany will have to maintain a relationship with it, if only because of its size, the indestructible business and cultural ties and the 2.2 million people in Germany itself who speak Russian as their first language. If you’re a German Atlanticist hoping that the military misadventure and the war crimes committed in the war’s course will lead to Russia’s breakup and lasting humiliation, you’re on the wrong side of the Atlantic for the consequences.
Germans know that a heavily wounded Russia makes an extremely uncomfortable, vengeful neighbor. During World War I, Germany helped the Russian revolution along, even arranging safe passage home from Swiss exile for Vladimir Lenin and his group of Bolsheviks; it was rewarded with the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which saw Russia lose 34% of its population and much of its colonial empire, including a large chunk of Ukraine. That didn’t help Germany win that war — or the one after it, in which the Soviet Union clawed back most of what it had lost, and more.
The unpredictability of a Russia beaten, wounded, dismembered, economically stressed, mismanaged and wracked by ressentiment was something German leaders feared as the Soviet Union fell apart. Newly declassified German foreign policy documents from 1991 show that Chancellor Helmut Kohl sought to convince even the Baltic states to delay seeking full independence from the Soviet Union — even as Germany pressed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to refrain from violence in trying to hold them back. Even just a few months before the Soviet Union finally fell apart, Kohl insisted it would be a “catastrophe” and anyone who wanted it was an “ass.” As the breakup of Yugoslavia dissolved into bloody chaos, the same horrors unfolding on a much grander scale in the former Soviet Union were easy to imagine; the German leadership even offered to help Gorbachev persuade Ukraine to join some kind of post-Soviet confederation of states, led from Moscow.
Perhaps Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, his foreign minister, were nearsighted fools then, clinging to the reality they knew, too fearful for grand visions of an end of history. But they had good sources in Russia. During a 1991 conversation, Eduard Shevardnadze, then no longer Soviet foreign minister but not yet president of Georgia, told Genscher, according to a newly declassified readout, that
“if the Soviet Union is destroyed, everything achieved in the last few years would be ruined. Yeltsin probably wouldn’t demand the return of Crimea. But it was possible to imagine a different, fascistic fuehrer could demand it.”
Both Genscher and Kohl were in their sixties when Shevardnadze made that prediction — and both lived to see it come true in 2014. What’s happening now is only the nightmarish sequel. The German elite cannot but wonder if a humiliating Russian defeat in the Ukraine war would not be what Versailles was for post-World War I Germany — the catalyst for an even more disastrous resurgence of nationalism, imperialism, fascism.
Given all this history — and the by now ingrained belief among Germans that violence solves nothing in the long term — Scholz’s unmistakably pro-Ukrainian stance is already more than one could expect from someone with his party background and in his precarious position. Germany has already delivered significant quantities of weapons, and it is preparing to send howitzers, tanks and antiaircraft installations. It’s working with Slovakia and the Czech Republic to replace the Soviet-made weapons these countries are sending to Ukraine. By no means is the Scholz cabinet sitting on the fence: Unlike French President Emmanuel Macron, Scholz and his ministers have not even attempted to mediate the conflict or find any kind of compromise. Instead, they’ve made clear that they’re working toward a Ukrainian military victory. That in itself is uncharacteristically brave, perhaps even foolhardy: There is no apparent plan for dealing with a post-war Russia. That bridge will need to be crossed at some point — but not now, not yet.