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Opinion: A moral decision at little cost

The German Minister for Economic Affairs has stopped an important arms deal with Russia. It was the right thing to do. But it didn’t require much courage, says DW’s Mathias Bölinger.

It sends a clear signal, in what is otherwise a very discreet field of business. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's minister for economic affairs, has halted the delivery of an already-approved military installation to Russia. The ministry's statement announced that the government had taken the company's right to claim damages into account. "It's not a question of money; it's a question of human life," was how Gabriel put it - not without a note of pathos.

Signal to France

In making this decision, Germany's economics minister is going beyond the recently-imposed EU arms embargo. The European states finally managed to agree on the embargo following the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane over eastern Ukraine.

However, France in particular had pushed for permission to deliver - in accordance with the original contract - two helicopter carriers that had already been paid for. The French government therefore has every reason to see itself as the intended recipient of Gabriel's signal.

Mathias Bölinger

DW's Mathias Bölinger

Right now, it is still unclear how much this gesture will actually cost the German government. The deal in question is for a training center for soldiers in the central Russian city of Mulino that would enable entire battles to be reenacted on a computer simulator.

The company Rheinmetall was to deliver the majority of the technology, worth a total of around 120 million euros ($161 million). In the arms trade, this is not a particularly big deal, especially as it appears that part of it has already been paid for and delivered.

A spokesperson for the ministry did announce that the "larger part, in terms of value" had not yet been delivered, and that the facility was "not operational." However, the defense contractor's chief executive made things sound quite different back in March. He told shareholders that the contract was nearly complete, and had been paid for almost in full.

The company has now given partial confirmation of the government's version, saying that the main thing still lacking is the software needed to operate the technology delivered by Rheinmetall.

Ultimately, then, the effect is big, while the costs are small. In a situation like this, all Gabriel really had to do was act. You don't often get so much moral standing for so little money.

Values - at what price?

Gabriel is advocating a more restrictive arms export policy. Since taking office, he has shelved a number of substantial requests from the industry. He wants to make fundamental changes to the opaque system under which such requests are approved.

If this really does lead to Germany exporting fewer arms, Gabriel will meet with considerable resistance - from the arms industry, from pro-business coalition partners and also from elements within his own Social Democrat Party, which is principally worried about job losses in the industrial sector. That's the point at which he will have to put a figure on these moves, and decide how much values are allowed to cost.

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