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German government under fire over Russia policy

Matthias von Hein
February 2, 2022

Where exactly does Germany stand on Russia? The new government is facing a barrage of international criticism with regard to its actions in the Ukraine standoff.

A Ukrainian soldier stands next to a tank on the front lines in eastern Ukraine
Germany has avoided sending weapons to UkraineImage: Vadim Ghirda/dpa/AP/picture alliance

To many political observers in the United States and some eastern European countries, cracks seem to have appeared in Germany's image as a reliable ally.

A wave of criticism is pouring over Berlin — occasionally mixed with bitter mockery — especially after Germany responded to Kyiv's request for weapons deliveries by promising to provide 5,000 protective helmets. Then maps were published showing the flight path of British transport planes carrying weapons to Ukraine, which obviously had to steer clear of German airspace.

In dealing with its first major foreign policy crisis, the new German coalition government finds itself also facing an image crisis. The head of the Warsaw office of the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, Piotr Buras, for example told the national daily taz he was "baffled" at the chaotic communication in Berlin: "The German government has not been speaking with one voice. We have heard many opinions, but see no clear strategy."

International newspapers, from the The New York Times to the Deccan Herald in Bangalore, India, have run headlines asking: Where does Germany stand on the Ukraine conflict?

Russia-Ukraine crisis: Is Germany letting its allies down?

No weapons for Ukraine, but gas from Russia?

Spain has dispatched a frigate to the Black Sea, Denmark is deploying fighter jets to Lithuania and a frigate to the eastern Baltic Sea, the US is putting its troops on standby — all this stands in contrast to Germany's refusal to supply weapons to Ukraine.

Germany has so far refused to allow Estonia to send nine howitzers from Germany to Ukraine. Berlin justifies this with its policy restrictions for arms exports to crisis regions.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, deputy chairperson of the neoliberal Free Democrat parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, believes such exports would not make a difference: "We have a situation in which the Ukrainian armed forces are militarily inferior to the Russian armed forces by a factor that could never be made up by arms deliveries," he told DW.

Vitali Klitschko: 'We need defensive weapons'

Critics point to Germany's economic interests and dependence on Russian energy supplies. Russia accounts for more than 40% of the crude oil and 56% of the natural gas imported by Germany.

This amount could be increased by the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which was completed last summer but has not yet been put into operation. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has only recently made clear that in the event of a Russian military intervention, the pipeline would not get the go-ahead.

Struggling to find common ground

The center-left Social Democrats who lead the new coalition government in Berlin tend to stress the need for negotiation and deescalation in relations with Russia. Its coalition partners, the Greens and the Free Democrates, both favor a tougher stand.

But even among the Social Democrats, a veritable cacophony can be heard over the past few days. On Monday, party officials, lawmakers and government members finally worked out a common position: In the event of an invasion, all options for tough sanctions would be on the table (including considerations around Nord Stream 2).

Meanwhile, all diplomatic channels should be explored, especially in the so-called Normandy format together with France; and the ban on arms deliveries to Ukraine will remain in place.

On the last point, the Social Democrats are in line with the majority of German citizens. According to a new survey by the YouGov polling institute, 59% of respondents support the German government's position not to send weapons to Ukraine. Only 20% were in favor of arms deliveries.

Germany is, after all, one of the largest donor countries to Ukraine in terms of economic and humanitarian aid.

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel met in Moscow on August 20 ahead of her departure as chancellorImage: Sputnik/REUTERS

Missing Angela Merkel

International observers have pointed out that longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel's departure from the political arena has substantially weakened European Russia policy and left a hole that Chancellor Olaf Scholz has apparently not yet been able to fill.

British magazine The Economist, for example, pointed out that the channel of communication between Berlin and Moscow has dried up since the change of government in early December.

"Chancellor Merkel's advantage was that she could call Putin at any time and bring about a conversation," former security adviser Horst Teltschik confirmed to DW. 

Scholz has reportedly contacted the Kremlin only once, so far — at the end of December.

This article was originally written in German.

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