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Ukraine: What is Germany's strategy?

May 30, 2022

Germany has been walking a fine line since Russia invaded Ukraine. Although it has joined Western sanctions and sent some weapons to Kyiv, its response has been seen to be far more muted than that of other allies.

Olaf Scholz in front of a Ukrainian flag
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been struggling to explain Germany's Ukraine policiesImage: WPA Pool/Getty Images

Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the Russian invasion of Ukraine an act of "brutal aggression" in a recent DW interview, stressing that "this is imperialism. And we will never accept that." Internationally, he said, it was now a matter of showing that "there must never again be a successful attempt to move borders by force."

According to the German government, what is needed are tougher sanctions against Russia, cutting Russian gas and oil supplies as quickly as possible, and continued military and financial aid for Ukraine. But Germany will not, Berlin has stressed, make any solo moves and risk becoming an actual party to the war.

Scholz has been perceived as hesitant when it comes to Ukraine, both abroad as well as at home. As for delivering heavy weapons, voices within his own government — in particular Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck — have been calling for more decisive action.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann of the Free Democrats (FDP party) and chairwoman of the German Parliament's defense committee, said in an interview with German television network ZDF in April: "We still need to push the chancellory."

Foreign policy expert Johannes Varwick of the University of Halle described the German government's strategy as an attempt to simply "follow its partners' lead." This strategy does not put forward a course of its own publicly, he said, "but for the most part, rather hesitantly carries out what allies have already done (such as embargos and arms deliveries)."

What does Germany really want?

Andriy Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin, has been one of Scholz's most vocal critics, forcefully slamming the chancellor for weeks, in a way that no diplomat has ever criticized a German head of government.

Last Friday, in an interview with Germany's Bild newspaper, he said: "Militarily, Ukraine is simply being left in the lurch by Berlin."

A few days ago, Melnyk spoke with the media group Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland, saying he suspected that Scholz in fact does not want to deliver heavy weapons at all, and is stalling "until there is a ceasefire. Then the pressure will be off Germany and then there will be no need to make any more courageous decisions."

Even a three-way telephone call last Saturday between Vladimir Putin, Olaf Scholz, and Emmanuel Macron, with the German and French leaders calling for fresh peace talks, has met with skepticism in some capitals.

London's Telegraph newspaper commented on the call this Monday: "A negotiated settlement of the type being sought by the French and German leaders implies the surrender of territory by Ukraine. [...] There is also a risk that Macron and Scholz will undermine the notion of Western solidarity by embarking on their own initiatives. Inevitably, there is a suspicion that they want this conflict to end for their own benefit, not Ukraine's."

DW's Thomas Sparrow on Scholz-Macron-Putin three-way call

Scholz slammed by political opponents

German politicians, too, have accused Scholz of playing for time when it comes to Ukraine.

"The chancellor wants to delay arms deliveries," Florian Hahn, a Christian Democratic Party (CDU) member of the Bundestag and member of the defense committee, said in an interview with German news magazine Cicero.

Another defense expert from the CDU party, Roderich Kiesewetter used strong words for Scholz on the television talk show, "Anne Will": "I'm afraid that the chancellor doesn't want Ukraine to win this war, win in the sense of driving Russian troops out of the country," he said.

Though Germany's hesitant position on the Ukraine crisis has sparked plenty of political potshots by his opponents, Scholz himself has been clear about where he stands, saying recently: "Russia cannot be allowed to win this war, Ukraine has to exist."

Still, German deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine have been delayed for a host of reasons, including a lack of ammunition for the promised Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, long decommissioned in Germany. 

Last week, the defense ministry announced that the first 15 of these tanks would be delivered in July, and another 15 by the end of August.

Foreign policy expert Johannes Varwick described Scholz as "one of those level-headed voices who, on the one hand, leave no doubt about solidarity with Ukraine, but on the other hand — and not out of cowardice or incompetence, but because the government doesn't want to be too involved in the war — also seems to consider possible side effects and risks of arms deliveries and is not a hothead."

Russian mercenaries in West Africa

Meanwhile, Scholz has tried to find allies for his strategy during a visit to several African states. As Germany looks for alternatives to Russian gas around the world, it's also hoping to tap Senegal's gas reserves in the future.

In Mali, German soldiers are familiar with Russia's growing military influence in Africa. The military government there maintains close relations with Moscow and is said to allow Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to operate freely in the region.

Scholz called their influence "devastating" during his visit to West Africa. The German Parliament recently decided to end the country's training deployment in Mali, though the Bundeswehr will continue to participate in the UN peacekeeping mission, Minusma. The soldiers will also remain in Niger, Scholz promised while visiting the troops.

Sanctions hurting African countries

For Africa, the biggest fallout from the war in Ukraine is the sharp rise in food and fuel prices. While that has significantly impacted the purchasing power of average families in Germany, in African countries, spiraling food prices are threatening to trigger a famine.

In an interview with DW, Scholz promised economic aid to the affected countries. However, he rejected subsidies to absorb price increases worldwide. "But we have to start increasing the supply of gas and fuel," he said. 

"We're trying to get all the oil- and gas-producing countries to increase production, which would take pressure off the world market."

In South Africa, however, Scholz's Ukraine-Russia strategy is not shared by everyone. Shortly after the war began, five states had already voted against a UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion. 35 states abstained, including 17 African countries.

German chancellor: Building good relations key

In a press conference with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa last week, Scholz called such a vote "unacceptable." Ramaphosa highlighted the negative fallout of sanctions: "Even countries that are spectators or not part of the conflict will suffer from the sanctions."

Little room for negotiation

Olaf Scholz also appealed to Russia's and Putin's self-interest during his DW interview: "The war will never end well for his country." As a result of the sanctions, "the Russian economy will be set back decades." For that reason alone, he said, Putin should end the war.

But despite setbacks, Russia has continued its offensive in eastern and southern Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is now demanding that Russia give up all Ukrainian territories occupied in violation of international law, which includes Crimea, annexed in 2014, something Russia has ruled out entirely. As things stand, the chance for peace negotiations appears to be zero.

Germany seems unwilling to push Zelenskyy towards making concessions. A government spokeswoman in Berlin said last week that it is Ukraine's decision alone to decide under what conditions it wants to make peace.

Schwedt fears for its refinery

Specter of Afghanistan-like situation

Foreign policy expert Varwick believes it would be "a grave mistake to tie ourselves too closely to Ukrainian goals. We certainly have other interests than Ukraine, such as avoiding a direct war with Russia, into which Ukraine could like to drag us because of its understandable interests. We should avoid that at all costs." 

He said it should not be taboo to "put pressure also on Ukraine to agree to a political compromise solution with Russia (...) even if that means losing part of its territory. For the time being, this is better than a permanent escalation with an incalculable outcome."

If Ukrainian peace terms are unrealistically high and Russia continues to fight, Ukraine could face a long war of attrition, Varwick warned.

And that could mean Kyiv's allies could have to continue supporting the country with money, weapons, and refugee assistance for a long time. If so, Western allies could find themselves in a similar position to the one in which they found themselves with regard to Afghanistan. There could be years of financial, military, and humanitarian involvement with no existing scenario and no foreseeable end.

If Ukrainian peace terms are unrealistically high and Russia continues to fight, Ukraine could face a long and complex war. For Kyiv's allies, that would mean they would have to support the country with money and weapons and help refugees from the country for a long time to come. 

That raises the specter of an Afghanistan-like situation — years of financial, military and humanitarian involvement with no foreseeable end.

There seems to be no exit strategy — neither in Moscow nor in Kyiv and in Berlin.

This article was originally written in German.

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