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What would a Putin win in Ukraine mean for Germany?

March 30, 2024

Russia is gaining ground in Ukraine. Should Germany expect more refugees in the future? Migration experts say it is more than likely.

Ukrainian refugee in Berlin
Germany is currently home to the most Ukrainian war refugees in EuropeImage: Adam Berry/Getty Images

The potential scenario is horrific: "If Putin gets his way and Ukraine loses the war, this could turn an additional ten million people into refugees," migration expert Gerald Knaus told DW.

Russia is reporting more military incursions into Ukrainian territory on an almost daily basis. Both sides are launching missiles and drones, but it is clear that Russia is on the offensive and is better equipped. It also recently started to refer to the war as such, and no longer as a "special military operation." At the same time, international support for Ukraine is beginning to crumble.

"If large cities such as Kharkiv and others are now destroyed, if the number of victims rises and hope falls, then we may experience the world's largest refugee movement since the 1940s," warns Knaus, co-founder of the Berlin-based think tank European Stability Initiative.

This is a scenario that Helge Lindh, domestic affairs spokesperson for the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD), puts into perspective. "I don't expect the numbers to be as exorbitant as they are," he told DW. "However, a further increase in the numbers is certainly possible if the war continues to escalate. But there is no reason to say that a huge wave of refugees is imminent."

Gerald Knaus
Gerald Knaus thinks Germany and the EU are not prepared for the worst scenarios Image: DW

Refugee figures

Around two years ago, when the Russian army attacked the whole of Ukraine in violation of international law, there was great solidarity in Germany. Ukrainian refugees found spontaneous support, both from the people and politicians. Ukrainians do not have to go through the normal bureaucratic asylum procedure in Germany, can start work straight away, and are entitled to social benefits, medical care, and language courses.

According to the migration information service Mediendienst Integration, around 1.15 million of the 4.3 million war refugees are currently in Germany, and the number is rising steadily. Politicians from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are already concerned about this: "As Europeans, we have a special responsibility for war refugees from our immediate neighborhood," CDU interior politician Thorsten Frei told DW. "But of course our capacities will reach their limits at some point."

Shortly after the war began, many Ukrainians fled to neighboring countries in Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Around 1.6 million Ukrainians were registered there initially, though today there are just under a million. Germany now reports the highest number of war refugees in absolute figures. But Knaus has worked out that if the number of refugees is calculated in relation to the population, a different picture emerges: Bulgaria has a refugee rate of 3.4%, Poland 2.6%, the Czech Republic 2.6% and Germany only 1.4%.

Ukrainian refugees in Poland
Poland still has more Ukrainian refugees than Germany, when measured per capitaImage: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP

Appeals for European solidarity

Nevertheless, Thorsten Frei insists that "Germany has to cope with the main burden of the influx." The German government urgently needs to work towards an even distribution of Ukrainian war refugees. "Baden-Württemberg alone has taken in more war refugees from Ukraine than the whole of France," he said. Baden-Württemberg has 11 million inhabitants, while France has around 68 million.

Lindh is sympathetic: "When refugees are faced with the choice: Which country do I go to — France, Belgium, Italy? If the social conditions in Germany are clear, with the possibility of direct employment and better social benefits. Then it is understandable that they are more likely to come to Germany."

Russia's war against Ukraine is claiming more and more victims. It is causing flight and displacement. Putin could even win, or annex part of the country permanently.

"The EU is not prepared for the worst-case scenario that could follow," Knaus said, before arguing that politicians both in government and in opposition are at a loss because more and more people from other countries are also applying for protection in Germany. Frei, for his part, anticipates a possible further 300,000 asylum applications this year: "This also directly affects Ukrainian war refugees, for whom there will then be a lack of accommodation and, in particular, integration capacities."

Lindh is concerned. "The local authorities are already saying that we are at the limit of our capacity," he said. "This means that if the number of people from Ukraine increases significantly once again, we will immediately have another migration debate in Germany." However, Lindh, Frei and Knaus agree on one point: the best way forward would be to provide Ukraine with massive military support so that no more people have to flee the war.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.


Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.