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Germany is reluctant to send heavy weapons to Ukraine. The country’s history—and a now-debunked trade theory—help explain why

June 13, 2022, 9:19 AM UTC

It was supposed to be a turning point for Germany’s support of Ukraine as Kyiv tries to fend off Russia’s assault: After months of pressure and a promise from the German parliament in late April, Berlin was finally going to send Ukraine heavy weapons it could use to defend its cities.

“[The IRIS-T SLM] is the most modern air-defense system that Germany has,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Bundestag on June 1, referring to a medium-range surface-to-air missile system. “This will enable Ukraine to protect an entire city from Russian air raids.” Also included in the package: several multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), the type of much-needed heavy weapon that the U.S. had also just promised to send.

“Finally we can say from the bottom of our hearts to Chancellor Scholz, ‘Thank you!’” said Andrij Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, who has in recent months gained a reputation for harshly and openly castigating Scholz’s government over its cautious stance in the Ukraine war. “Now one can really speak of a turning point,” Melnyk said.

But there was a catch: The air defense system, which still needs to be manufactured, wouldn’t be delivered until the fall. And last week Business Insider reported that the multiple rocket launchers would only come in the winter, because Germany’s M270 MLRSs need a software update before they can fire American and British rockets.

Ukraine’s fate may be decided well before then. So far, Kyiv has received only light weaponry such as portable Stinger antiaircraft systems, grenades, and mines from Germany—a far cry from the Czech tanks, American howitzers (a category of artillery), and other heavy weapons that Western nations have been sending. Germany said in early May that it would send seven howitzers in the summer, but those haven’t turned up yet either.

Ukraine’s military desperately needs artillery and ammunition for its eastern defenses right now. Its supplies are dwindling, and it is being outgunned by the Russians.

It didn’t take long for Melnyk to return to castigating Scholz’s administration. Several days after Berlin’s latest promise, he noted how Spain was ready to send tanks to Ukraine and accused Germany of “cynically denying us even old Leopard 1 tanks and Marder armored personnel carriers.”

“107 days of Russia’s war and up to now NOT a single heavy weapon from Germany has arrived in Ukraine,” Melnyk tweeted Friday. “Really sad.”

Germany is Europe’s largest economy and, along with France, a driving force within the European Union. Many expect Germany to take a leading role. So what’s Berlin’s problem when it comes to the war in Ukraine?

According to Der Spiegel, Berlin’s initial timidity was partly due to intelligence assessments that incorrectly assumed Kyiv would quickly buckle under Russia’s assault, making the question of future arms deliveries moot. But history plays a significant role here, too.

It is difficult to overstate what an enormous shock Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided to the German national psyche.

Long burdened by the shame of Nazism, Germany has since World War II seen its own military weakness as a virtue. Until April, it also had a longstanding ban on sending lethal weapons to conflict zones—despite Germany being one of the world’s top five arms exporters, with sales exceeding €9 billion.

Germany has for decades also pursued a policy of “Wandel durch Handel” (“change through trade”) with both Russia and China, on the basis that commercial ties would encourage those countries to adopt Western-style liberalism.

Russia’s invasion showed Germany’s defense policy to be unwise—Scholz swiftly announced a €100 million remilitarization program—and its trade policy to be at best naive and at worst self-serving. After all, imports of Russian natural gas may have given Germany’s industry cheap power, but they did nothing to dissuade Putin from pursuing imperial dreams.

Germany at times has seemed to act in Putin’s interests. Scholz’s long-serving predecessor, Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Party, blocked Ukraine’s NATO application in 2008. And when Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, she quickly pushed for peace, effectively freezing the conflict in the country’s east, where Russia was then able to consolidate control over much of Ukraine’s Donbas region.

This week, in her first interview since leaving office, Merkel insisted she had been trying to prevent war with Russia. She claimed she had known Putin wanted to “destroy the EU” and had warned Germany’s allies. So why, retorted the Ukrainian government, had she worked so hard to hook Europe on Russian gas, leaving the bloc unable to stop funding Putin’s war machine?

The current criticism of Berlin’s stance extends beyond its ongoing reluctance both to supply heavy weapons and to ditch Russian gas—a move Germany insists would knock 3% to 5% off its GDP.

There’s also the fact that Scholz has still not visited Kyiv, unlike many other Western leaders. He originally refused to do so because Ukraine didn’t want German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) to visit, due to Steinmeier’s historical close ties with Russia. But even after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made nice and invited both Scholz and Steinmeier, neither took up the offer until the last few days; German media reported Saturday that Scholz will visit Kyiv later this month.

Scholz seems unwilling to say he wants Ukraine to win the war. He will say only that he doesn’t want Russia to win, and his rhetorical reticence led the new CDU leader, Friedrich Merz (who did visit Kyiv in early May), to accuse him of having a “hidden agenda.”

Then there’s Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron’s insistence on phoning Putin rather than ostracizing him.

Scholz argued last week that the calls are necessary to give Putin a realistic picture of the situation and to tell him the war can only end with a negotiated settlement. The German and French leaders also keep asking for a cease-fire, an option Ukraine rejects, because it would allow Russia to consolidate its gains. The countries sandwiched between Germany and Russia are less than impressed.

“We in Lithuania…think that it is impossible to talk to the leader of a state that is trying to redraw the map in Europe in the 21st century,” said Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda.

“I am amazed at all the talks with Putin that are being held at the moment by Chancellor Scholz [and] by President Emmanuel Macron,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said in an interview with Germany’s Bild this week. “These conversations are of no use…They merely legitimize the man responsible for the crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. Did anyone talk like that during World War II with Adolf Hitler? Did anyone say Adolf Hitler had to save face?”

Scholz and the SPD have “invested themselves heavily in…the appeasement of Russia, and they are not likely to change that policy until they are utterly humiliated in an election loss or similar,” Anders Östlund, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said in an interview on Thursday.

“What Scholz is doing now, in my opinion, is to double down on a failed policy hoping that the Russian disaster in Ukraine will convince Putin about the futility of the Russian policies, which will of course not happen,” Östlund said, adding that Scholz’s failure to execute on the Bundestag’s April vote for heavy weapons was “nothing short of obstruction.”

However, it’s far from clear that Scholz faces much domestic pressure to change course. His coalition partners, the Greens and liberal Free Democrats (FDP), are relatively hawkish on Russia—the Green Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck has been calling for arms supplies to Ukraine for over a year now—but the German public is split on the issue of military support for Ukraine.

“A lot of Germans are under the impression Scholz is doing everything he can to provide support,” said Marcel Dirsus, a fellow at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy. And as for the coalition’s internal tensions over Ukraine, “it doesn’t exactly project unity, but I don’t see the government being in serious danger over it.”

“At the end of the day, Scholz is doing enough to take off the pressure,” Dirsus said. “It’s not as though Germany is doing nothing. Germany has delivered [light] weapons and overhauled a large chunk of its foreign policy in a very short space of time.”

Dirsus conceded, however, that “Germany has been burning through trust in central Europe.”

“We should pay attention to our allies and how they feel about this, but we don’t seem to be capable of coming up with a strategy and implementing it by ourselves,” Dirsus said. “It’s a good idea to deliver German artillery to Ukraine, and it shouldn’t need outside pressure to do that.”

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