Now that we are marking the eleventh month since Russia invaded Ukraine, Western countries are grappling with a difficult dilemma that could decide the fate of the war. On the one hand, they are determined to aid Kyiv in its fight against Russia’s army, while on the other, their ambivalence, which can be seen in undertakings carried out by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, casts a heavy shadow on their willingness to intervene militarily, which is a prerequisite for shifting the balance of power in this war.
As senior leaders from 50 nations around the world gathered at the United States Ramstein Air Base in western Germany on January 20 to discuss Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, it became clear that there are deep disagreements among the leaders on how to maintain security in Europe and to what extent does Russia pose as a threat.
During the meeting, Scholz voiced his strong opposition to requests that his country supply German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine and reiterated his appeal to the US administration in Washington to send American tanks to Kyiv. Scholz rebuffed claims of foot-dragging and heavy criticism of his refusal to transfer tanks to Ukraine, explaining that he is wary of moves that could intensify tensions on the war front that could lead to an all-out confrontation between Russia and NATO member countries.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared that Poland and other countries would deliver German tanks and advanced military equipment to Ukraine, even before receiving authorization from Berlin. According to Morawiecki, “Ukraine and Europe will win the war with or without Germany.” Thus, following heavy domestic and international pressure, along with American agreement (at least in principle) to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine, the Berlin Administration finally approved the request to supply Ukraine with German tanks.
Beyond the drama that has unfolded over the past month, along with internal pressure and the immense gaps that exist between the countries and among their leaders, this lack of consensus highlights the strategic and moral dilemmas that Western governments, especially Germany, are currently facing. There’s no doubt that sending advanced weapons to Ukraine could greatly bolster Ukraine’s military capabilities; however, this strategic move would also dramatically affect the dynamics of the war, as well as the fate of the entire European continent.
Since the war in Ukraine broke out, the governments of Western nations and NATO members have been actively consolidating and coordinating their positions on Europe’s security situation. Nonetheless, the intensification of Vladimir Putin’s efforts and growing concern in Kyiv that offensive assaults by Russia will resume in the spring have sharpened the immense gaps between the two. For that reason, the transfer of weapons and military equipment to Ukraine, such as the advanced German Leopard 2 tanks, has become a hot topic.
As a consequence of its ambivalence toward Russia, Germany is finding itself at the heart of this dispute and is subject to heavy domestic and international pressure to grant permission to supply Ukraine with military aid, which Germany believes will have significant ramifications on the outcome of the war and for all of Europe.
German perception on supplying military support
FROM BERLIN’S vantage point, supplying weapons is tantamount to a declaration of Germany’s direct involvement in the war and would change the overall balance of power. This action would also lead to an increased probability that Russia’s struggle would expand to include NATO member countries and that Putin could end up using nuclear weapons.
At this point, it is important to clarify that Germany has the strongest economy in Europe and is the largest importer of natural gas from Russia. Germany is also one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of weapons in the world. Between 2016 and 2020, Germany’s arms exports rose 21%.
Nevertheless, the German government, which has supplied numerous weapons systems to Ukraine since the beginning of the war, up until now has adamantly refused to send over tanks. This is due to a combination of various circumstances, some of which are historical, including Germany’s inclusive and conciliatory approach toward Russia and its economic reliance on Russian natural gas, which up until the onset of the war in Ukraine accounted for 55% of Germany’s gas consumption.
Moreover, although Germany advocated for Kyiv’s pro-Western stance and even called on Ukraine to distance itself from Russia, it also underestimated the magnitude of Russia’s threat, which led to an increase in tensions between the two countries. So, what is it that led Germany to change its attitude vis-à-vis supplying Ukraine with tanks?
If we take a general look at what the consequences of the war on Europe have been so far, we’ll see that the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army has brought about a deep and shocking change in public consciousness that is unparalleled with any other Western country.
In light of this new climate that has emerged in Europe, Scholz announced in February 2022 that Germany would be carrying out policy changes in its foreign affairs, economic and security sectors, as well as replacing the pacifist ideology it has held since 1945 with a more assertive approach.
In addition, Scholz authorized the ramping up of defense spending to 2% of Germany’s GDP and allocated 100 billion euros (NIS 375.2 b.) to beef up its military forces. These sweeping changes, which the government in Berlin has been spearheading since Scholz took office in 2021, are no small matter, especially for such a conservative country with an incredibly bloody past.
It’s important to examine Scholz’s recent hesitant comportment regarding the supply of German tanks within this context. According to public opinion polls that were published in recent weeks, this hesitancy is a reflection of Germany’s ambivalence as it grapples with this deep moral and strategic dilemma that is rooted in the consciousness of the German people.
On the one hand, the German public, as well as the country’s political leadership, are worried about repeating its horrific history and that current events might lead to an escalation of tensions and possibly even to full-scale war with Russia. Throughout 2022, Germany supplied Ukraine with military aid totaling 2.3 billion euros (NIS 8.6 b.), compared with 23 billion euros (NIS 86 b.) in aid from the US and 4.1 billion euros (NIS 15.4 b.) from the UK.
THE VALUE of the upcoming transfer of 14 German tanks to Ukraine, which is scheduled to take place in the near future, can be added to this figure. At the current time, there is a total of 2,000 tanks located in 13 different European countries, including Poland, Finland and Switzerland. A portion of these tanks are slated to be transported for use in Ukraine this spring.
On the other hand, popular opinion among both German citizens and its elected officials in the German Bundestag is that this emergency aid, which is part of the united struggle against Russian aggressors, comes at a critical juncture in time and will save many Ukrainian lives.
Nevertheless – and this is an important caveat – if we take a closer look at public opinion among German citizens, we will see that there’s a tremendously large gap between the pro-Russian stance held by Germans living in eastern Germany, including supporters of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who for the most part approve of Putin’s aggressive methodology and the remaining Germany’s citizens around the rest of the country who partly support the pacifist Green Party, which promotes much more multifaceted and pluralistic policies.
It is not a wonder that Scholz, who has skillfully maneuvered between a variety of opinions, conflicting interests and heavy pressure from home and abroad, is taking his time advancing carefully and with great discretion. Despite his hesitant stance and the fact that he is not a media superstar, Scholz is a conservative politician with remarkable experience who is making history with this crucial decision.
By executing this move, Scholz is definitively breaking with Germany’s naive culture of pacifism and is instead embracing a new pragmatic approach involving close cooperation with the US Administration.
Scholz is adamant that he not be portrayed as an aggressor, in view of the sensitive nature of the atrocities wrought by the Nazis during World War II. Moreover, a systematic observation of the current state of affairs shows that the war in Ukraine and the escalation of Putin’s struggle are leading up to a massive change in Europe’s map of relations, as well as a change in Germany’s status and power among the nations that make up the European bloc.
Although Germany was already one of the world’s leading economic powers, the war in Ukraine has served as a major catalyst, as Germany forges a new path and carries out important reforms in its domestic and foreign policies, with a focus on relations with Russia.
As a result, Germany is propelling itself into a position of leadership in Europe with respect to all security and military-related issues, which comes with great power and influence over the international arena.
The writer is an expert in international security and geopolitical crises.