Germany doesn’t appear to view Russian military threats against Ukraine with the same sense of urgency as the United States and some of its European allies, who have started to identify Berlin as a weak link in the Western alliance, say diplomats and analysts.
The country’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has added his voice to the stern Western warnings about massive consequences for Russia if President Vladimir Putin orders an invasion of Ukraine. But Germany has refused requests from Ukraine for military assistance, prompting exasperation in Kyiv. Berlin has also blocked the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania from supplying Kyiv with German-made weapons.
Ukrainian dismay only deepened Saturday when the head of the German navy, Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, described Western fears of a Russian invasion as “nonsense” and called for Vladimir Putin to be given “the respect he demands — and probably deserves.” The German defense ministry quickly condemned the comments, and the admiral promptly resigned.
That has failed to quell Ukrainian fury. Kyiv believes the admiral’s remarks reflect the thinking of a chunk of the German establishment and has called on Berlin to change its whole position on the geopolitical conflict.
“Today, more than ever, the firmness and solidarity of Ukraine and its partners are important to curb Russia's destructive intentions,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry.
Ukrainian officials point to a series of disappointing German positions amid rising Western fears that war momentum is building.
“Everything is moving towards armed conflict,” says Estonia’s defense chief Gen. Martin Herem. He and his counterparts in Central Europe are watching closely to see if Russian reservists are mobilized. They fear Putin has been rearming Russia the past decade for this moment and that he’s only waiting now for frigid weather to harden the ground more so Russian armor has an easier time rolling across Ukraine.
Berlin has remained ambiguous about whether it will be prepared in the event of war to shut down the just-completed Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline, which will pump natural gas from Russia to Germany.
Responding to increasing domestic and international pressure, Scholz said last week Germany is ready to discuss closing the pipeline should Russia attack but has demurred from committing to anything more.
Scholz’s studied ambiguity is worrying many NATO members.
Berlin has pushed back on proposals that include cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international cross border payments system in any possible post-invasion sanctions package the Western allies announce. Last week, German officials told the country’s leading business newspaper that excluding Russia from SWIFT isn’t being considered.
The U.S. National Security Council has denied this, saying “no option is off the table.”
Baltic states have also expressed their frustration with Berlin’s reluctance to give the go-ahead for them to supply Ukraine with German-made military equipment. Germany’s defense minister Christine Lambrecht told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag Saturday that arms deliveries to Ukraine are “currently not helpful.” The Ukrainians have been lobbying Berlin furiously to secure vessels to defend their coasts on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
Some analysts say Scholz is in a tricky position in terms of Germany’s domestic politics and that much of what is being interpreted by outsiders as pulling in a different direction from allies should be seen more as strategic ambiguity required to keep together his three-party coalition government, which is deeply split on relations with Russia.
Scholz’s own party, the Social Democrats (SPD), the coalition’s senior partner, has a powerful left-wing which advocates closer ties with Moscow, and its parliamentary leader, Rolf Mützenich, has championed a new “European peace order including Russia.”
And even moderate SPD luminaries are reluctant to pursue a tough Russia policy; they favor détente and dialogue. Germany’s defense minister Lambrecht and the SDP’s secretary-general, Kevin Kühnert, are opposed to shutting down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying it should be kept separate from the unfolding geopolitical crisis.
They want to see the pipeline, which is awaiting regulatory approval, up and running. More than 60 percent of Germans agree with them, according to an opinion poll published last week by state broadcaster ARD.
The Greens and the center-right Free Democrats want Germany to pursue a much more forthright policy towards Russia. But to further complicate matters, the Greens, whose origins lie in the anti-nuclear peace movement of the 1970s and 1980s, are ideologically opposed to the export of weapons to conflict zones.
“Since the new coalition government entered office in December, confusion has reigned about who is now setting the direction of its policy on Russia – the SPD-led Chancellery or the Green-led Foreign Office? This naturally includes the role and importance of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which still awaits approval to operate from German and EU regulators,” comments Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a policy research organization.
The “cacophony of different voices” doesn’t present “a picture of clear German leadership,” she adds.
Divisions within the German coalition are likely to be exacerbated, Puglierin says, in the coming weeks as fears mount about the country’s economic vulnerability to any fallout from the unfolding geopolitical confrontation. Germany exports machinery, vehicles and vehicle parts to Russia and the country’s politically influential auto-manufactures fear blowback.
The imposition of new wide-ranging and punishing Western sanctions on Russia will likely have major economic consequences for Germany, especially if Moscow retaliates by suspending natural gas supplies to Germany.
Like other Western European nations, Germany is battling an energy crunch and soaring energy prices. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, Germany buys 50 percent to 75 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia.
Ten other EU members, including Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Latvia and Hungary, also get more than three-quarters of their natural gas imports from Russia.
Ukrainian officials — and Germany’s NATO allies — fear any wavering by such a key player as Germany risks being seen by the Russian president, who has been adept exploiting European divisions in the past, as evidence that the alliance against him isn’t as united as Washington and Kyiv would wish. They fear that could prompt the Russian leader to make a big military gamble.
“That’s why Berlin’s decision on Friday to stop Estonia selling German-made weapons to Ukraine was a mistake,” according to Tom Tugendhat, a British lawmaker and chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee.