Shining a light on Germany’s stand in the Ukraine war

June 01, 2022 12:00 am | Updated 05:31 am IST

Deciding on a course of action could mean modification of several decades of its mainly non-interventionist policy

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves through the world, especially in Europe, being the region most immediately affected. The countries close to the Russian border, namely the Baltic states and Poland, had long warned against such a possibility, which they considered the next step after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the month-long Russian military build-up along the border. The Germans, the strongest European economy and the key nation for the European Union, however remained indifferent, regarding such warnings as exaggerated alarmism.

This attitude was not only the fault of the current Federal Government, formed by the Social Democrats, the Green Party and Liberals. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat conservatives, then in alliance with the Social Democrats, had retained the hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be deterred if offered concessions without any penalties. Even after Moscow, for the first time since 1990, had created a new border in Europe in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, a major pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, between Russia and Germany, was approved and almost operationalised. In regard to the warnings about possible Russian intentions, the German government believed that it understood Russia better than the rest of the world, which eventually turned out to be wishful thinking.

An over and underestimation

The lack of realistic thinking in foreign affairs in a country holding arch-realist Otto von Bismarck in high esteem might appear absurd for an India struggling with two powerful neighbours with nuclear weapons as a fact of life in this century. While the Germans, based on a particular mindset, have overestimated their influence on the Kremlin and underestimated Mr. Putin’s security obsessions over the past three decades. The first category falls under the term ‘peace-dividend’, after overcoming the Cold War and Germany’s partition, surrounded by friends without any hostile neighbours. And the second was the German-Gandhian dream of a world without any arms, an especially attractive concept for a people who had initiated, and suffered most from, the destruction of Europe in two world wars in the 20th century.

The consequences of these pacific views have now become more visible. Despite being one of the richest countries, Germany starved its armed forces financially. The Army has a highly diminished number of serviceable helicopters, submarines or artillery. As a result, while Ukraine pleads for weapons of all kinds to defend itself, Germany has hardly anything to offer except tanks that had been decommissioned a decade ago and for which there is no ammunition available.

Near taboo subjects

Apart from such practicalities, mental reservations stand in the way of steering a different course, which can be observed throughout German society. After Hitler, Germans struggled hard to become likeable in the world, and to be regarded as democratic, pacifist, cooperative, understanding and helpful. As a result, military force, power politics and national interest have become almost taboo subjects, and declining to be involved in conflict has become the national mantra. Defending the national interest, such as the protection of export opportunities which are the basis of German wealth, by sending the navy to protect certain shipping routes was approved by the Parliament, but condemned as a relapse into military adventurism in large sections of the media.

This same attitude is found even among leading Social Democrats such as their chairman in the Parliament, Rolf Mützenich, who built his career in the belief of a world without arms. Apart from the criticism in the media and among the public, the views of dignitaries such as Mr. Mützenich make the current Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, appear indecisive, because he cannot rule in favour of arms deliveries to Ukraine due to massive resistance within his own party.

The Green Party is prone to facing a similar dilemma; its Ministers in the cabinet are the most outspoken in supporting Ukraine by whatever means available, but there is growing discontent among its pacifist-minded supporters, who do not support the argument that the victims of an invasion require to be supported. Germany is an important member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but is extremely conflicted on how deeply it should be involved in supporting Ukraine. Deciding on such a course of action will mean a further modification of several decades of a mainly non-interventionist policy.

Amit Das Gupta is a scholar in the Federal Army University Munich.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Indian Foreign Secretary

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