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The Guardian

Don’t be fooled: Germany’s U-turn on sending tanks to Ukraine is a reluctant one | Jan-Philipp Hein

By Jan-Philipp Hein,


If the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, chose to upgrade Germany’s military assistance to Ukraine this week, it was only as a result of the extreme amount of pressure that had been building up in recent days.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has thrust upon Germany the necessity of some serious self-analysis. It has shattered many certainties, including even that most iron-clad tenet of postwar German history, which maintained that no conflict could ever be resolved militarily. Germany’s famous creed “Wandel durch Handel”, change through trade , was directly derived from this thinking that had permeated virtually every part of its society.

Keep this in mind when remembering that Germany maintained its lonely support for the highly controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project until days before the beginning of Russia’s invasion, casting aside repeated criticisms from eastern Europe, the US and many western European countries even as Moscow was already massing its troops on Ukraine’s borders in preparation for war.

The events of 24 February 2022 dealt a death blow to Germany’s well-practised refusal to acknowledge the nature of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Up until that point, Russian military atrocities in Syria, its wars in Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and even brazenly public crimes such as the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London or the assassination of a Georgian national considered an enemy by Putin’s regime in Berlin in 2019 had failed to provoke any meaningful change in Germany’s behaviour.

Considering all that, the country has truly come a very long way over the course of less than a year. Its public has moved from rejecting sending weapons to Ukraine by a nearly two-to-one margin to a majority in favour of it. And let me be clear: Germany has provided a lot more than anyone following last year’s exhausting debates about its contributions could be led to believe.

This confusion, in turn, is a result of Germany’s Social Democrat-led government’s communication style. Anyone trying to understand Scholz’s motives and aims in all this would be ill-advised to ask members of his own governing coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and free-market liberals. The tedious task of staking political claims is left to others such as the Social Democratic party chairman, Lars Klingbeil, who notably remarked that his country should be a “leading power”. Scholz, on the other hand, has refrained from anything resembling leadership at the recent meeting of Ukraine’s supporters at the US military base in Ramstein, failing in particular to forge a western alliance for coordinated shipments of battle tanks to Ukraine.
A protest in support of sending tanks to Ukraine in Krakow, Poland, 24 January 2023. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

By continuing instead to hide behind Washington and rely on his mantra of Germany not “going it alone”, Scholz has accepted doing considerable damage to the uniquely important transatlantic relationship, not to mention further eroding eastern European trust in Berlin. The Baltic states and Poland have long considered Germany an element of instability. Their strong misgivings about Nord Stream 2, fully legitimate even before Russia invaded Ukraine, were widely derided in Berlin, and not only by Scholz’s Social Democrats.

Now, the chancellery’s spin doctors are pulling out all the stops to frame a late and politically costly decision as a stroke of political and strategic genius. Not only did Scholz not hide behind the Americans, they contend, but his machinations resulted in locking up an even greater number of tanks going to Ukraine.

One major hole in this argument is that it conveniently leaves out why this cunning move was never shared with Scholz’s coalition partners at home. Among their ranks, a different story was playing out over the weekend as frustration over the disappointing Ramstein meeting gave rise to some whispered questions over whether continued cooperation was possible with a chancellor who appeared so unrelenting in his quest to upset Germany’s allies.

As a matter of fact, Scholz’s inscrutable political manoeuvring probably reflects the equally unclear positions of many Germans. Today’s German society emerged as the country, protected at least in its western half by Nato’s nuclear umbrella, flourished into a global economic powerhouse. Germans began considering history essentially over and started lecturing their protective powers, most prominently the US, with shallow pacifist slogans.

Related: Sending tanks to Ukraine makes one thing clear: this is now a western war against Russia | Martin Kettle

Germany’s longstanding tradition of hair-trigger anti-American sentiment facilitated this move just as it did – and does – inform its almost romantic view of Russia. Putin speaking in German at the Bundestag in 2001 was more than enough for most Germans to overlook the brutality of his methods, which he was doing less than nothing to hide. After his speech, Putin received standing ovations, all while Russian troops were busy levelling Chechnyan cities.

Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine has catapulted Germany out of its comfort zone. A charitable interpretation of this would be that Berlin may yet complete its long and arduous journey towards the global west, including assuming responsibilities that go beyond financial and humanitarian aid. In this scenario, Scholz could be understood as a moderating force helping Germans through a profound reality shock while gently moving them towards a point where they can process the changes around them.

The obvious flipside of this is that Germany can move further west only because it failed to do so before. Thus, Scholz’s tentativeness looks like a desperate attempt to delay, if not fully prevent, decoupling from a Russia that seems unable to deliver anything but death and destruction. A Russia that must lose this war – a simple demand which Scholz, 11 months into this war, has yet to make in public.

  • Jan-Philipp Hein is a journalist based in Berlin. He writes regularly about politics for the magazine Focus, and started Ostausschuss, a podcast about Eastern Europe

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