Ukraine’s list of demands towards Germany is straightforward: it wants Berlin to stand up to Russia. With tens of thousands of Russian troops stationed on Ukraine's border, its plea is urgent. It is just a matter of time before this week's Russian-American security talks in Geneva end in a diplomatic stalemate. When that happens, an invasion could be imminent. But there's bad news for Kiev: Berlin is in no position to help.
In an interview with the German press, Kiev’s man in Berlin, Andriy Melnyk, urged Angela Merkel’s successor to intervene quickly. Among Melnyk’s list of demands are arms supplies, ‘massive military support’, admission of Ukraine into the EU and Nato, as well as ‘a final end to Nord Stream 2’. Kiev’s ambassador attempted to put force behind these demands by evoking the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. He claimed the country had ‘the same responsibility to Ukraine that it has to Israel.’
Melnyk's rather stark approach to diplomacy is sure to end in disappointment. After all, Germany cannot be guilt-tripped into a decision it isn’t in a position to make for. Over the last two decades, Germany has allowed itself to drift into a place from which it can't act in Eastern Europe without consulting Russia first, a situation as historically evocative as Kiev's reminders of Nazi crimes in Ukraine.
Supplying arms to Ukraine would require a paradigm shift for Germany’s new chancellor Olaf Scholz. Under his predecessor, the country blocked Nato shipments of weapons to Ukraine referring to its War Weapons Control Act which bans arms sales where there is a danger that the supplied weapons might be used ‘in actions that disturb the peace, particularly in offensive wars.’
If Germany did not reevaluate this policy under a conservative government, it is even less likely to do so under the new coalition led by the Social Democrats, whose last chancellor Gerhard Schröder has long been a friend of Vladimir Putin’s. Schröder initiated the controversial Nord Stream 2 project and remains the chairman of its shareholders’ committee. He has repeatedly called for closer ties with Moscow and strongly condemns what he calls ‘Russia-bashing’. While it is not yet clear whether Scholz will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, he was certainly happy enough to continue his policies under Merkel as her vice-chancellor.
It's true that Scholz’s coalition relies heavily on the Green party, which is more hawkish when it comes to Russia. The party's leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck have been given key roles in the German government and they have used these positions to put pressure on the Kremlin. Baerbock stood side by side with Antony Blinken when the US Secretary of State warned that Nord Stream 2 ‘does not have gas flowing through it at present and if Russia renews its aggression toward Ukraine, it would certainly be difficult to see gas flowing through it in the future'. Habeck, too, has called the pipeline a ‘geopolitical mistake’.
But it remains unlikely that Scholz's government will come to Ukraine's rescue. Why? Because the German Greens hold fast to their pacifist tradition. Habeck found that out in May last year when he came back from a visit to Ukraine and announced that he would support arms sales to Kiev. This resulted in a sharp rebuke from his co-leader and the party for breaking their manifesto. More recently, Baerbock was asked in an interview if she rejected ‘the idea of arms supplies of any kind to Ukraine’. She answered that ‘further military escalation wouldn’t bring Ukraine greater security.’
While the Greens' leading lights might talk tough on Russia, their top priority (inevitably) is environmentalism. By the end of 2022, Germany will have closed its remaining three nuclear reactors; with coal set to be phased out by 2030, natural gas remains the only real supplement to renewables. As Germany currently buys over half of its gas from Russia and has asked the EU to class this as ‘Green’, one can safely assume that this is a long-term policy as per their coalition treaty with Scholz. Germany's energy policy has long manoeuvred the country into Russian dependency and the Greens have neither the intention nor the means to change this, irrespective of their professed support for Kiev.
The third coalition partner, the Free Liberals, also do not have a track record that will make Putin reconsider his actions. The party's leader Christian Lindner made headlines in 2017 when he called for the annexation of Crimea to be treated as a ‘permanent provisional solution.’
With German politicians unlikely to jump to Ukraine's defence, perhaps Melnyk is hoping to increase domestic pressure on them? If so, he is seriously misjudging the mood. Gerhard Schröder has always maintained that the German people agree with his pro-Russian stance. Most surveys bear this out. In a recent poll, nearly two thirds of respondents said they wished for closer relations between Russia and the EU; only 17 per cent want to see the cancellation of Nord Stream 2. The freshly-elected government need not fear much domestic upheaval if they continue on their appeasement trajectory towards Moscow.
Through its energy policy and general diplomatic fence-sitting, Germany has manoeuvred itself into an impossible position. It wants to be a strong security partner of the West while looking East for trade and wealth. It wants to be nuclear-free and coal-free yet retain stable energy supplies with no strings attached. It wants to protect Europe’s eastern borders yet it cannot do so without jeopardising its own interests. The decisions made and not made over recent years are catching up with Germany. As Merkel's chickens are coming home to roost, Scholz would need a lot of courage to stop them.