Aaron Gasch Burnett

Is Germany already backsliding on Russia?

Is Germany already backsliding on Russia?
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Just three weeks after Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would directly arm Ukraine, Europe’s economic powerhouse is running out of weapons to send. 'We’re delivering Stingers. We’re delivering Strelas. The Defence Minister has looked at what we can deliver but honesty also requires us to say: we don’t have enough,' Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told the Bundestag last week. 'If we could conjure up more weapons to send, then we would.'

Scholz then appeared to revert to an old German habit: trumpeting the importance of diplomacy as an end in itself. In the very same tweet in which he thanked Ukraine’s war-time President Volodymyr Zelensky for his speech to the Bundestag last week, he said that Germany was committed to giving 'diplomacy a chance to end the war'. There was nothing on what concessions might be demanded from Russia. Now reports suggest German officials are keen to pause the ramping up of sanctions on Russia to ‘review the effect of the sanctions imposed so far’.

Germany has historically been more likely than most European powers to cede to Putin’s demands. A pre-invasion poll in February found that 51 per cent of Germans were in favour of a Nato 'security guarantee' to Russia to avoid further escalation. Although not explicitly spelt out in the poll, in practice this would have meant barring Ukraine from ever becoming an alliance member. Nato countries had already unanimously rejected one such Russian demand that Ukraine be banned in January. Normal Germans feel an almost pathological aversion to war, while the former GDR retained a pro-Russian psychology decades after the Berlin Wall fell. There is also a more immediate concern: Germany is perhaps more exposed to disruptions of Russian gas than any other major European nation. Although Scholz cancelled the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, existing infrastructure is still in use – with Germany reluctant to expand EU sanctions to include Russian energy.

Germany has spent much of its post-Cold War history behaving like a kind of big Switzerland. Its political and business elites have championed a belief in Wandel durch Handel or 'change through trade'. The theory was that, with greater economic integration, Germany’s trading partners would eventually adopt liberal democratic values. In reality, businesses and governments often used the phrase as an excuse to prioritise trade over all other considerations. Nord Stream 2 continued construction even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, while Angela Merkel was accused of holding off on criticising China due to Volkswagen’s plant in Xinjiang – the very province where the Chinese government is interning Uyghurs in camps.

With the invasion now fully underway, is there a danger that Germany might revert back to appeasement in the interest of restarting its commercial interests? Despite Scholz’s apparent wavering, the German public seems to be fully behind the return of an active international policy. In January, 73 per cent of Germans were against arming Ukraine. Now 78 per cent agree with sending weapons. Views have changed rapidly too on whether Ukraine should join Nato and the EU, with a plurality now backing accession. 'We underestimated Putin for a long time,' Angela Merkel’s diplomatic adviser Christoph Heusgen said on Sunday night.

But while German opinion may have changed overnight, that doesn’t mean the country’s capabilities have. The new centre-left government has barely been in power for 100 days, but it is now tasked with no less than totally overhauling German security and defence culture. Germany suffers from both underfunding of its military and a battered reputation in eastern Europe – two problems that will take years to fix. Zelensky, who has addressed US, UK, Canadian and German legislators, reserved some of his harshest criticism for members of the Bundestag.

'We always said Nord Stream 2 was a weapon and preparation for a great war. But we always got an answer that it was "business, business, business",' he said. Although Ukrainian opinions of Germany have improved recently, they are still well behind the goodwill currently exhibited for Poland, Lithuania, and the UK. Around 86 per cent of Ukrainians see Britain as an ally, compared to 57 per cent for Germany.

Berlin’s security experts are now working overtime to figure out how to spend the €100 billion Scholz has assigned to modernising the military – to say nothing of the government’s plans to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. But it is already trying to help Ukraine indirectly, stationing its own air defence systems with eastern Nato allies so that they, in turn, can send more arms to Ukraine. In the meantime, Germany’s most significant change remains its shift in security mindset.

'Today, our children ask us over breakfast, over lunch, over dinner, whether the war will come to us here in Germany,' Baerbock said during the launch of the new national security strategy last week. 'We are experiencing a longing that we have probably not felt for a long time, that my generation has perhaps never really felt: a longing for security.' War in Ukraine may well have woken Germany up. But the main question is whether such sentiment will endure. After years of taking peace in Europe for granted, there are still a lot of old habits to break.