Foto: Maxar Technologies / European Space Imaging

Weapons for Ukraine The German Government’s Hesitance over the War Is Angering Allies

Berlin has refused to go along with a gas embargo against Russia and it has been slow with weapons deliveries for Ukraine. The atrocities in Bucha are creating additional pressure for the German government to act.

A state secret. It can be seen behind the security gate of the Marie Elisabeth Lüders Building, one of the many offices in Berlin of the German parliament, the Bundestag. Mobile phones and digital watches are prohibited in parliament’s Secret Protection Unit. Anyone who wants to read confidential documents here has to turn in their notes after reading them. They are kept locked until the next visit.

Members of parliament often send their staff to the room if they have the appropriate security clearance. But the document currently displayed in the red folder is classified as being so secret by the federal government that only the parliamentarians themselves are allowed to read it.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 15/2022 (April 8th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Under no circumstances should it be disclosed what weapons and equipment German has supplied to Ukraine so far. The list last got updated on Thursday. A selection of the things listed includes: 500 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 2,700 Strela surface-to-air missiles from former East German stocks, 3,000 anti-tank guns, 100 MG 3 machine guns, 16 million rounds of ammunition for various types of hand-held weapons and hundreds of anti-tank mines.

Also: 80 armored all-terrain vehicles, 50 medical Unimog trucks, 14 pallets of medical supplies, half a million one-man packs of rations, four drone defense systems, plus night vision equipment and binoculars.

"If we do not talk publicly about the type and number of weapons supplied, there is a good reason for that," German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht of the center left Social Democrats (SPD) said on Wednesday, justifying the secrecy. "Ukraine specifically asked for that. And we’re sticking to it."

She could have guessed that Andriy Melnyk would contradict her. "That’s not true," the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany said on a popular political talk show on the public broadcaster ARD that same evening. And unfortunately, he added, there is "no open dialogue about what we need."

Melnyk knows how to put the Germans on the defensive. But sources in Lambrecht’s ministry defended their boss, saying that the Ukrainian deputy defense minister had explicitly warned against reports of arms deliveries at the end of March. That kind of information, after all, could help the Kremlin to "target its military actions more precisely."

Massive Pressure on Berlin

But by then, it was already too late. Once again, the German government had become the target of deep criticism. The Russian war against Ukraine is now entering its seventh week, and it has also left its mark on Berlin. Things are not going well for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his defense minister.

At the beginning of the war, Scholz was celebrated internationally for his speech in which he declared that the invasion was a "watershed" - and for completely reorienting German defense and foreign policy. The dramatic shift also raised hopes among Germany’s allies. Arms deliveries to Ukraine and a massive rearmament program for the Bundeswehr – it at last seemed as though the Germans were claiming a leading role for themselves in European security policy

Six weeks later, though, that elation has all but evaporated. Indeed, Scholz and his government are viewed internationally as standing in the way of more proactive steps.

The horrific images from Bucha , the reports of rape, murder and looting by Russian soldiers, but also the increasingly fascistic tones coming out of Moscow, have once again ratcheted up the pressure on Germany.

"Weapons, weapons, weapons."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba

"It is clear that Germany can do more," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said at the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday. "There will be no more Buchas," he said, adding that his country needs "weapons, weapons, weapons." Without heavy equipment, he said, Ukraine’s suffering will only be prolonged.

The fact that Germany continues to send sums of money in the three-digit millions to Russia each day for gas deliveries can perhaps still just barely be justified. An immediate suspension of Russian gas imports after decades of dependency would likely cause severe damage  to the German economy, with incalculable consequences for other European countries as well. Many allies have some understanding for Germany’s reluctance to impose radical energy sanctions, even if that recognition is painful for them.

The restraint could be offset somewhat if Germany were at the forefront of arms deliveries, but there, too, Scholz’s government is hitting the brakes.

But why? Does the government in Berlin fear that Putin might move on his own to cut Germany off from Russian gas supplies? Officials in the Chancellery are deflecting. Sources there say that such fears are not widespread. For one thing, you can’t just instantly turn off gas. Diverting it also isn’t easy and burning it off would endanger the gas fields.

Why, then, is Berlin dithering? Is it because the government, in contrast to the Brits, the Eastern Europeans and the Americans, isn’t counting on a complete victory for the Ukrainians at all? Because they assume that Putin will remain in power and Berlin will have to continue dealing with him in the future? Because Scholz, a member of the Social Democrats, has been unable to completely detach himself from his party’s disastrous love affair  with Russia, as the conservative Christian Democrats suspect?

It’s also conceivable that there’s a much simpler explanation. That the slowness in Berlin’s delivery of weapons is a product of German bureaucracy. Because the administration doesn’t like being told how quickly to act it, even in the face of a war of aggression. Because each individual delivery needs to first be carefully checked before it is released.

A visit to Armin Papperger in Düsseldorf provides more insight. The engineer is the CEO of the defense company Rheinmetall. When, immediately after the Russian invasion, the Defense Ministry asked German defense companies to please report what could be delivered quickly to Ukraine, Papperger responded promptly.

Half of the products on the list thus compiled were from Papperger's company - from digitalized, 40 millimeter grenade launchers and ground-based radars to anti-aircraft systems and field hospitals.

But Papperger would also like to supply heavy weapons systems. The Marder infantry fighting vehicle, for example, which is currently being decommissioned by Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr. The old vehicles are parked on his company’s property. The first 20 Marder could be delivered within six to eight weeks, says the Rheinmetall boss, with 50 more to be ready within five to six months. But things are apparently hung up at the Chancellery.

"The images coming out of Ukraine are enough to make you sick."

Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger

"You have to make a decision whether to help Ukraine unconditionally or not," Papperger says. "We have complete understanding for the fact that NATO doesn't want to step in and provoke a third world war," he says. "But when I see the images coming out of Ukraine, I want to puke. This is a catastrophe right in the middle of Europe."

For defense executives like Papperger, the issue seems quite simple. Ukraine is in great need and his weapons would strengthen the country, so what’s the problem? Leaving aside, for a moment, that it would also be good for business.

Just recently, the CEO says he spoke with the Australian defense minister, who has dispatched five transport aircraft to Ukraine. If the Germans hesitate, Papperger signals defiantly, he could try going through the Australians. Armored trucks, anti-tank weapons, the Marder – Rheinmetall has it all.

Not Without Problems

If only things were that simple, sources in the Chancellery say. And even if Rheinmetall wanted to make deliveries via the Australians, they would still have to be approved by the German government in advance. And such approval takes time.

The Marder example may sound good, but it also isn’t without problems. Despite its advanced age, the system is quite complex. How would the Ukrainians get the necessary training? How would spare parts be delivered? Who would take care of maintenance?

Not only that, but it would likely take months to get them ready for deployment. If Ukrainian soldiers were to end up dying because the Germans delivered junk, it wouldn't likely be Rheinmetall's problem. The government in Berlin would have to bear responsibility.

The message from the Chancellery is clear: "Why the rush?" After all, the 100 tanks in question are not decisive for the outcome of the war. They say the inquiry about the Marders first came in last Friday and that they are carefully reviewing it now. But it is already foreseeable how this review will likely end, and it doesn’t look good for Papperger.

Those close to Scholz give the impression that the chancellor isn’t interested in taking part in a race to see who can deliver the most weapons the fastest. Germany can’t win, anyway, they say. And what Germany is doing still measures up pretty well against what countries like France and Britain have contributed.

A dead body in a street in Bucha

A dead body in a street in Bucha

Foto: Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP

But will Germany’s allies be satisfied? On Tuesday, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk stood in front of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin and made a statement.

He said Germany’s Russia policy had been naive. For several years, and again in recent days, he intoned, Germany has shown hesitancy over and over again. "The images from Bucha are the result of this delay," he said.

No other government formulates its reservations about Berlin’s policy as bluntly as Warsaw. But that’s not to say that Poland is alone in its criticism. Other countries also have questions about Berlin’s attitude.

Estonia is wondering how a small Baltic republic can be providing Ukraine with more defensive materiel than big Germany? Tuuli Duneton, undersecretary of state at the Defense Ministry, uses a two-page list to enumerate what the Estonians have delivered so far: Javelin anti-tank weapons, anti-tank mines, small arms and quite a few howitzers. In addition, ammunition, protective equipment, 13 vehicles and 50,000 food packages for soldiers and a field hospital paid for by Germany. Materiel valued at 222 million euros. "Mostly lethal," Duneton says, smiling.

"Basically everything” is being delivered, and that’s the motto these days, she says. The Estonian government is disturbed by the fact that this isn’t the case in Berlin. During a recent visit to Berlin, she says she learned that 18 intermediate steps are required before any clearance can be given. In Estonia, there are only two.

"Every euro for Ukraine also protects us."

Estonian Undersecretary Tuuli Duneton

Those living just a few kilometers from the Russian border have little sympathy for German bureaucracy and delivery bottlenecks. "Every euro for Ukraine also protects us," Duneton says.

Recently, when the field hospital had to be delivered to the war zone, the Estonians lacked the means of transportation. It wasn’t Berlin that rushed to rescue, but rather the local mobility company Bolt, which also rents out e-scooters in Germany cities. The company procured eight trucks at short notice, which would drive to Ukraine and stay there. In the meantime, the government in Tallinn says, the aid has arrived without any problems.

Germany’s hesitancy is weakening Berlin’s position within the European Union. In their coalition agreement, the three parties in the federal government – the SPD, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) – claim Germany should have a leading role in Europe. But at this point, Berlin is far away from that. At the EU summit two weeks ago, Scholz was once again in the role of the brakeman. He wouldn’t agree to an oil embargo or the quick abandonment of Russian gas.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who participated in the meeting by video link, didn’t miss the opportunity to grade Scholz’s policy in front of the assembled EU leaders. He lamented that Germany’s decision to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia was "a little late." Then he called for his country to quickly become a member of the EU. The German chancellor had ruled that out a short time before. Scholz could be grateful that U.S. President Joe Biden was a guest at the summit and most of the attention went toward him.

The mass shift in German military and security policy that Scholz has pledged is at least being honored in Brussels. But the German government is weakening its own credibility with its partners by insisting that it made no mistakes before the outbreak of the war. Sources close to Scholz say that for the chancellor, the refusal to deliver weapons prior to the Russian invasion and its hesitation regarding the first sanctions had been correct and part of a well thought-out strategy. Still, both Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock apparently lack the courage to admit their own misjudgments in a way that could strengthen Germany’s position in Brussels.

In the current crisis, one politician from Germany in particular is demonstrating strength of leadership. European Commission Ursula von der Leyen had already gone public with her position on the issue of sanction several times before the member states formulated a common position. Unlike the government in Berlin, by doing so, she put pressure on member states procrastinating on a decision.

A "die-in" protest in Berlin in front of the Chancellery following the massacre in Bucha

A "die-in" protest in Berlin in front of the Chancellery following the massacre in Bucha

Foto: Florian Boillot

Economics Minister Robert Habeck has announced that Germany wants to be virtually independent of Russian oil by the end of the year. But couldn’t Berlin have proposed that idea for the entire EU? That probably wouldn’t do much to change the matter, but it would certainly shift the perception of Germany’s role.

Berlin’s hesitance also damages Germany’s image in southwestern Europe, where the Russian threat seems further away than in Poland or Lithuania. Bruno Maçães negotiated with the Germans during the euro crisis as Portugal's state secretary for European affairs. He now works as an author and consultant.

Back then, Berlin forced Southern Europe into strict austerity policies during the euro crisis that led to mass unemployment. "At the time, I learned a saying from my German colleagues," Maçães tells DER SPIEGEL. "It’s better to end in horror than to have horror without end. Whatever happened to that?"

Maçães says that Germany must be prepared now to make the kind of adjustments that the Portuguese were urged to make at the time. He says that painful reforms are needed and also a gas boycott. And that by this summer and not two or three years from now. "By then, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians could be dead."

Right now, says Maçães, the German government is looking really terrible. He argues that Berlin is constantly signally its vulnerability to Moscow, and that’s the last thing Europe needs right now. "Germany has one policy when it comes to other countries – and a totally different one when it comes to its own interests," he says.

The schadenfreude over the difficult position  Berlin has placed itself in is barely concealed in the countries that were affected by the Germans’ tough stance during the euro crisis. In Greece, former Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos is getting quoted a lot these days. Around three decades ago, he once mocked that Germany is "has the strength of a giant and the mind of a child." He later had to apologize for it.

In Athens, it has been pointed out that Germany has placed economic interests before its own principles in its relations with Russia. And Europe is now paying the price for it.

At the same time, the German government is not as isolated on the issue of energy sanctions as some partners like to portray it. In Berlin, there are complaints that some EU countries are encouraging the Germans behind closed doors not to budge on the issue of an oil and gas embargo. But speaking to their own domestic press, they then demand tough action against Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, publicly supports an oil embargo. But during a confidential meeting with his counterparts from the other EU countries, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire warned of a rise in oil prices shortly afterward, according to participants. He said that would be dangerous because of the resentment the development would likely stir among the public.

There are reservations in numerous countries about banning energy imports from Russia. Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria would be unable to replace supplies from Russia in the short term. Italy covers 42 percent of its total demand for gas through Russia, with around 30 billion cubic meters coming from the country each year.

Still, calling others out for their inconsistencies isn’t really going to help Germany much in Brussels. If you want to lead, you don’t complain about others hiding behind you.

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