An "Unreliable Partner"? The Price of Berlin's Hesitancy on Ukraine

Germany is sending 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, but that's it. Many of Berlin's NATO allies, including the U.S., are unimpressed, and there are a number of voices within the Green Party that agree.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov

Foto: Janine Schmitz / photothek / IMAGO

"Berlin, we have a problem." That was how Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, began a confidential dispatch she sent to the German Foreign Ministry on Monday. The memo went on to provide a detailed description of how Germany is being discredited in the United States as an "unreliable partner," due to its reticence  in the Ukraine crisis. The media, she wrote, isn’t alone in seeing Berlin as a brake when it comes to sanctions, the U.S. Congress does as well. In addition, Berlin’s blocking of weapons deliveries to Kyiv has also been a source of frustration. Washington, Haber wrote, believes that Germany’s position is born of a desire to continue procuring cheap natural gas from Russia.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 5/2022 (January 29th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Haber is not known for having weak nerves. She has held a number of top posts and been through several crises. In her Monday dispatch, though, she wrote that Germany is becoming a pawn in the domestic political debate in Washington. The Republicans, in particular, she informed her diplomat colleagues in Berlin, are increasingly saying that Berlin is "in bed with Putin." That formulation, she wrote, is primarily aimed at U.S. President Joe Biden, who has sought to coordinate closely with allies in this crisis. But, Haber intimated, the damage to Berlin could nonetheless be "immense."

The upshot is that Germany is once again in a position it so often occupies in foreign policy crises: sitting on the sidelines and the object of distrust. It is a return to a foreign-policy discipline that Berlin has honed for years: the careful and delicate tightrope walk of accountability. Germany wants to avoid muddying the waters with Russia, yet hopes to live up to its responsibilities within the Western alliance. It wants to support Ukraine, but hopes to guarantee its gas supplies. And then there is the country’s postwar pacifist tradition to worry about.

Given all those competing interests, it’s difficult to cut a good figure. Berlin is sending 5,000 combat helmets to Ukraine, which seems like a joke, but the German government has also so far prevented the delivery of East Germany-era howitzers from Estonia, which is only allowed to send the weapons to Kyiv with German approval. Berlin is dancing on eggshells, and running the risk of destroying relations with everyone. The Social Democrats (SPD), the party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the leader of Germany’s three-party governing coalition, seem especially unconcerned about the Russian threat and the problems described by Emily Haber.

"We Don't Deliver Lethal Weapons"

On Tuesday, foreign policy experts from the SPD parliamentary group met with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party, and they were full of praise afterwards – in part, no doubt, because Baerbock expressed opposition to weapons deliveries. Participants say Baerbock even expressed extreme reticence about the East German howitzers.

Such an approach is consistent with the SPD’s current position on weapons deliveries. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL on Tuesday, SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil invoked the coalition deal, which forbids deliveries of weapons to crisis regions. Such principles, he said, "shouldn’t be violated in the first conflict."

This position is uncontroversial among SPD lawmakers. Weapons deliveries would "merely exacerbate the conflict," warns Adis Ahmetovic, an SPD parliamentarian who focuses on foreign policy.

"We don’t deliver lethal weapons, that’s not going to change," says Michael Roth, an SPD member and chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. "Reducing the necessary solidarity with Ukraine to this issue alone is unjustified given the concrete help Germany has supplied for years to assist Ukraine with democracy, the rule of law, the economy and the environment."

Indeed, when it comes to the Ukraine crisis, the only controversy within the SPD is on the question of what the fundamental approach to Putin’s Russia should be. Should the party adopt the cuddly approach  practiced by Gerhard Schröder, the last SPD chancellor of Germany, who has since gone on to become a Putin acolyte? Or should the party take a more robust and distanced route? DER SPIEGEL has learned that Klingbeil has called a confidential meeting of senior SPD members for Monday. Participants are to include foreign policy experts within the party, state governors, former party chair Martin Schulz, parliamentary group leader Ralf Mützenich and the party’s EU liaison Katarina Barley.

The goal of the meeting is apparently that of exploring a new approach to the east and of reconciling the two intra-party camps on the Russian question. Additional meetings are being planned. "We can’t keep having the same debates," says a source in the party.

It’s a tune the Greens could sing as well. The party may be broadly unified when it comes to how to approach Russia, but it is divided when it comes to weapons delivery.

Green Party foreign policy specialist Jürgen Trittin

Green Party foreign policy specialist Jürgen Trittin


M. Popow / imago images/Metodi Popow

Perhaps the loudest Green voice at the moment belongs to Jürgen Trittin, the foreign policy spokesman of his party’s parliamentary group and a powerful representative of the Green’s left wing. "We remain committed a restrictive arms policy. And that policy holds: No weapons for armed conflicts," Trittin says. That commitment, he adds, doesn’t change "in a difficult phase of talks and negotiations. Anything else would be dangerous symbolic politics."

One reason that Trittin’s voice carries so much weight at the moment is that many other senior party members are not currently in a position to raise objections, even if they had them. Franziska Brantner, an expert within the party on European affairs, is currently serving as parliamentary state secretary in the Economics Ministry, while Tobias Lindner, a defense policy specialist, is serving as minister of state in the Foreign Ministry. As such, both are bound to the government line. Omid Nouripour, meanwhile, a foreign policy specialist within the party, is running to become party chair, which has made him more reticent.

The Door to Diplomacy

The result is that the Green Party's parliamentary group has not produced much in the way of divergent viewpoints, preferring instead to repeat the sentence: We stand behind the foreign minister. And she has voiced her opposition to weapons deliveries. Germany, say Green parliamentarians, must continue to play the moderator role and refrain from closing the door to diplomacy.

It is foreseeable, however, that the party’s unity may soon be a thing of the past. Green Party co-leader Robert Habeck , who is serving as economy minister and vice chancellor in the Scholz government, has never abandoned his demand made during the campaign last fall that defensive weapons be delivered to Ukraine. And among Green Party members of the European Parliament, there are a number of voices that are critical of Trittin’s course. In Brussels, the loyalty to Berlin is less pronounced, while the perspectives of partner states are far more present.

According to an analysis from Green Party foreign policy expert Reinhard Bütikofer: "When some pointed critics of Germany speak of appeasement of Russia, they unfortunately aren’t always wrong." It is currently correct for the German government to resist sending weapons to Ukraine, he believes, but if Putin "were in fact to send his troops into Ukraine, we in Germany would have to be prepared to come up with a different answer to that question pursuant to our responsibilities."

"It would be good for the German government to reconsider its position on the issue."

Viola von Cramon, European parliamentarian from the German Green Party

European parliamentarian Sergey Lagodinsky says: "It is a credit to the Green Party that the German government has intensified its threat of sanctions against Moscow in the event of an attack." But he calls on his party to show more openness to weapons deliveries. It is a position he has voiced on several occasions, including in comments to DER SPIEGEL last week. Fellow Green Party MEP Viola von Cramon is more direct: "It would be good for the German government to reconsider its position on the issue," she says. If NATO is going to deny Ukraine membership, then the alliance should at least help the country defend itself, she adds.

The Growing Threat

But would it change anything? At the beginning of this week, one of the more conservative Western intelligence agencies counted 56 Russian battalions of up to 800 troops each within 300 kilometers of the border. Other agencies believe the number is even higher.

Russia has assembled everything "necessary to wage a real war," says one member of a Western intelligence agency, and has "an entire array of military possibilities" at its disposal. The Russian army, the intelligence agent points out, has been modernized and has also amassed battlefield experience in operations such as the one in Syria. Moscow, the agent continues, has demonstrated that it can both escalate and ease conflicts. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, doesn’t have a chance against the Russian force, the Western intelligence agent believes, especially because of Russia’s superiority in the air. And weapons from the West aren’t likely to change that calculus, meaning such deliveries would be little more than symbolic.

But symbolic gestures are also important. Such a move would demonstrate to Putin that the West is unified. And the allies would see that Germany is a reliable partner – even if Berlin continually insists that Berlin’s reliability is not in doubt, that Germany is working closely together with the U.S. and that it has not been confronted with criticism. Berlin, according to the German government, doesn’t, in fact, have a problem, no matter what Emily Haber might think.

The biggest problem, of course, is that nobody knows what Putin is planning. It is likely, Western intelligence agencies believe, that he doesn’t even know himself. His activities, they say, have always been characterized by a significant degree of unpredictability.

One scenario considered realistic by Western intelligence is that the Russian president believes he is only taken seriously when he ratchets up the pressure. As such, it is in his interest to assume a threatening stance. According to this scenario, a largescale attack on Ukraine isn’t likely.

A competing scenario, however, holds that Putin knows that he won’t get what he is asking for, and is thus willing to take what he wants by force of arms. Some within NATO are concerned that his offensive, if it comes to that, won’t be limited to a couple of regions in Ukraine’s east. The capacities that Russia has built up, they believe, are aimed at taking Ukraine in its entirety.

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