So now Germany actually is planning on delivering military equipment to Ukraine. Five-thousand helmets. Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht would like that to be interpreted as a "clear signal" that Germany "is standing side-by-side with Ukraine."
The fact that Berlin is sending this signal with the delivery of helmets (Kyiv ordered 100,000) seems more than a little clumsy. Thus far, the German government’s performance in the Ukraine crisis has been rather mixed, to put it mildly. As soon as potential sanctions, much less weapons deliveries, are up for discussion, the German tri-party coalition falls into a rather irksome state of diffidence.
That hasn’t just raised questions in Kyiv about Germany’s reliability, but also among Berlin’s Western allies. The helmets are intended to assuage those doubts.
The problem, though, is that they won’t. Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t likely to find a delivery of 5,000 helmets to be particularly impressive. Especially when the German government continues to prevent other countries from helping Ukraine defend itself. Within NATO, Germany has blocked the acquisition of sniper rifles for Ukraine, while Estonia is still waiting for Berlin to approve its delivery of East German-era howitzers to Kyiv.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Secretary Annalena Baerbock have invoked the German constitution, which prohibits the country from delivering weapons to warzones. There are good reasons for that provision. Weapons can contribute to exacerbating a conflict, and they can fall into the wrong hands, as happened in Afghanistan following the recent victory of the Taliban. The position is also supported by a majority of German voters.
But in certain situations, political principles can lead to the wrong results, even if they are fundamentally correct. When Islamic State threatened to overrun Kurdish territory in northern Iraq in 2014, the German military equipped Peshmerga fighters with anti-tank missiles, an important contribution to stopping the Islamist advance. It broke a taboo, as then-Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen openly admitted. But it was nevertheless the correct move.
From the perspective of Scholz and Baerbock, however, the situation in Ukraine does not justify a repeat of that breach. The line of argumentation from Berlin holds that doing so would provide no military benefits and would destroy lines of communication with Moscow. That position, however, is wrong on several levels.
A delivery of weapons from Germany may very well be largely meaningless from a military perspective. Politically, however, it would send a message to Putin that the West stands unified in the face of his threats. It would underscore Europe’s collective desire to defend itself against a brand of power politics that ignores international law. Nobody knows if a delivery of weapons to Ukraine would be enough to prevent a war. It is, however, certain that disunity makes war more likely.
The German coalition government claims to play a leadership role in Europe. But while France and the U.S. are pursuing a mixture of firmness and dialogue in an effort to force Putin to change course, Berlin sees itself as being primarily responsible for dialogue. That is in line with the pacifist tradition Germany has developed since World War II, but it is not consistent with its leadership ambitions.
On top of that comes the decades-old conviction within Germany’s Social Democratic Party, to which the chancellor belongs, that it enjoys privileged access to the mindset of the Kremlin. What, though, does Scholz hope to discuss with Putin? The list of ultimatums Russia has presented to the West is not an offer to negotiate, but a demand that the West capitulate. How would a delivery of weapons stall negotiations that Putin isn’t even interested in pursuing?
The Social Democrats are quick to point to the suffering that Germany visited upon Russia in World War II. They do not, though, talk at all about the suffering visited upon Ukraine and other countries that belonged to the Soviet Union.
The Greens of Annalena Baerbock are much more decisive. They harbor a significant amount of sympathy for a country that is fighting for democracy and self-determination, even if it is still partly run by oligarchs. Olaf Scholz’s vice chancellor, Robert Habeck of the Green Party , encouraged the sale of weapons to Ukraine half a year ago. That was during the election campaign, and Baerbock, who was the party’s candidate for chancellor, quickly buried the issue. But she has also said she intends to modernize her party’s approach to foreign policy. This would be a prime opportunity to do so.
Whatever it does, Germany should not prevent its partners from delivering weapons to Ukraine. That doesn’t necessarily translate to a reversal of its strict guidelines governing weapons exports. The principle of restraint remains fundamentally correct. It is wrong, however, to use that principle as an excuse to do nothing.
Editor's note: In an earlier English version of this story, Federal Foreign Minister Baerbock was erroneously referred to as Minister of Defence.