Where Is Germany in the Ukraine Standoff? Its Allies Wonder.
Germany’s allies have begun to question what price Berlin is prepared to pay to deter Russia, and even its reliability as an ally, as it wavers on tough measures.
Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline in Opytna, in the Donetsk Region, on Monday.
Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline in Opytna, in the Donetsk Region, on Monday. Credit... Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Published Jan. 25, 2022
Updated Jan. 26, 2022, 2:57 a.m. ET
BERLIN — The United States and its NATO allies are moving to bulk up their military commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe as the standoff with Russia over Ukraine deepens.
Denmark is sending fighter jets to Lithuania and a frigate to the Baltic Sea. France has offered to send troops to Romania. Spain is sending a frigate to the Black Sea. President Biden has put thousands of U.S. troops on “high alert.”
And then there is Germany. In recent days Germany — Europe’s largest and richest democracy, strategically situated at the crossroads between East and West — has stood out more for what it will not do than for what it is doing.
No European country matters more to European unity and the Western alliance. But as Germany struggles to overcome its post-World War II reluctance to lead on security matters in Europe and set aside its instinct to accommodate rather than confront Russia, Europe’s most pivotal country has waffled in the first crucial test for the new government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Germany’s evident hesitation to take forceful measures has fueled doubts about its reliability as an ally — reversing the dynamic with the United States in recent years — and added to concerns that Moscow could use German wavering as a wedge to divide a united European response to any Russian aggression.
President Biden held a video call with European leaders on Monday night, saying it went “very, very, very” well, and beforehand Chancellor Scholz reiterated that Russia would suffer “high costs” in case of a military intervention. But Germany’s allies have still been left to wonder what cost it is prepared to bear to confront possible Russian aggression.
The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in Berlin this month. Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats have traditionally favored a policy of working with the Russians.
The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in Berlin this month. Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats have traditionally favored a policy of working with the Russians. Credit... Michael Kappeler/DPA, via Associated Press
“Within the European Union Germany is crucial to achieve unity,” said Norbert Röttgen, a senior conservative lawmaker and advocate of a more muscular German foreign policy. “Putin’s goal is to split the Europeans, and then split Europe and the U.S. If the impression prevails that Germany is not fully committed to a strong NATO response, he will have succeeded in paralyzing Europe and dividing the alliance.”
As Russia held military drills near the Ukrainian border on Tuesday, Mr. Scholz met with President Emmanuel Macron of France in Berlin, warning Moscow that “a military aggression calling into question the territorial integrity of Ukraine would have grave consequences.”
But the German government has not only ruled out any arms exports to Ukraine — it is also holding up a shipment of nine Communist-era howitzers from Estonia to Ukraine.
Mr. Scholz and other senior Social Democrats in his government and party have been vague about whether shuttering the controversial Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany would be part of an arsenal of possible sanctions against Russia, insisting it was a “private -sector project” and one “separate” from Ukraine.
Friedrich Merz, the designated new leader of Angela Merkel’s opposition conservative party, meanwhile, has warned against excluding Russian banks from the Swift payment transactions network, which handles global financial transfers because it would “harm” Germany’s economic interests.
Germany’s muddled stance has been especially unsettling to Ukraine and some of Germany’s eastern neighbors. The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, accused Berlin of effectively “encouraging” Russian aggression. Other were no less scathing.
A satellite image showing battle groups and a vehicle park in Yelny, Russia, last week.
A satellite image showing battle groups and a vehicle park in Yelny, Russia, last week. Credit... Maxar Technologies/EPA, via Shutterstock
“Berlin is making a big strategic mistake and putting its reputation at risk,” Laurynas Kasčiūnas, chairman of the national security committee of the Lithuanian Parliament told the public broadcaster LRT.
Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s defense minister, said these days German deterrence was “not sending weapons to Ukraine, but a field hospital.”
The strain in the alliance came to a head last weekend when the chief of the German Navy said that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia deserved “respect” and that Crimea would “never” be returned to Ukraine. Vice Adm. Kay-Achim Schönbach, resigned, but the backlash was swift and emotional.
“This patronizing attitude subconsciously also reminds Ukrainians of the horrors of the Nazi occupation, when Ukrainians were treated as subhuman,” said Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany.
Washington has been at pains to publicly stress its trust in Berlin, while privately lobbying Mr. Scholz to take a harder line.
President Biden sent several emissaries to Berlin. William J. Burns, head of the C.I.A., presented the chancellor with the latest intelligence on Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who stopped in Berlin before meeting his Russian counterpart in Geneva last week, said on Sunday he had “no doubts” over Germany’s determination to stand up to Russia.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of Germany, center left, met Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, center right, last week in Berlin.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of Germany, center left, met Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, center right, last week in Berlin. Credit... Pool photo by Kay Nietfeld
“It is telling that the U.S. has to publicly reaffirm its trust in Germany,” Jana Puglierin of the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations said. “That used to be a given.”