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Tanks But No Tanks

Original illustration by Kennice Pan '23, an Illustration major at RISD

Germany’s doctrine of de-escalation and demilitarization had deep roots. Then, Russia invaded Ukraine. Speaking before the German Bundestag, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Russia’s war in Ukraine placed Europe at a Zeitenwende—a turning point in history. The Bundestag agreed on a major increase in military spending, a reversal of Germany’s decades-long cautious defense policy. Though the vast majority of Germans support Ukraine in the war, many believe that delivering high-tech weapons to Ukraine will only inflame the conflict. Germany should come to terms with the fact that good relations with Russia are not compatible with Scholz’s commitment to “fight the forces of fascism, authoritarianism, and imperialism.”

Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has long had a special relationship with Russia. Former West German Chancellor and SPD leader Willy Brandt is associated with the Ostpolitik of the 1960s and 1970s, when Germany reached out to the Soviet-occupied nations of Central and Eastern Europe to normalize diplomatic relations. The SPD at the time declared the importance of “change through rapprochement.” Increased economic cooperation led to the construction of a first pipeline providing Siberian gas to Germany in the 1970s. By 2021, Germany was sourcing 55 percent of its gas imports from Russia. As allies increasingly criticized Germany’s dependence on Russian energy, former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, considered a close friend of Putin’s, advocated for the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. He has consistently declined to denounce the Russian president.

Despite significant pressure, Russia has not given up on its imperialist ambitions, nor has the country transitioned to a more tolerant and democratic regime. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea in 2014, and was responsible for contract killings in Berlin and London. Since the Minsk Agreement, Russia increased its military presence in the Donbas region and Crimea, while Ukraine was denied adequate military assistance by NATO. Just before the war, the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was still underway, even after objections from the United States and European countries who feared the implications of German dependency on Russian gas.

Germany has long avoided sending lethal weapons to war zones. Scholz’s pattern of caution may be an attempt to appeal to SPD voters, many of whom are uncomfortable with German weapons being used on the offensive in a region where German arms took the lives of millions in World War II. Additionally, the center-left SPD and its largest coalition partner, the Green Party, have strong pacifist wings that they must cater to. In a speech in the late 1980s, Scholz himself stated that, “Peace cannot be achieved by military means.”

Even so, it was Scholz’s coalition partners, the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), who advocated for the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and were exasperated by the chancellor’s unclear position on the question of their procurement. FDP politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann described Scholz’s communication as “catastrophic,” while Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock affirmed in an interview that Germany knows “how important [Leopard 2 tanks] are to Ukraine.”

Scholz made grand declarations that Germany would upgrade its military and support the war effort against Russia. Yet, his reluctance to take on a more central role in European security has made Germany look like anything but a strong partner for Ukraine. In April, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was scheduled to visit Ukraine with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. However, the Ukrainian government disinvited Steinmeier, citing his closeness to Russia. The perception that Germany is always one step behind its allies in helping Ukraine could isolate Berlin and put Ukraine in jeopardy as Kyiv reckons with the Russian spring offensive.

Scholz’s insistence that the United States deliver M1 Abrams tanks reflects Germany’s reliance on the United States for security in Europe. Of course, the country should make decisions in consultation with its NATO allies, but while Germany was still negotiating with the United States, countries like Poland, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Spain had already publicly announced their willingness to send tanks to Ukraine. Against this backdrop, Germany’s export of the Leopard 2 would not be the escalation that Scholz seems to suggest. Moreover, Germany has no reason to fear that the United States will abandon Europe in aiding Ukraine considering that the US is currently the largest weapons exporter to Ukraine and has an interest in limiting Russia’s international influence.

By constantly backtracking on his statements and excluding certain weapons—most recently, fighter jets—from arms exports, Scholz is not doing himself any favors. His government owes it to the German people and the international community to explain what his plan really is. When then-Federal Minister of Defense Christine Lambrecht offered to deliver a lackluster 5,000 helmets to the battlefront, most Germans were not expecting to send tanks and ammunition to Ukraine a few short months later. The chancellor’s communication failures over weeks-long back-and-forths have overshadowed the fact that Germany is now the third-largest donor of military aid to Ukraine, alongside Poland.

Of course, the entire world hopes the war will swiftly come to an end. However, we cannot forget that the objective of sending military support to Ukraine is to bring Ukraine into a position in which they can negotiate with Russia on equal footing. A ceasefire at this time would be coupled with the suspension of weapon exports to Ukraine, giving Russian troops time to get back on their feet and strike back with renewed vigor. German politicians calling for a quick diplomatic end to the war are ignoring the tragic reality of millions of Ukrainians: Civilian killings like the Bucha massacre show that a ceasefire would not mean a return to normal. Ukrainians’ refusal to seriously consider loss of territory as a diplomatic solution is an act of solidarity with the people who lost their lives at the hands of Putin, as well as with the millions of people forced to flee their homeland who deserve to return safely.

Germans must abandon the idea of a special relationship with Russia. Ultimately, Putin leads an authoritarian regime with imperialist ambitions that is content to see a fragile and reluctant Germany with a perpetual fear of conflict. Germany’s dependency on the United States for security and on Russia for energy makes it look weak. As Scholz has yet to explicitly state that Russia must lose the war, he should accept, once and for all, that Germany cannot seek good relations with an aggressive Russia in the foreseeable future.