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German Foreign Policy Reluctance and NATO’s Strategic Goals

An understanding of German foreign policy reluctance and its impact on NATO’s strategic goals towards Ukraine

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Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine back in February of 2022, NATO states have become the material backbone of Ukraine’s military. From millions of rounds of ammunition to combat vehicles, there has been a steady upward scaling of weapons systems. A request from Ukraine last year for battle tanks quickly turned into a major point of contention within NATO. For the following months, Germany engaged in a policy of reluctance that saw the government reject the initial Ukrainian request, only to double down in its efforts to support the Ukrainian war efforts. On January 25th, German Chancellor Olaf Schultz spoke to the country’s federal parliament to formally announce that his government had agreed to send Leopard II tanks to Ukraine. On paper, the announcement marked a temporary end of indecision that was the center of debate within European security and foreign policy circles. Although the Schultz government bent its knee to the request, hesitancy is becoming a concerning cornerstone within the German foreign policy framework in regard to its perception of Russia and the war in Ukraine. If unchecked, the continuation of this mindset could spiral into a future strategic disaster for NATO.

Initial Reaction

The Russian invasion of Ukraine created shockwaves within Europe. Germany was part of the European consensus in condemning the unprovoked invasion. Olaf Schultz, only in the second month of his chancellorship, gave a historic speech  in which he described the invasion as Zeitenwende, or ‘turning point’ in English. Zeitenwende not only characterized the shift in European affairs, but also seemed to indicate a transformation in German foreign and defense policy. As a result, the Social Democrat government, who usually opposed attempts to make military spending 2% of Germany’s GDP, would now be committed to increasing the country’s defense spending and turning the country into a geopolitical powerhouse against Russia, while supporting the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

In conjunction with this new commitment, Germany agreed to send billions of euros to Ukraine, provide lethal and humanitarian aid and sanction the Russian regime. But with Ukraine appealing for heavier military equipment, German authorities have begun to question and even stall in its promises. The request for tanks has highlighted the reality of what Zeitenwende truly means and triggered the reemergence of an underlying sympathy for Russia.

German-Russian Historic Relationship

To understand why German reluctance exists in the first place, historical context must be analyzed. From the establishments of Prussia and the Russian Empire in the first half of the 18th century all the way to the emergence of a unified Germany in the latter half of the 19th century, the two nations fostered a cyclical relationship. During this time, politically and culturally, the two empires became increasingly intertwined through migration, trade, and monarchical ties. The two World Wars caused a dip in this circular connection, in which the two countries were distrustful and hateful towards each other. The Cold War era reintroduced a stable and even symbiotic relationship. East Germany became heavily dependent on the USSR’s security and economic apparatus while West Germany adopted Ostpolitik, a foreign policy that sought normalization of relations with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact states, to seek out cooperation with the eastern hegemon. Thus, Ostpolitik would become the status quo foreign policy even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany in 1991.

Modern Day Institutional and Public Perception

Stemming from history, German perspectives and general hesitation can be grouped into three major camps: energy and trade, guilt and fear of escalation, and Russian influence. First, unlike many western and NATO states, West Germany’s Ostpolitik allowed the country to build energy infrastructure and trade with Russia in order to receive natural gas. Over time, the abandonment of coal and nuclear energy in Germany meant that they would become heavily dependent on Russian gas, as seen with the Nord Stream projects. Additionally, Germany fluctuated between being Russia’s second or third largest trading partnerprior to 2022. With the outbreak of the war and subsequent sanctioning and reduction of trade volume, anger and fear has seeped into German homes and political circles. The possibility of potential breakdowns in energy infrastructure and a potential future recession has led to greater discontent towards supporting Ukraine.

Second, the atrocities of the Nazi regime produced a collective guilt among the Germans. Historical discourses within Germany, such as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, permeated into foreign policy and created a pacifist tradition. A principle in which the German government would never agree to sending arms to active conflict zones aided this tradition. With the war in Ukraine and the implementation of Zeitenwende, interventionism is gradually replacing pacifism. The idea of German bullets and tanks rolling into the Dnipro upland has created worrying images and reminders of the Nazi brutal conquest of the Ukrainian region eighty years ago and the potentiality of further escalation. As a result, political parties who are vehemently pacifist, such as the Greens and Die Linke, have become vocal in anti-war messaging and policy, even holding rallies and protests against armament efforts. 

Lastly, the growing anti-war sentiment has been supported by a campaign of Russian influence. The rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has coincided with the acceptance of pro-Russian views, such as the idea that NATO expansion is the main driver of the war. Russian-Germans who lived in the former DDR have been susceptible to greater misinformation, which has led to various demonstrations and the creation of the revisionist Reichsbürger movement. On an institutional level, AfD politicians, such as Markus Frohmaier, have financial and political connections with the Kremlin. As a result, the AfD and right wing parties have opposed Russian sanctions and other measures. Even former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is a major shareholder and board member of various Russian gas companies, has refused to criticize Putin. Although much of the German population condemns Russia’s invasion, the pro-Russian vocal minority is transforming into a major foreign policy obstacle. 

Impact on Transatlantic Strategy

The continual development of German hesitation has a huge risk on not only the future of German foreign policy, but overall transatlantic strategic goals. Support for Ukraine is crucial in order to prevent Russian expansion, especially in Moldova or Georgia. As the war goes on, Ukraine will need full backing from NATO states. NATO weapon shipments, money, training, and intelligence is Ukraine’s lifeline. With Germany being the largest economy in Europe and a major global power, a minimal or complete withdrawal of support would be devastating. Not only does it mean that Germany is unreliable, but it will cause major disruptions for Ukraine’s fight, as the country will be losing an integral source of material and monetary support. German withdrawal would also produce a precedent for NATO members who are also critical of Ukraine, most notably Hungary, to renounce their support. A potential domino effect would be detrimental for not only Ukraine, but NATO as well. In the long-term, hesitation and Russian sympathies will become prominent pillars of German foreign policy. Germany might adopt a form of NATO autonomy, which not only means the loss of a major ally but a strategic operations base as the country connects western Europe with the eastern allies of the region. Therefore, it is crucial that Germany resists all Russian and anti-Ukrainian sentiments in order to reestablish itself as an integral part of the NATO strategic landscape and prevent any future policy catastrophes.

About the Author

Andrew Paumen is a sophomore studying International Studies. Currently, he is interning at the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston and is a research volunteer for the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS). His research interests include transatlantic relations, US-Latin American relations, security, and conflict. Upon graduation, he hopes to further his interests in foreign policy by attending graduate school and receiving a master's in international relations.