Not wanting to anger the Kremlin, Berlin has pursued a low-profile policy on the Ukraine conflict.
There are clear signs that Germany is not so willing to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons like battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers and anti-aircraft systems.
Berlin's dillydallying over supporting Ukraine, a pro-Western state, with powerful military hardware has exposed the NATO ally's priorities. For regional analysts, it's now become clear that because of political and economic ties between Russia and Germany, the latter is unable to help Ukraine in countering the Russian onslaught that began in February.
“Germany is very very slow in delivering particularly heavy weapons. That has to do with the fact that Germany did not take a very firm position on Ukraine for a very long time. In February, when the war began, Germany was sitting on the fence as to how to help Ukraine,” says Andreas Krieg, a defence analyst, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King's College London and Royal College of Defence Studies.
Under Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz's leadership, Berlin did arm Kiev with light weaponry like anti-tank rocket launchers, machine guns and anti-aircraft missiles, but questions over the country's commitment to NATO's security vision are still being asked because of its delay over heavy weapons supply to Ukraine.
“Particularly, Social Democrats, who are the biggest party in the coalition at the moment, have traditionally taken a very pro-Russian approach. They never saw themselves firmly being part of the Western European position, which is always a bit more anti-Russian,” Krieg tells TRT World.
Former Social Democrat leader Gerhard Schroder had long maintained warm relations with Russians. Prior to Christian Democrat Angela Merkel’s extended premiership, Schroder had governed Germany from 1998 to 2005. A close friend of Vladimir Putin, he once called the Russian leader a “flawless democrat”.
After he left power, Schroder became the chairman of Nord Stream pipeline project, which aims to bring Russian gas to Germany, bypassing countries like Ukraine, which vehemently opposed the project.
Despite the Russian onslaught, he angered Western leadership after continuing to hold senior positions in Rosneft, a Russian state oil company, and Nord Stream. In May, the German government decided to cut his office and staff privileges due to his strong ties with Moscow.
Germany’s Russia fears
Under Social Democratic leadership, Germany does not have a clear Ukraine strategy, according to Krieg, because they see themselves as a Central European country that needs to maintain good relations with both sides, the US-led West and East, which is dominated by countries like Russia.
With the Ukraine dynamics bringing several European states on the same page, Krieg says Germany's Social Democrats find themselves in a tough position, where they can’t deny Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine and possibly other states in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, which were formerly under Soviet influence during the Cold War.
Despite the offensive, they still don’t want to go against Russia directly, the analyst says.
“When it comes to heavy weaponry, the German government sees that as a slippery slope because Russians will perceive this as a direct support or actually direct intervention by the Germans in that conflict,” says Krieg.
The security analyst believes that in Germany there is “a strategic element of being fearful” to be perceived in Moscow as being part of the conflict.
“Germany did not want to take the lead on this. Their approach, particularly by Scholz, is one of wait-and-see until it is no longer possible to deny what’s really going on. And Germany has never taken over leadership in security and foreign policy issues anyway,” he adds.
Like Krieg, many other analysts and some members of the German parliament strongly believe that Berlin’s slowness to supply Ukraine with heavy weapons is mostly related to Scholz’s political conduct. Scholz’s coalition partners, Free Democrats and the Greens, have shown more hawkish views toward arming Ukraine than Scholz, according to Bulent Guven, a Turkish-German political scientist.
But Guven, who is an old friend of Scholz, does not think the Chancellor's hesitation against Moscow is just exclusive to either him or Social Democrats. For historical reasons, Guven adds, the country itself is hesitant to go against Russia directly.
“Germany has not wanted to provoke Russia much since the beginning,” he says.
“Berlin fears about the possibility that if Ukraine became so successful against Moscow in its resistance and at some point entered Russian territory with heavy weapons like German-made Leopard 1 and Gepard tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, it would have a lot of symbolism for Germany, invoking memories of WWII,” Guven tells TRT World.
During WWII, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the predecessor state of Russia, invading parts of the communist state, including areas where current Ukrainian territories correspond. Russia accuses some Ukrainian armed groups like the Azov Battalion, a far-right-affiliated organisation, of having ideological ties with neo-Nazi groups.
Russia and Germany have a complicated history since the two states became powerful players on the European continent in the 18th century. Depending on the historical context and their respective political and economic interests, the two states share a history of both animosity and partnership.
Germany was historically rooted in Prussia, whose capital Konigsberg in the Baltics became a Russian province, Kaliningrad, later, while some of Russia’s tzars like Catherine the Great were ethnic Germans. During both WWI and WWII, the two states were on the opposite sides, fighting bitterly with each other.
At the end of WWII, when Germany was divided into two, East Germany became part of the Soviet-led communist Warsaw alliance. While East Germany joined West Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its past legacy left an indelible mark on the German national conscience.
A dragging Germany
As a result, Germany’s current dragging to send weapons to Ukraine has a lot to do with the country’s historical background with Russia and current complicated geopolitical equation in Eastern Europe, a former Moscow-dominated region, where both WWI and WWII originated.
“Germany does not want to see a weakened Russia per se,” says Krieg. “Germany is fearful that a weakened Russia will lead to more instability in Eastern Europe. While I think the US and the UK are working towards regime change in Moscow, Germany is following what others are doing without having a strategy of its own.”
Beside Germany’s gas and coal dependence over Moscow, “Berlin’s Ukraine policy also proceeds from its assumption that dragging Russia into defeat may have negative repercussions on Europe's security system in the long run,” Guven says. Scholz made such statements, which suggested that Berlin did not want to see a defeated Russia, he adds.
On Monday, German daily Der Spiegel published an extensive article in which it argued that the Scholz government has made many announcements to send heavy and light weapons to Ukraine under immense pressure from the Kiev government and NATO allies, but it did not fulfill most of its pledges, citing various sources.
One of the reasons for Germany’s indecisiveness in supplying arms to Ukraine is related to the assessment of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, which underestimated the Ukrainian resistance. The agency, according to Der Spiegel, made a hasty assessment of current Russian military advance, saying Ukraine's defences “could even be broken in the next four to five weeks”.
Responding to the Der Spiegel article, Guven reminds that Germany has had a strong policy not to send heavy weapons into war zones or conflict areas since WWII.
But in a political contradiction, in the name of fighting against Daesh, Berlin has been forthright in sending heavy weapons to groups like Kurdish peshmergas in northern Iraq and the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US and Türkiye. Ankara has strongly protested Berlin’s weapons delivery to the YPG.
Guven also believes that Berlin’s heavy weapon inventory has considerably diminished since the end of the Cold War in accordance with the country’s policy to decrease its defence budget. “They don’t have a lot of heavy weapons to send to Ukraine,” he says. Kreig believes that Germany’s “bloated bureaucracy” also makes an effect on slowing the delivery of heavy weapons.
But other sources believe that the German arms industry is capable of producing heavy weapons such as tanks, howitzers and infantry vehicles quickly if Berlin wants them to do so, according to Der Spiegel.
“Germany is always a follower,” Krieg says, seeing Berlin being “a free rider” in the NATO alliance at least since the end of the Cold War.
“Germany has never made the contribution you expect from a country of the kind of size and also economic power Germany has. Germany has never really lived up to its full potential when it comes to foreign and security policy,” he views.