A.On May 25, Robert Habeck, co-chair of the Greens, said on the occasion of a visit to the military demarcation line in Ukraine that Germany should also supply Ukraine with weapons. Later he rowed back to the effect that by “weapons” he primarily meant equipment, less weapons in the true sense of the word. Nevertheless, the statement caused gasps in the political system. Criticism came from all directions – including the conservative parties and the Green Party itself. The proposal was illegal, dangerous, whatever.
On closer inspection, these counter-arguments disintegrate relatively quickly. The Federal Government can issue an exemption for the export of armaments to third countries after considering German security interests. Since in 2020 countries such as Egypt or Qatar will be among the top 10 recipient countries of German armaments, the Federal Government also makes frequent use of this right. And in contrast to Middle Eastern countries, German security interests in Ukraine are easier to identify.
Germany is more cautious than others
Ukraine fell victim to a war of aggression by Russia in 2014, mainly because it was weak and militarily disorganized and initially unable to respond to Russian operations. The fact that Moscow is not ignoring the second Minsk Agreement of February 2015 as well as the first of September 2014 was not due to rounds of negotiations and the EU’s “great concern”, but rather to sanctions and a better organized Ukrainian army, which is the cost of the military adventure of the Kremlin. The rattle of sabers in April showed that the Kremlin did not stop there.
From a European point of view, the evasive and negative attitude on the part of the German political class towards any military support for Ukraine has fallen out of time. There is a consensus in the EU and NATO that peace and stability in Eastern Europe can only be strengthened by strengthening the resilience of the Eastern partner countries. From cyber defense and reform of the police and judicial organs to intelligence services and the military – appropriate programs to train partner countries in various fields can be found in both organizations. In the military field, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in particular are in the lead.
But France, Spain, Poland and even the small Baltic states are far more active in military cooperation with Ukraine than the Federal Republic of Germany. The reluctance of Germany even in “soft” fields of military training – training, education, non-lethal equipment – is causing unease in Washington. After all, the discussion about transatlantic burden-sharing does not only affect defense spending.
Since the rehabilitation programs for the neighborhood are linked to the status of domestic and rule-of-law reforms, corresponding support services are also an important lever to implement rule of law and anti-corruption reforms against resistance in the administrative apparatus and in politics. In the politically visible military area, however, non-EU states in particular are in charge of supporting partner countries. The EU therefore remains dependent on the willingness of external actors when it comes to creating incentives for important reform projects.
The blinkers of German politics
Europe does not live in a dream world in which there are no military confrontations. The approach that a conflict cannot be resolved militarily is in itself correct and applies to every war. In practice, however, diplomatically negotiated peace treaties establish the status quo achieved – or lost – on the battlefield. The core of German and European interest is that Ukraine and with it the norms of the European peace order of 1990 do not perish.
If the war in Donbass becomes too expensive for Moscow, this conflict will also be ended by another political agreement. Whether that comes sooner or later depends on how quickly the price of military adventure rises in the neighborhood.
Of course, the calibration of such support measures is not easy. In view of the institutional, constitutional, technical and logistical requirements in the recipient country, what kind of support can sensibly be considered? What conditions should they be attached to? How does this change the overall political weather situation? If you try to bring these questions to politicians, the blinkers close faster than you can put the questions. With its position in the Normandy format, Germany would be an important interface in the diplomatic process, which would be strategically upgraded through military options.
Habeck tried to kiss Germany awake from its strategic deep sleep and promptly caught a slap in the face of the drowsy princess. But since the global alarm clock has long since rung, it is better for the country to wake up like that than not at all.
Nico Popescu is director of the Wider Europea program of the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).