Russia’s Action in Ukraine: Germany’s Response
Prof Rajaram Panda

Russia’s military operations in Ukraine influenced other countries’ long-standing foreign policy stances, with some reviewing their stances. Switzerland abandoning its 200-year old policy of neutrality and siding with the NATO countries is one. In Japan, nuclear-sharing discussion has sparked a domestic debate. Another European nation, Germany, too initiated process of shedding its doctrine of pacifism behind its foreign policy since World War II. More countries might start seeing their policies in similar light and think of reviewing. This speaks volumes of the gravity of actions by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

For Germany, the Russia-Ukraine crisis was “a turning point” on how Berlin sees itself in the world. Criticised for its initial placid response to Kremlin’s aggressive posturing and then invasion, Germany was awakened to the possibility that in the event of a Russian victory in Ukraine, its position in the world could be challenged. This persuaded Chancellor Olaf Scholtz to take a swift position and a harsher stance against Russia. [1] Within a week, Europe saw a remarkable shift in Germany’s stance on foreign policy.

Amid pressure from allies and horrors of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Germany initiated a virtual U-turn and announced to strengthen its military. It took an invasion of a sovereign country nearby and threats of nuclear attacks for Germany to shake its decades-long faith in a military-averse foreign policy that was born of the crimes of the Third Reich. As Chancellor Scholtz remarked in an address to a special session of Parliament, 24 February 2022 marked Zeitenwende, a “historic turning point” in the continent when Putin ordered Russian forces to launch an unprovoked attack on Ukraine.[2]

Scholtz announced that Germany would increase its military spending to more than 2 per cent of the country’s economic output. He announced the release of immediately a one-off 100 billion Euros or $113 billion to invest in the country’s woefully underequipped Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces. He too announced to speed up construction of two terminals for receiving LNG, part of efforts to ease the country’s reliance on Russian energy.

Scholtz’s commitment to increase defence spending was not something sudden or stemmed from the crisis in Ukraine. Way back in 2014, the 2 per cent cap was the goal set for NATO member states within a decade but a crisis of Ukrainian proportion spurred Scholtz to activate the proposal. Former US President Donald Trump had urged Germany and other NATO members to increase their defence at least to 2 per cent of the GDP. Trump had criticised former Chancellor Angela Merkel for Germany’s failure to meet NATO targets that marked the transatlantic relationship. The US spends almost 3 per cent of its GDP on the defence. Trump always used to blame Germany that it was not doing enough to strengthen the NATO alliance. Germany just needed a spark to act and this came from the Ukraine crisis.

The event in Ukraine shocked countries with pacifist miens and drove them to a rethink. Germany was the first to abandon more than 30 years of trying to balance its Western alliances with strong economic ties with Russia. Scholtz’s steps marked a fundamental shift in not only the country’s foreign and defence policies, but its relationship with Russia.

During the post-War years, Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party of Scholtz favoured an inclusive approach towards Russia but the events in Ukraine led to a change of heart. The blame was not on the Russian people but squarely on Putin. Germany also started reviewing its dependence on Russia for its natural gas needs as well as its military security. Scholtz’s stance meant a firm repudiation of Germany’s horrific Nazi past. Since the end of World War II, Germany has adopted a foreign policy of diplomacy and deterrence.

What is significant is that Scholtz now wants the enhanced military spending to be anchored into the country’s Constitution, which he feels would be in the long-term interest of Germany’s security. The financial bazooka for the Bundeswehr to be written in the German Constitution as announced by Scholtz included three major departures from Germany’s traditional foreign policy postures: pulling a volte-face in decisions relating to banning Russia from SWIFT, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the supply of arms to Ukraine.

As a part of the sanction measures, the US, UK and some EU members expelled a number of key Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). SWIFT is an international finance system that allows countries to move their money around the world and by expelling Russia from this was aimed to strangulate its banking operations with the outside world. Germany and other EU countries are major importers of Russian gas and raw materials. The global interbank payment system – SWIFT – is used to pay for such imports and by expelling Russia from the system would mean that Germany will no longer be supplied with gas or raw materials.[3]
For a while Germany feared that the SWIFT ban would force Russia to move to another financial messaging such as developed by China but following Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, this reluctance was softened as the values of freedom and democracy prevailed. Scholtz seemed to have been persuaded by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki who travelled to Berlin to persuade Scholtz to reasonably respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

More crippling sanctions followed. In another blow to Russia’s financial system, Visa and MasterCard announced to suspend all Russian operations. This meant that all transactions initiated with Visa cards issued in Russia will no longer work outside the country.[4] MasterCard has operated in Russia for more than 25 years and suddenly there is a turn-around in policy. Hereafter, the company’s cyber and intelligence teams shall continue to work with government and partners around the world to ensure that stability, integrity and resiliency of the systems continue to guide the operations and response to potential cyber-attacks.

The second significant departure in Germany’s policy in the wake of the Ukraine crisis related to sending arms to Ukraine, an unprecedented move. For long, Germany had shunned from sending weapons into conflict zones, though it has a steady business selling them to countries in the Middle East. This practice was rooted in Germany’s legacy of World War II aggression.

When Russia started its aggression against Ukraine around January 2022, no one expected that Russia shall up the ante within a month when it invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Though the NATO and the US promised the shipping of military aid to Ukraine at that time, Germany had resisted. Following meetings with Morawiecki and later President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania, Scholtz was persuaded to send 1,000 shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles to Ukraine. Scholtz told the German Parliament Bundestag that “there was no other response possible to Putin’s aggression”.

This is an unprecedented measure in Germany’s foreign policy, a clear departure from its past World War II aggression of Hitler’s time. This is a clear volte-face from Germany’s earlier stance when it had desisted shipping military assistance to Ukraine and instead with a view to de-escalate paid for a Field Hospital and treat wounded soldiers in Germany. It also sent 5,000 helmets to Ukraine. Germany also lifted its objections to plans by Estonia and Dutch governments to send German-made weapons to Ukraine. Earlier it had blocked such moves.

The third major departure in Germany’s stance was related to the suspension of Nord Stream 2 Pipeline.[5] Soon after Russia recognised the independence of separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Scholtz announced the halting of the certification of the controversial Nord Stream 2 Pipeline. Nord Stream 2 is an $11 billion natural gas pipeline that stretches from Russia to Germany, spanning more than 750 miles under the Baltic Sea. Russia currently supplies more than half of its natural gas needs.

Germany and the US had been on loggerheads over this as the latter opposed the deal on the ground that it would make Europe heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies and give Russia geopolitical leverage. Then President Trump took a tough stance and signed a bill imposing sanctions on any firm that aids in the building of the pipeline with a view to deny Russia any geopolitical advantage. The current Ukraine crisis overcame this hurdle. The fact now is that without the German certification, the pipeline cannot go into operation. This is an economic punishment by Germany for Russia. Russia supplies 40 per cent of Europe’s gas needs. It feels to retain the right to retaliate against the EU after Germany froze the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Though Germany has strategic reserves of coal and natural gas, Germany is now planning to radically transform its energy sector to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels. That would take time. In the interim, spike in oil and energy prices would be inescapable. Western countries could face very high oil prices and the possible closure of the main Russia-German gas pipeline if governments follow through on threats to cut energy supplies from Russia.

It may be remembered that Germany has always treaded lightly and quietly on the world stage when it comes to conflicts since its World War II experience. It continued to suffer from post-War guilt. The developments in Ukraine provoked Germany to shed its decades-old reluctance in its military profile. Scholtz who took office in December 2021 after defeating Merkel’s party had almost endorsed his predecessor’s policies on defence matters. That had to be changed now. So, after 16 years of conservative-led coalition under Merkel, Scholtz’s centre-right Social Democrats (SPD) along with junior partner the Greens and the liberals GDP has chosen a new direction to Germany’s foreign policy.

It was not easy for Scholtz to do a sudden policy reversal in the wake of developments in Ukraine. The Greens have always had an anti-weapons exports stance. The SPD was accused of its closeness with Russia. The FDP was often criticised for privileging economic interests. But this time around the Green Party understood the gravity of the problem and endorsed the government’s decision to deliver 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles from its Bundeswehr stocks to Ukraine. It was reasoned that this would boost troops in NATO's eastern flank, including with new deployments to Slovakia. Backed by Germany’s strong pacifist tradition during the post-War years, Germany had reduced its troop strength from 500,000 at the time of unification to just about 200,000 today. This narrative is now for a long overhaul in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

As Russia becomes the world’s most sanctioned country with 5,532 sanctions, thereby outranking Iran’s 3,616 sanctions, and with no quick end in the horizon, the world is heading for a long haul in coping with a new energy crisis. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has already hit the financial markets in almost all over the world, putting stress on major currencies. India is no exception to the fallout of the crisis. Stock market is already in the red and rupee is under considerable stress. At a time when the world was starting to cope with the post-Covid 19 situation and for a new beginning, the Ukrainian crisis has become the most unwelcome development. In this unprecedented time, Europe is also facing a sudden refugee crisis, dramatically altering the post-Cold War order.

Endnotes :

[1]Mira Patel, “Explained: What’s made Germany shed its pacifism after the invasion of Ukraine?”, Indian Express, 3 March 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/whats-made-german-shed-its-pacifism-after-the-invasion-of-ukraine-7797948/
[2]Melissa Eddy, “In Foreign Policy U-Turn, Germany Ups Military Spending and Arms Ukraine” New York Times, 27 February 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/27/world/europe/germany-ukraine-russia.html
[3]Saadhya Mohan “Germany's Three Major Policy Reversals Over Russia-Ukraine War”, 28 February 2022, https://www.thequint.com/news/world/germany-three-major-policy-reversals-over-russia-ukraine-war-crisis-putin-scholz#read-more
[4] “Russian-Ukranian War: Visa, Mastercard suspend all Russian operations”, 6 March 2022, https://zeenews.india.com/technology/russian-ukraine-war-visa-mastercard-suspend-all-russian-operations-2442595.html
[5]Ibid

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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