Germany Can Decide Independently; It Does Not Have to Wait for Washington

November 03, 2022
Heather A. Conley
Philipp Fritz
7 min read
Photo credit: Mircea Moira /
Heather A. Conley is one of the most important foreign policy voices in the United States. In an interview, the head of the German Marshall Fund criticizes Berlin's sluggish arms aid to Ukraine. In her view, Germany has made other mistakes—with massive consequences.

WELT: Ms. Conley, Russia has recently moved increasingly to destroy critical and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. The war is raging throughout the country. You are in favor of pushing ahead with the reconstruction of Ukraine right now, in this situation. To do that, don't the guns have to be silenced first and the Russians driven out?

Heather A. Conley: Even during the Second World War, the Allies were already thinking about a post-war order. In principle, reconstruction planning cannot begin soon enough. There is also a psychological aspect to it: we are giving hope to the people in Ukraine, and, when the war comes to an end, we will be able to demonstrate that we can build a more prosperous Ukraine and thus a more stable world. Putin, of course, is responding with his military strikes. He wants to destroy Ukraine and send a signal to financiers such as banks and governments that it is not worth investing in Ukraine. By planning for Ukraine’s recovery, we are showing him that the opposite is true.

Many things still happen too slowly, and too often leading politicians look for excuses not to do something.

WELT: The German government and Washington agree that a "new Marshall Plan for Ukraine" is needed. On other issues, however, Germany and the United States are pursuing very different approaches, such as arms deliveries. Berlin is often criticized by partner countries for being too slow and hesitant in supplying weapons to Ukraine. Do you share this criticism?

Conley: The United States also got off to a slow start with its weapons aid. A few days after the outbreak of war, however, Washington switched gears. There are large majorities in both political parties for decisive support for Ukraine. This is perhaps best compared to the Berlin airlift in how quickly US military assistance is going to Ukraine. The situation is different in Germany. The German government has initiated important decisions, such as breaking with the tradition of not sending weapons to war zones. But many things still happen too slowly, and too often leading politicians look for excuses not to do something. That diminishes trust abroad. Frequently, government ministers provide different and contradictory perspectives and explanations for not delivering military aid.  These factors unfortunately often overshadow the important aid that Germany does provide.

WELT: The German government is currently being criticized for refusing to supply Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Officials, above all Chancellor Olaf Scholz, point out that they do not want to act alone. The United States, after all, is said not to supply battle tanks either. But it is always clear from Washington that they would be happy if the Germans were to deliver.

Conley: That is absolutely right. Germany can make an independent decision; it does not have to wait for Washington. In fact, I believe recent comments by senior US officials suggest that Washington would like Germany to supply the tanks. There are really no barriers for Berlin to provide the material, other than Berlin. 

WELT: So you think Germany should deliver Leopard tanks as soon as possible?

Conley: That is a decision for the German government. But there is no longer any reason not to do it.

WELT: The fact that certain weapons systems are not being delivered is often justified in Berlin by a fear of an escalation of the war. In Germany, for example, there is great fear that Russia could use nuclear weapons. Is that justified?

Conley: Putin wants us to be afraid, to be paralyzed by it and give in to his demands. But that is precisely what we must not allow. Of course, we have to take the threats seriously, but we still have to continue our policy of supporting Ukraine. At the same time, we must make Russia understand that any nuclear use, whether that of a tactical nuclear bomb or a "dirty bomb" alluded to by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in his phone calls, is unacceptable. The international system would be fundamentally altered, India and China would turn away from Russia, Putin's legitimacy would be questioned among his people. And there would be a clear military response from NATO.

A reaction by the United States would be all the more powerful today if a red line were crossed.

WELT: So, for Russia in particular, the negative consequences of the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be incalculable. Why then all this?

Conley: Putin sees that he can't break the Ukrainians and that is why he is trying to intimidate us, to dissuade us from helping. He wants us to give him something. But what should that be? More of Ukraine? That's out of the question.

WELT: Don't you think the Kremlin might doubt that NATO will react and feel emboldened to escalate?

Conley: We do not want a direct conflict with Russia. But it would be foolish to doubt our resolve. Many analysts point out that Shoigu's language is reminiscent of that used before chemical weapons were used in Syria. This brings me to the phrasing of President Barack Obama, who at the time spoke of a red line that had been crossed, but which was not followed by a US response. In Moscow, they interpreted that as the United States would not act. But I do not believe the United States will make such a mistake again. A reaction by the United States would be all the more powerful today if a red line were crossed.

WELT: Although Germany is helping Ukraine, Berlin has lost a lot of trust among its partners in recent months. Others are considered Ukraine's most important allies, such as the East-Central Europeans, the Balts, or the Poles. Does this mean that the center of Europe is shifting permanently to the east?

Conley: Definitely. The frontline state of Poland in particular is enormously important from the US perspective. Poland is on the front line in terms of security policy, even increasing its military spending now to more than four percent of its economic output. Then the country has taken in millions of refugees. That makes next year's Polish parliamentary elections—I say this from an American perspective—all the more important. After all, if the Poles again opt for a government that is hostile to the EU, and even hostile to Germany, they will significantly minimize their opportunities to exert influence. Poland has a historic opportunity; it has the potential to become a leading nation in the Western alliance. To do so, however, Poland must find its way back to the rule of law. Germany can contribute to this by restoring confidence in East-Central Europe. The fact that Germany is distrusted in the region is a problem. Incidentally, it would be short-sighted to think that this is because Berlin is slowly supplying weapons. The distrust in German politics is the result of Germany's Russia policy of the past years, several political mistakes, and discounting the views of  East-Central Europeans who have always warned about Russia. It will take time to restore trust, but it is necessary. 

WELT: The upcoming elections in the United States, the midterms in November, will also be important. Can their outcome influence US engagement in Europe?

Conley: It is conceivable that if the Republicans make some gains, it will be more difficult to get additional financial support for Ukraine. There is growing concern that Europe is not contributing enough financially to Ukraine with the United States bearing too great a burden. Isolationist tendencies also play a role. A new phenomenon is that some congressional candidates are spreading Russian disinformation and that is catching on with some of the electorate. Fundamentally, however, support for Ukraine is still strong in both political camps. The United States will not flip on Ukraine even after the midterms.

This is a translation of an article published in Die WELT on November 3rd, 2022 under the title: Ukraine-Hilfe: „Polen hat die Chance, zur Führungsnation des Westens zu werden“ - WELT