Missing in Action in Ukraine: German Leadership

June 13, 2022
5 min read
Photo credit: Gints Ivuskans / Shutterstock.com
What is failure? What is victory? And who defines it? Just before the NATO Summit in Madrid at the end of June, a debate has erupted over the goals that could or should be achieved in Ukraine. Superficially, the divisions are over semantics, but what a “win” looks like depends on whether one thinks the conflict is only about Ukraine, or about Russian aggression.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz has tiptoed around the word “victory” when asked if he wants Ukraine to win. Instead, he says that Ukraine should maintain or exist. But he cannot explain what exactly he means by this. Ukraine may continue to exist even as a rump state with Donbas and Crimea lost and cut off from the Black Sea. But should this be Ukraine’s future? 

Germany’s Minister of Defense Christiane Lambrecht is in line with her boss. Pressed in an interview recently on whether she wants Ukraine to win, she was as evasive as Scholz and avoided committing herself. One notable exception in Berlin is Annalena Baerbock. The foreign minister from the Green Party is making no bones about her desire for Ukraine “to win.” 

Now, more than 100 days since the start of the war, the question is whether one believes that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is only the beginning of a much bigger plan or that it is a single, individual case.

Those who hope for a genuine victory for Ukraine are wholeheartedly convinced that the invasion is a first step before Moscow takes aim at other neighboring countries in order to expand its influence. This is the view in Washington and in most eastern EU countries. Baerbock, most of the Green Party, and large parts of the liberal Free Democratic Party—the third and smallest partner in the governing coalition—belong to this camp.

Chancellor Scholz, it seems, does not.

His hesitancy in fully committing to a Ukrainian victory can be traced to many reservations, beginning with a fraught party history vis-à-vis Russia and tactical considerations. But it is also about Russia’s future.

His party, the Social Democrats (SPD), is beset by an unresolved conflict over its policy toward Russia and Eastern Europe. Many in the SPD still favor friendly relations with Moscow, pointing to its bloody history with Russia and its responsibility—as many as 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union lost their lives during World War II fighting Nazi Germany. (And in the German mind, they are often thought of as “Russians.”) After the war, the overall belief on the left was that there could be no peace in Europe without Russia—and it was the SPD that led the process of reconciliation with Moscow. The energy relationship, which took root in the 1970s under Social Democratic chancellors, was a cornerstone of this course. This policy of détente has traditionally given credit for the gradual opening of communist societies in the 1980s, especially in SPD circles. As a result, the rather benevolent image of Russia held by many Social Democrats long obscured perceptions of the true nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Germany’s government is not alone when it comes to tiptoeing around the war objectives.

And, of course, Russia’s nuclear threats are concerning. But when Scholz uses this peril to explain reticence on arms deliveries to Ukraine, it is not convincing. If the chancellor really feared Germany becoming a Russian target, he would keep it out of the war. Instead, Scholz is pursuing a lukewarm course, supporting Ukraine as soon as public pressure mounts, but holding back as long as possible.

Germany’s government is not alone when it comes to tiptoeing around the war objectives. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has been warning frequently that it is vital that Russia is not humiliated, so that a diplomatic solution can be found when the fighting stops in Ukraine. He believes in building an exit ramp for Russia once a ceasefire has been reached. 

Hungary and Italy, which like Germany is also heavily dependent on Russian energy, are urging the EU to call for a ceasefire in Ukraine and for peace talks with Russia. This softer line puts them at odds with other member states. 

In an op-ed for The New York Times on May 31, US President Joe Biden defined the limits of US commitment. While stating that the United States neither seeks war between NATO and Russia nor the ousting of Vladimir Putin, Biden’s stipulations for a future Ukraine left room for interpretation. “We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression,” he wrote. Whether this implies that Russia must be pushed back behind the front lines of February 23 is unclear. US support for Ukraine in the form of weapons and money, is, however, clear. As is the policy to not ask Ukraine’s president to make concessions.

By quietly, but not fully, supporting the French attempts to find an out for Russia, Germany in the end has chosen a policy of indecision. This lack of leadership in the biggest conflict of the postwar period is consequential—and not only for Berlin’s reputation in Eastern Europe. While Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, and other Eastern European countries are advocating a hard line toward Russia, other Europeans like Germany are demonstrating only limited commitment. At this rate, the war could result in Europe being split into at least two camps. If this happens, there will be a winner: Vladimir Putin.