Zelensky’s Appeal in Berlin Meets a Realpolitik Wall

March 17, 2022
4 min read
Photo credit: Photographer RM / Shutterstock.com
The German government knew that Ukraine’s president would ask uncomfortable questions.

President Volodymyr Zelensky would be demanding, begging, and accusing. He would appeal to the conscience of Germany’s parliament deputies to do more than they had done so far. Knowing this, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ministers rejected attempts to add a debate on Ukraine to the agenda after Zelensky’s video appearance. Scholz, who had orchestrated nothing less than an about-face of German foreign policy weeks before, dodged the expected unpleasant grilling.

The government wanted to move on to the next item on the list, as though a speech by the embattled president of a neighboring country is just another item on the day’s agenda. Yes, there was a standing ovation—but it lasted just 60 seconds. Then Zelensky waved good-bye and ended the video transmission, leaving the applauding deputies standing and ashamed. 

Is Germany’s moment of courage over before it even began? 

As a reminder: At a special plenary session on February 27, Berlin announced that it was ready to send weapons to Ukraine, will not further block the delivery of weapons by other countries to Kyiv, and will boost its own military, the Bundeswehr, by a whopping 100 billion euros. For Germany, this move was of the utmost significance—for years it had turned a blind eye to Russian security threats. This was particularly true for Scholz’s own Social Democratic Party (SPD). Within the SPD, there was always a strong wing of sympathy for Moscow, ready to play down the many violations in the areas of justice and human rights. Following the mantra that without Russia there will be no peace in Europe, this line was holding—until the invasion of Ukraine. Now even the staunchest Putin supporters had to back down.

For Zelensky, however, this was not enough. Desperately he demanded a no-fly zone, more weapons, fighter jets. He had already spelled out his wish list the day before when he addressed the US Congress. In strong words, he was trying to appeal to consciousness and morals. But Zelensky did not just repeat the Washington address in Berlin. While acknowledging US efforts to help, Zelensky’s tone toward Berlin was more challenging, stressful, and expectant. He was blaming Germany for not doing enough. And for a man in his situation, with his back against the wall, that is exactly what you do.

While acknowledging US efforts to help, Zelensky’s tone toward Berlin was more challenging, stressful, and expectant. He was blaming Germany for not doing enough. And for a man in his situation, with his back against the wall, that is exactly what you do.

Everyone knows why there is a red line when it comes to aiding Ukraine, but neither President Joe Biden nor Chancellor Olaf Scholz had the courage to clearly spell it out. The truth is that both calling for a no-fly zone and sending fighter jets might lead to an escalation that could easily spiral out of control and even result in a nuclear Armageddon. Germany’s chancellor would have been well advised to openly address this reality, in front of the deputies and in front of the often-outspoken Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin, Andrey Melnyk. As painful as it is: this is realpolitik.

Scholz could have also addressed the issue of Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. The longer the war continues, the louder the voices demanding a complete stop of gas imports from Russia. There are good economic reasons to not go down that road, though, and it is questionable that such a move would increase the pressure on President Vladimir Putin in such a way that he would end the war. Russia has foreign exchange reserves of a few hundreds of billions. It will be a while before it runs dry. Furthermore: Putin has already crossed the point of no return. He either gets a face-saving peace deal or he will continue to quell Ukrainian resistance at any cost. A gas embargo will surely not do the trick.

Even though Zelensky’s speech will not compel Germany to change its general approach to the conflict, the dramatic words by the Ukrainian president are a stark reminder that Berlin’s overdue political course-correction must continue. The political turnaround must be followed by more debates on and explainers about what Germany can do in the future—and what it cannot. People want to know what to expect, why this is the right thing to do, and that all of this will not come at zero cost. To the contrary: aiding Ukraine and decoupling from Russia comes with a huge price tag.

Telling all this may have helped Ukraine’s ambassador understand where Germany is standing at this point. Then the words of solidarity would not have sounded as hollow as they did this Thursday in the German parliament. Yes, the situation for Ukraine is heart-breaking—they are being confronted with an overpowering Russian military machine that, despite the organizational chaos, disarray in the chain of command, and huge numbers of losses, still has the capacity to obliterate Kyiv. But at this point, NATO can only offer this: weapons, money, intel, and solidarity. 

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