Angela Merkel had only been the Leader of the Opposition in Germany for a few months when she first sat down for talks with President Vladimir Putin. It was 2002, and she was just an up-and-coming politician making waves in the polls. Putin, meanwhile, was the fresh-faced leader of what he billed as a new Russia – a Russia open for business. Following the talks in Moscow, Merkel joked to her aides that she had looked him dead in the eyes and, therefore, “passed the KGB test.”
More than two decades on, Merkel’s 16 years as her country’s Chancellor have come to an end. So too has any illusion that the Iron Curtain dividing Europe is a thing of the past. And yet, the special relationship she cultivated between Berlin and the Kremlin has been much harder to shake. Despite its outward commitment to supporting “European values” and stability on the continent, Germany has consistently been one of the most reluctant Western nations when it comes to support for Ukraine.
In January last year, just weeks before a far less fresh-faced Putin gave the order for the tanks to start rolling, Kyiv was pushing its Western partners to provide it with weaponry and military equipment to deter – or help counter – an invasion. A procession of cargo planes soon touched down, bringing anti-armour missiles and launchers, crates of bullets and other hardware from countries like the US, UK and Poland. Germany, however, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of arms and ammunition, offered only to send 5,000 helmets to a nation looking down the barrel at an existential conflict. Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, said the move was a “joke” and left him “speechless.”
Since then, as those defending Ukraine defied the odds and thwarted Putin’s imperialist ambitions, the deliveries have only picked up pace and the country has received more than £100bn in aid over the past 11 months. Germany has emerged as the fourth largest donor, behind the US, EU institutions and the UK. And yet, there continues to be a red line that Berlin is hesitant to cross.
In April last year, even as news was surfacing of the wholesale murder of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz held out against plans in Brussels to impose a total embargo on Russian natural gas exports. “We would inflict more damage on ourselves than on them,” his finance minister, Christian Lindner told European counterparts. Weeks later, the government signed off on plans to let energy companies pay for supplies in rubles, helping Moscow to circumvent banking sanctions. Ultimately, the decision was undercut by Putin’s efforts to choke the continent off from fossil fuels against its will, restricting the flow of gas through the pipelines under its control.
Now though, a new row over military hardware has again rocked the EU. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi has repeatedly called on Western nations to step up arms exports to help his country push back against an increasingly fierce and increasingly desperate Russian offensive in the east. At the top of the wish list are main battle tanks to replace its Soviet-era fleet and take on Moscow’s heavy armour at a distance. “Ukraine will struggle to mount a second counteroffensive without a heavier force,” Anthony King, a professor of war studies at Warwick University told POLITICO last week, arguing that Russian troops were fighting at longer range to avoid being blown apart by Western artillery.
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Despite that, there has been deadlock over the move which, in some quarters, is seen as an escalation in the war. Britain, however, helped break the impasse earlier this month, offering to dispatch 14 Challenger 2 tanks, while France said it would make available a number of AMX 10-RC light combat tanks. Against that backdrop, though, Germany has reportedly vetoed efforts in other European countries to send the Leopard 2. Poland and Spain had voiced intentions to hand over the main battle tanks, made in the 1970s for the West German armed forces. Under the terms of their sale, Berlin has the right to block them from being sold or transferred on to other militaries.
At the heart of the debate is Germany’s self-declared tradition of anti-militarism since the Second World War. The doctrine hasn’t prevented the country from becoming a major player in the arms market, but apparently is seen by Scholz and his advisers as prohibiting Ukraine from accessing some kinds of hardware. Given the Leopards’ obvious offensive capabilities, the Chancellor has apparently been hesitant to move past supplying more defensive weapons and bolster Kyiv’s ability to counterattack.
Amid the discussion, Germany’s embattled Defence Minister, Christine Lambrecht, resigned last week. As the public face of the country’s equivocating response to the war, she had been publicly mocked for the decision to offer helmets while other nations boxed up their rockets, as well as for blunders in reforming the military. But it was a New Year’s Eve PR video that saw the most scorn poured on her, reflecting on the friendly meetings she’d had during the brutal war as fireworks lit up the sky in the distance. The decision on the Leopards, Berlin said, would fall to her successor, Boris Pistorius, who had previously opposed sanctions on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine.
Over the weekend, NATO nations met at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to discuss the issue, while Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelenskyi, insisted that “every day of delay is the death of Ukrainians.” Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov revealed that he had “a frank discussion” about the Leopard 2 with German counterparts. “To be continued,” he added, dashing hopes of an imminent breakthrough. There had also been hopes that the US would agree to calls to export its advanced M1 Abrams tank, giving Germany cloud cover to follow suit. But concerns over the technology falling into unfriendly hands and questions around fuel efficiency and supply lines appear to have held back that plan.
Now though, it appears Berlin is backtracking. Foreign Minister Anna Baerbock said on Monday that she “would not stand in the way” of efforts by Poland to ship the tanks to Ukraine. According to her, there has been no formal request at present. The move was widely seen as a sign that the level of international support for the move has grown to levels that can no longer be blocked out. However, Scholz’s spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit later suggested that Baerbock’s statement did not represent a decision agreed upon by the government.
Merkel may have held Putin’s icy gaze in that meeting 21 years ago but, with Germany’s allies being increasingly vocal about the need to face Russia head on, it seems her successors may finally have blinked.
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