The issue rose to the fore over the weekend following a report that Berlin had gone so far as to block Estonia from supplying old German howitzers to Kyiv to help defend itself against Russian troops massing near the Ukrainian the border.
Germany's stance on arms supplies does “not correspond to the level of our relations and the current security situation," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz denied a decision had been made on the howitzers and insisted that his country stands with its NATO and European Union allies in opposing any Russian incursion into Ukraine.
“Should this situation occur, we will jointly act," he told reporters. "There would be a high price.”
Still, while Germany would continue to provide help to Ukraine, there would be one exception, he said: “We don’t provide any lethal weapons."
That stance, criticized in Kyiv and — less loudly — in Washington and London, has caused consternation among some in Germany who worry that their country may not be considered a reliable partner.
“How many in Berlin are actually aware how our seemingly confused Ukraine policy harms not just (Germany) but the entire EU?” asked Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany’s former ambassador to the United States and now head of the annual Munich Security Conference.
Experts say Germany’s position is partly rooted in its inglorious history of aggression during the 20th century.
“There’s the obvious legacy of Germany’s own militarization in Europe during two world wars that has led many German leaders to view any military response as the last resort,” said Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That attitude could backfire, she said. “The current government does not seem to grasp that sending defensive weapons to Ukraine might actually deter further Russian aggression.”
And while Germany has pointed to its restrictive position on arms exports to conflict zones in the past, analysts say the rule has not been consistently applied.
"There have always been borderline cases here, such as the Kosovo war or support for the Kurds against IS in Syria,” said Sabine Fischer, a senior Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
The debate over German weapons was unfolding days after the head of the German navy resigned following criticism at home and abroad for comments he made on Ukraine and Russia. Speaking at an event Friday in India, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach said it was important to have Russia on the same side against China and suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved “respect.”
With Scholz's Social Democrats steeped in the legacy of Cold War rapprochement pursued by his predecessor Willy Brandt, and the Greens rooted in a tradition of pacifism, two out of Germany's three governing parties would balk at the idea of supplying arms to a non-NATO country in a conflict with Russia. But letting Estonia pass on the old Soviet-designed 122-mm D-30 howitzers to Ukraine might be an acceptable compromise.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made clear that, qualms about exporting arms to Ukraine aside, Berlin takes a dim view of Russia's behavior.
“In recent weeks, more than 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and guns have gathered near Ukraine for no understandable reason. And it’s hard not to see that as a threat," she said during a recent visit to Moscow.
Speaking alongside her Russian counterpart — whom she referred to as “dear colleague” — Baerbock acknowledged the “suffering and destruction that we Germans brought upon the peoples of the Soviet Union” during the Nazi era, but warned that Germany was willing to consider tough steps if Russia acts against Ukraine.
This includes calling into question the future of the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline meant to bring much-needed natural gas from Russia to Germany.
Such a move against its biggest energy supplier would come at a high price for Germany, too.
With plans to switch off its last three nuclear power plants this year and phase out the use of coal by 2030, Germany’s reliance on gas will increase in the short term until enough renewable energy comes online, said Georg Zachmann, a senior fellow at the Bruegel economic think tank in Brussels.
Yet German officials believe that being a large customer of Russian gas can give it leverage, as Moscow won’t want to harm its reputation as a reliable supplier of gas, painstakingly built up over decades.
Speaking Monday at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Baerbock said the German government's priority is to deescalate the situation over Ukraine, dampening allies' calls for military support to Kyiv and swift new sanctions against Moscow.
“Berlin will have to deal with the criticism that is now coming from Ukraine, other European countries and Washington,” Fischer said. “At the same time, Germany remains an important player in the negotiations surrounding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and, I predict, will continue to support sanctions and other measures in the future.”
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
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