The Future Is Now

Berlin Needs to Fully Grasp the Difference It Can Make for Ukraine

Friedrich 2024 Das Wichtigste haben wir noch nicht gelernt
People protesting in solidarity with Ukraine in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.  | Photo: Maryan Ivasyk/Unsplash
23 Feb 2024
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Two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the mood in Germany has gone gloomy: not only is the war not over yet, but Ukraine will in all likelihood spend this year on the defensive instead of liberating more of its territory. Pessimistic voices are also growing louder: with ammunition shortages and the looming threat of Donald Trump winning the upcoming US elections, where will all this lead?

If we are honest, this disillusionment has more to do with us than with Ukraine, because it is quite clear what the Ukrainian army needs from Kyiv’s Western backers to hold its positions and eventually get back on the offensive: more ammunition, more weapons and spare parts, and a long-term plan for supplies. Germany has started to move in these directions, albeit slowly. Now Berlin must learn to multi-task: it has to both maintain stamina for a war that could last for years and recover a sense of urgency around increasing and speeding up its support. 

Overall, there has been progress on both accounts over the last two years. Already, Berlin has become one of Ukraine’s most important supporters, in both financial and military terms. As usual, however, the German government’s thoroughness has meant tardiness; it is still taking its time with each individual decision, such as whether to deliver Taurus cruise missiles. But the fact that the majority of Germans still favor arms deliveries and financial aid reflects a broad societal understanding that Russia is and will remain the greatest threat to Europe.

Learning From the Mistakes of Germany’s Russia Policy

Despite these positive trends, there are at least three lessons which the German government has yet to fully embrace. First, there has to date been no real reckoning with the last decades of Germany’s Russia policy. There is no inquiry commission, parliamentary or otherwise, no official body of any kind, to trace the reasons, assumptions and methods underlying Berlin’s past policy toward Moscow, even though it failed spectacularly and massively harmed Germany’s security interests. Such a process could create transparency and enable politicians to learn from their mistakes, both regarding Russia and beyond. And it would lead to the next, important step: the development of a new Russia strategy based on deterrence and containment. A new rhetoric resting on these tenets has already been reflected in Germany’s National Security Strategy. Politicians now need to give it teeth.

The focus of German policy should clearly be on Ukraine. At the same time, Berlin can, within the framework of its alliances and together with partners who have in the past harbored far fewer illusions about Moscow, develop a plan for a long-term Russia policy that protects us and defines clear rules of engagement. This is crucial if we are to avoid the risk of falling back into old patterns simply for a lack of alternatives.

Secondly, Germany has not yet learned what Ukrainians have come to understand over these two years: the future is now. Every day in Kyiv, despite the uncertainty caused by the war, one can see people carrying on with their lives – continuing their education, moving houses, renovating their homes, having children. Residents of Bucha are installing new windows to replace those destroyed during the occupation. They are not waiting until the war is over, even though it could still destroy them again. This is because Ukraine has a vision for its long-term future – a vision of peace, of EU and NATO membership– even if it does not always seem achievable in the short or medium term. 

The War’s Future Trajectory Also Depends on Germany

The German government does not have such a vision. Yes, Ukraine should become part of the EU. But such a step requires the means to permanently deter Russia, and there is no plan to ensure Kyiv acquires these means (at least not one that has been made public). Chancellor Olaf Scholz has time and again stressed what he does not want: NATO should not be drawn into this war, Russia should not win, Ukraine should not disappear from the world map. A positive agenda is missing. What is the chancellery’s realistic, long-term vision for an independent Ukraine? If there are answers to this question, they are not being communicated.

This leads to what is probably the most important lesson of the war, which Berlin has yet to learn: it is also up to Germany how this war continues. This is difficult to write, since Ukrainians are the ones sacrificing their lives for their country. But by way of the weapons and ammunition that we supply – and those that we don’t – we are setting the frame for the war’s future trajectory. If things go on as they are right now, Russia will continue making extremely costly advances, particularly in Eastern Ukraine. No, Ukraine will not fall tomorrow and Russian troops will not march on Kyiv again any time soon, but Ukraine’s room for maneuver is being further restricted with each passing day. Germany must revive the sense of urgency that is currently lost. The critical decisions are being made now. Yes, everyone fears a second term for Trump – but there are still nine long, important months to go before the US election. 

Realizing that Berlin is a relevant player, that we can create opportunities for Ukraine to build up its defenses and retake the initiative in the future, should not make us panic. Instead it should jolt us into action. There are many things Germany can do: conclude long-term purchase agreements with the defense industry to guarantee ammunition supplies, finally deliver those Taurus missiles, develop a long-term vision. And not lose hope. That’s something we can learn from Ukraine.

This commentary first appeared in German in n‑ on February 152024.