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The German lamb is learning to howl

Jan 31,2023 - Last updated at Jan 31,2023

HAMBURG — “Tankeschön”, reads a punning meme making the rounds online these days. It shows a German panzer with a Ukrainian flag. A year into the war, Germany is suddenly set to deliver 14 Leopard 2 tanks. The decision signals a stunning reversal of a longstanding, and obsessively upheld, principle of German foreign policy: no offensive hardware for Ukraine; we Germans cannot afford to rile the Russians.

Initially, Germany sent only helmets and body armour to Ukrainians battling the Russian invaders. As pressure from Germany’s allies and Ukrainians rose, more serious stuff was dribbled out bit by bit: artillery, shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles, armoured personnel carriers, flak panzers and short-range rockets. But battle tanks were strictly verboten. Deemed offensive weapons, these would supposedly expose Germany to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fury. So, it was “nein” for a whole year. Now, German-made tanks will be rolling into Ukraine.

What is behind this stunning volte-face? Has Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government finally grasped that there is more at stake than moral obligation to the victims of Russia’s war?

Stopping and reversing Russia’s westward drive is a fundamental strategic interest. If Putin wins this war, he will unhinge a 77-years old European order based on restraint, deterrence and a slew of peace-minded treaties. He will be emboldened to go for more and intimidate the rest of Europe.

Such compelling logic, alas, does not crack the puzzle of Germany’s new-found resolve. Nor is the country stepping up to its responsibility as Europe’s richest and most populous country. Transatlantic haggling, and “follow the real leader,” the United States, is a better explanation.

For months, Scholz had sheltered behind US President Joe Biden’s refusal to dispatch America’s M1A1 Abrams tank. The chancellor’s mantra was “kein Alleingang” — no going it alone. So, behind the scenes, the wrangling unfolded. If Mr Big did not go, Germany would not provoke Russia’s modern-day czar.

In the end, Biden relented, even though the Abrams tank may not be ideal for combat in Eastern Europe. It is said to be too heavy for the soft Ukrainian terrain, and it requires complex resupply, for example, it runs on jet fuel, not diesel, and highly trained maintenance personnel.

But these are convenient technicalities beloved by critics of the deal. What really counted was the symbolism. The US commitment reassures Germany, which, since the launch of then-chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik Tin the 1970s, had tried to position itself on the Kremlin’s good side. That is why German governments kept clinging to Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that would bring Russian gas directly to Germany, circumventing Ukraine and Poland. (Until the war, Russia accounted for 55 per cent of Germany’s gas imports.)

With US tanks coming, Germany can spread the risk of Russian retaliation. But angst about that risk should not be overblown. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the US decision. The US and German tanks were “clearly overrated” and would “burn like all others”.

So, Scholz’s gambit worked: you do for me, and I will do for Kyiv. He loves to quote from the famous 1945 musical Carousel: “You will never walk alone.” This is the real point of Germany’s not-so-grand strategy. Surrounded by others, especially by mighty America, lambs need not fear wolves. There is safety in numbers. You must never graze alone.

Those who think that Germany will finally overcome its herd instincts will have to wait. The nation that went to the gates of Moscow in World War II has become as aggressive as a cuddly cat. Its postwar makeover enabled peace and prosperity for itself and the rest of Europe, which no longer had to fear Teutonic imperialism. Why shed Germany’s much-invoked “culture of reticence” now?

The answer is simple: reality changed brutally when Putin attempted to seize Kyiv last February, and currently he is readying massive reinforcements for a spring offensive. Russia’s aggression has also changed German public opinion. Majorities favour arms transfers to Ukraine. So do the Greens, Scholz’s coalition partners. Yesterday’s dyed-in-the wool pacifists have practically turned into a war party. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: Nothing concentrates the mind better than an existential threat.

So, give credit where credit is due. Germany has abandoned Nord Stream 2. It has joined ever-harsher sanctions against Russia. It ranks far ahead of France in the list of countries supplying Ukraine with cash and weapons. It has pledged an additional 100 billion euros ($109 billion) for the Bundeswehr, an army that for three decades has excelled at cutting manpower and equipment. Since the last Russian soldier left Eastern Europe in 1994, Germany’s tank force has shrunk from 3,000 to a bit more than 300.

Still, Germany’s blissful experience as a “power of peace” (Friedensmacht) will discourage the country from ditching its time-honoured strategy. It was just too comfortable to run with a herd led and protected by the US. In the tank drama, the US had to move first so that Germany could follow. Clausewitz, who famously preached the fusion of diplomacy and force, does not live here anymore.

It matters little that the European Union and the United Kingdom add up to the second-largest economy in the world and have a population three times larger than Russia’s. America’s role remains as decisive as ever. When President Barack Obama badmouthed Europe’s “free riders” and Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete”, Putin must have taken notes, and then miscalculated badly. Under Biden, the American sheriff is back in town at the head of an expanding Western posse. Even eternally neutral Finland and Sweden are pushing into NATO.

How long this allied unity will last if the war remains undecided is another story. We know only how wars begin, not how they end, until they do. For now, let’s doff our hats to Biden and Scholz. Both were loath to send tanks, but they hashed out the right deal. May the new armor arrive in time, before Putin unleashes his spring offensive.


Josef Joffe, a member of the editorial council of Die Zeit, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and teaches international politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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