Externe Publikationen

22. Apr. 2024

Germany and Russia’s War of Aggression against Ukraine: The Third Year

A serviceman of the Steppe Wolves all-volunteer unit is seen near a pickup equipped with Grad rocket launch tubes captured from Russian troops
Alle Rechte vorbehalten

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came as a real shock to German elites and society alike. Although Russia has been behaving aggressively toward its neighbors since the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea—part of Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory—in 2014, it was only with this most recent military attack that the German leadership came to understand Russia’s behavior as a threat to German and European security.


In response, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (2022) gave his famous Zeitenwende speech, in which he acknowledged the full-scale invasion as a watershed moment for European security and announced a special fund of 100 billion Euro for defense and the modernization of the German army. The country also quickly decoupled from Russian gas and oil—a very costly decision, given that Germany received nearly 60 percent of its gas (which plays an important role in the German energy mix) from Russia prior to the war. As of February 2024, Germany had further supported thirteen comprehensive packages of EU sanctions against Russia. All in all, within a couple of months, the nature of German–Russian relations changed fundamentally: Germany decoupled from structural energy dependencies, cut off most of its economy from the Russian market, and has become—after two years of war—the second largest supporter of Ukraine (behind the US) in terms of the quantity of weapons supplied.

After Two Years of War: Germany as Ukraine’s Main European Partner 

In the first months of the war, the federal government, and particularly Chancellor Scholz, were careful to avoid provoking Russia by providing too much military support for Ukraine. Accordingly, Berlin took quite an incremental approach to supplying weapons. In light of the upcoming U.S. election in November 2024 and the risk that U.S. support for Ukraine will decline or be cut off—and even that the US will withdraw the security guarantees it has made to Europe— Scholz adapted his policy and Germany became one of the crucial supporters for Ukraine. Having welcomed 1.14 million Ukrainian refugees as of February 2024, according to UNHCR, Germany has been the leading European recipient of displaced Ukrainians, followed by Poland, which has taken in nearly 957,000 refugees. This openness to Ukrainian refugees is the result of a consensus policy among the ruling “traffic light” coalition that also enjoys the support of the largest opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Similarly, despite running a budget deficit in 2024, the German defense budget was not cut, and the ruling coalition agreed to provide Ukraine with an additional 8 billion Euro of support. Yet the main criticism of the government’s policy— leveled by members of the CDU and security experts— is not that Berlin has gone too far in its support for Ukraine, but rather that the Chancellor and parts of his Social Democratic party (SPD) have been too cautious. The discussion about (not supplying) Taurus missiles to Ukraine reflects this tension: parts of the German elite, especially within Scholz’s SPD, are afraid that such a move would escalate the war and risk dragging Germany into direct military conflict with Russia. The whole Taurus discussion took so much energy that it distracted for some time from the main short-term challenges for Ukraine, which is the lack of ammunition and air defense.

Despite big shifts in Germany’s policy toward Russia and Ukraine in the last two years, parts of the German elite still seem not to understand how Putin’s Russia functions and appear to have failed to learn their lesson from past failures of German Ostpolitik (Meister and Jilge 2023). Specifically, they do not seem to recognize that Russia’s ruling elites see compromise as weakness: the Kremlin does not believe in “win-win” international relations and thinks it can only win if the other party loses. The Russian leadership wants to bring Ukraine under its control in the classical imperial tradition; they demand the recognition of “spheres of influence” in Europe and buffer zones between Russia and NATO countries. As long as Russia is capable, it will attack Ukraine. Therefore, any ceasefire in the current difficult situation for Ukraine—or a “Minsk 3” accord, as proposed by head of the Munich Security Conference and former policy advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel Christopher Heusgen (Das Erste 2024)—would invite Russia to regroup for a renewed attack on Ukraine and to keep the country in a “gray zone.”

German elites have also long underestimated the authoritarian, repressive, and deadly nature of the Putin system. The death of Alexei Navalny confirms that this regime kills internally and externally. Yet while Russia has a broad strategic framework for keeping the empire together, it does not have a strategy for achieving this except through military blackmail. Moscow reacts to the West’s action and inaction and uses the West’s weaknesses to undermine unity and support for Ukraine. Russian disinformation plays on narratives and threat perceptions that already exist within European societies, from possible nuclear war to a protracted war in Ukraine and even a direct confrontation with Russia. 

Dealing with an assertive actor like Russia will require European leadership and the political will to transform the pacifist culture prevalent in Germany and across Europe in line with the realities of ensuring European security. Self-defense and deterrence capabilities are crucial for a country like Germany. Communication and political ownership are integral to the pursuit of this goal. Despite longstanding high societal support for Ukraine, this is exactly what the current German leadership is not providing. The hesitance of the German Chancellor is in part a reaction to the (changing) mood in German society, which is growing tired of the war and fears escalation and growing economic costs. While there is still substantial support for Ukraine, there are clear limits to any support that imposes costs on Germans themselves. According to ARD-DeutschlandTrend (2024), as of January 2024, 43 percent of Germans say that the current sanctions are not sufficient, while 19 percent feel that they have gone too far. Although over half (51 percent) of respondents indicated that Germany’s current diplomatic efforts were not sufficient, fully 41 percent of respondents said that Germany was providing too much military support to Ukraine (compared to just 21 percent who said that this support was insufficient). Similarly, 41 percent felt that Germany’s financial support for Ukraine had gone too far, whereas only 12 percent indicated that it had not gone far enough. Support for Ukrainian refugees has also declined sharply over the past two years: according to a 2024 Munich Security Index report, whereas in May 2022 46 percent of respondents supported Germany welcoming more Ukrainian refugees, by early 2024 only 25 percent were in favor of this.

In sum, while German policy toward Russia and Ukraine has undergone a fundamental shift in the past two years and now emphasizes the need for Ukraine to win the war, German society is ever less comfortable with the war and the economic costs it imposes. A growing majority does not see an end to the war in sight and would prefer a diplomatic solution. Despite huge solidarity with Ukrainian refugees, the financial costs are increasingly seen as a burden, especially if the war will be a protracted one. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the new leftwing-populist Party of Sarah Wagenknecht (Bündnis Sarah Wagenknecht) are the main political forces trying to capitalize on this societal mood; they seek to benefit politically from making demands for peace without providing a roadmap for achieving peace that would avoid sacrificing support for Ukraine. In this framework we have to understand the hesitant policy of Scholz.

NATO and EU Integration of Ukraine 

Germany’s decision to sign an agreement (Bundesregierung 2024) on security cooperation and long-term support with Ukraine neither represents an alternative to security guarantees nor provides any security guarantees. What the agreement does is to support the longterm development of Ukraine’s security sector, arms supply and production, and demining efforts, as well as providing for cybersecurity and intelligence cooperation and promising long-term financial support. Parts of the agreement also discuss economic cooperation and the reconstruction of Ukraine. Besides German support for rebuilding infrastructure and supporting the rule of law and institutional reforms, there are several sectors where Germany has an interest in investment and economic cooperation. These include the IT sector and cybersecurity, agriculture, and energy (including areas like green hydrogen and renewable energy).

Such security agreements, which Ukraine has also signed with the UK and France, to some degree substitute for EU and NATO integration, which are impossible in the short-term. Nevertheless, without NATO integration there will be no security for Ukraine. And they do not address any short term needs of Ukraine to continue the defending itself against Russia’s war of aggression which are crucial before discussing reconstruction and long-term cooperation. While Germany supports Ukraine’s integration into the EU, Berlin is at pains to emphasize that there will be no softening of the conditions for accession because of the war. Berlin understands integration as a long-term process and stresses, in parallel to Ukraine’s candidacy, the need for internal EU reforms to the voting system, decision-making, and the distribution of funds. Germany will support Ukraine in its efforts to strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption, and carry out economic and decentralization reforms with a view to EU accession. But Berlin is not a leader when it comes to EU enlargement or EU internal reforms.

In his military support for Ukraine, Scholz’s main partner is U.S. President Joe Biden. Many of Berlin’s decisions regarding supplying weapons have been coordinated first with Washington and then with Germany’s European partners. While the German government does not support the French approach of European strategic autonomy, there is a growing understanding that the European wing of NATO must be strengthened. The main goal of this policy is not to become more independent from the U.S. security guarantees, but rather to keep the US engaged in Europe by increasing spending on security and defense.

The Changing European Security Order and Regional Orders 

The German government is aware that Europe is facing growing security and geopolitical challenges, due not only to Russia’s large-scale war, but also to other conflicts in the Middle East (including the one between Israel and Hamas), in Central Africa, and in North Africa. This war marks the end of the post-Cold War European security order and represents the greatest threat to European security since the end of the Second World War. The fundamental shift in relations with Russia has necessitated a rethink of this relationship and the role Germany wants to play in European and trans-Atlantic relations. The German business model, based on cheap Russian pipeline gas, is history. Except the demand for more deterrence, there is no discussion of a new German or EU Russia strategy, no long-term prospects for relations with Russia, nor any other strategic approach. The current German government is in crisis management mode, without a vision for its own role in Europe and the world in the new geopolitical and security environment. If this continues, Germany might further lose its role as the main negotiator with Russia and Europe’s key crisis manager, which it has played for the past decades.

This war is a stress test for German politics, which needs a more comprehensive and visionary approach to European security and the European project. The post-Second World War multilateral order guaranteed by the US is coming to an end and institutions traditionally supported by Germany—like the UN, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe—are under pressure or becoming dysfunctional. Germany’s growing focus on the Global South as we have seen it at the last two MSC’s is not underpinned by a strategic approach or sufficient resources; as a result, it looks rather instrumental. In the post-Soviet region, we observe the end of Russian hegemony, driven by the huge amount of resources the country is spending in its brutal war in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and the growing interest of the countries of Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Eastern Europe in counterbalancing Russia’s influence. As a result, we will likely witness the emergence of new regional orders in which third powers like China, Turkey, Iran, or Arab countries will play an increasing role and also challenge Russia. At the same time, Russia can no longer guarantee stability to these post-Soviet regions and the war has changed its interests. Moscow is now reliant on cooperation with post-Soviet countries to circumvent sanctions, develop alternative trade and transit routes, and enlarge markets. Therefore, transactionalism will play a larger role and the security situation in the regions will become more volatile, depending on other intra-regional or external actors bargaining.

For the EU, this means that its policy of enlargement is now in competition with the transactional offers of other players. Since there are no longer any Russian security guarantees and multilateral institutions are eroding, it would be in the interests of the EU to play a greater role in the regional conflicts in its Eastern neighborhood. But this would require leadership and engagement from the EU’s (big) member states, which is largely lacking. In the South Caucasus, for instance, a new regional security order is in making. Countries like Azerbaijan and Turkey aim to be the key players here, whereas Germany and the EU are confined to facilitating negotiations and have no real ownership of the peace process. Here again, the lack of a vision or strategy has led to a weakened role for the EU and Germany in this region. Despite growing interests in the Caspian region, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus when it comes to transit, connectivity, resources, and energy, German engagement with these parts of the world is rather limited. Therefore, the outcome of the Russian war against Ukraine will ultimately determine where the new European security order develops. Germany and the EU are currently reacting to developments rather than shaping them.

Bibliografische Angaben

Meister, Stefan. “Germany and Russia’s War of Aggression against Ukraine: The Third Year.” German Council on Foreign Relations. April 2024.

This article was first published in the Russian Analytical Digest (RAD), Issue 312 (6-10pp.) on April 22, 2024. You can access the full article including figures and further resources here.

Verwandter Inhalt