In late July 2022, it emerged that Germany’s plan to help its eastern European allies arm Ukraine had made little progress. According to the scheme, countries such as Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic would supply Kyiv with Soviet-era weaponry from their armed forces; in turn, Germany would transfer its own Western-made equipment to replenish the stock of those countries. Yet despite months of talks, no such transfers of German weapons have been made.

This was not the first example of Berlin having difficulties carrying out its promises on Ukraine. In early spring, Germany pledged to provide heavy weapons directly to Kyiv, but as late as July, only a few such weapons had been delivered. For policymakers in Washington and Brussels, the pattern has become something of a running theme in discussions about the German government: promises followed by foot-dragging. The delayed action is especially concerning since Germany already suffers a deficit of trust among many European allies for its close energy relationship with Moscow, and in particular for refusing to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project until just days before the Russian invasion began. Instead of providing strong foundations for European action, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has often seemed to be struggling to catch up to his more resolute peers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even more than for other countries, it is in Germany’s interest to provide robust support to Ukraine and see the war end quickly and on as favorable terms for Ukraine as possible. Moreover, at a time of uncertainty in the European Union, Germany is well placed to provide crucial leadership, not only on Ukraine but on the EU’s broader security challenges. In addition to its large economy and deep commitments to NATO, Brussels, and the transatlantic alliance, Germany is also the current leader of the G-7, a position that gives Berlin a chance to help remedy the growing divide with the global South and restore the credibility of the West-led order. To seize these opportunities, however, the German government will have to overcome the country’s aversion to the use of military force and deep resistance to change. Failure to do so could in the long term not only undermine Germany’s place in Europe but also weaken the Western alliance at a time of unprecedented global challenges.

Easier Said Than Done

In the opening phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the German response was notably strong. Just days after the invasion began, Scholz surprised even his own party in declaring that this new war in Europe marked a Zeitenwende, the end of an era. As he made clear, it was not just any war, but a war waged by Russia, a nuclear-armed great power that aimed to eliminate Ukraine as an independent nation. He announced important policy changes and unprecedented new measures, including arms deliveries to Ukraine and 100 billion euros in additional defense spending.

Yet putting these bold policies into effect has proved far more difficult. For one thing, Scholz’s tripartite coalition depends on the support of the Green and Free Democrat Parties, as well as on his own Social Democratic Party, historically the party of Ostpolitik, the opening to the Soviet-allied countries of eastern Europe. Scholz not only called for reversing course on Russia, from partnership to confrontation, almost overnight, but also made new defense commitments that could have raised the possibility of German-built tanks shooting at Russian soldiers. The nightmare scenario of the two countries coming into direct conflict created serious internal opposition to Scholz’s Zeitenwende program: some complained that it was too much change all at once; others called it too militaristic.

Behind the German misgivings about greater involvement in Ukraine are a number of security concerns. The most obvious is the risk of military escalation by Russia, including the use of nuclear and chemical weapons. “No NATO involvement” has become a popular mantra in Berlin as well as among other Western countries supporting Ukraine. Understandably, the last thing Scholz wishes is to be remembered as the post–Cold War chancellor who drove Germany into a direct military confrontation with Russia. But even if NATO plays no direct part in the conflict, there will still be risks for Germany: through weapons deliveries to Kyiv, Germany and other countries could make themselves obvious targets for potential Russian escalation.

No other European country has faced such a far-reaching policy shift.

In this regard, two questions remain unanswered. First is the question of whether Moscow has a redline regarding Western—and specifically German—weapons shipments to Ukraine. Will Russia tolerate, for example, the delivery of artillery plus ammunition but not warplanes or major Western-designed tanks? If such a line does exist, then Germany and its Western allies need to be prepared for the consequences. Russia might seek to retaliate, for example, against one or more of the Baltic nations or, alternatively, might attack Western arms convoys headed for Ukraine while they are still on NATO territory. If, however, Ukraine managed to drive Russian forces out of the Donbas region in what would amount to a humiliating Russian defeat, some German analysts have wondered whether Russia would then try to widen the war and strike back, desperately and even more brutally. Why does Germany appear more susceptible to such fears and concerns than many other European allies? There is simply no other country in Europe for which the Russian invasion of Ukraine has generated the same fundamental and far-reaching policy shift. For decades, German foreign policy has been built on such principles as militärische Zurückhaltung (reluctance to use military force), supported by substantial pacifist currents in German post–World War II society; now Chancellor Scholz’s Zeitenwende program would transform the country into a keystone of European security.

A second issue concerns the state of Germany’s military. When the war began, Germany had a short supply of military hardware that could readily be delivered to Ukraine. This problem limited how rapidly Germany could come to Kyiv’s aid, but also, for many German commentators, seemed to present the government with a dilemma. Would it be better to maintain Germany’s admittedly insufficient defense posture? Or should Germany accept that its own security is currently being defended by Ukrainian forces at the Dnieper in Ukraine and not at the Elbe in Germany? Those convinced of the latter position argue that Germany should deliver as much heavy weaponry to Ukraine as possible. Amid these competing views, the German government has often appeared indecisive, resulting in significant delays in getting military aid—particularly heavy weapons—to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Germany’s continued reliance on Russian gas imports has become a growing point of contention between Berlin and some of its European allies. It is now clear that the Kremlin will use this dependence against Germany and other countries whenever it deems it necessary. The German government must therefore make weaning itself from Russian gas its highest priority. The less gas Germany buys from Russia, and the sooner the war ends, the less vulnerable Germany will be to the accusation that it has become a major revenue supplier to Gazprom and thus to the Kremlin’s war machine. But the German government also faces the serious challenge of rapidly rising gas prices and the threat of gas shortages as winter approaches. Consequently, even the anti-nuclear Greens are now participating in a policy debate on whether and how to extend the lifespan of Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants—another example of the extraordinary number of key tenets of German foreign and economic policy that have already been abandoned or are under review.

The Scholz government seems to hope that its partners and allies recognize the magnitude of the political shift the country is making, and that they will give Berlin the leeway it needs to navigate these complex issues. But further German delays on Ukraine could risk undermining Germany’s position in Europe—as well as undercut Germany’s own interests.

Better Sooner Than Later

The case for more German action in Ukraine is not hard to make. For one thing, Germany should make clear its interest in seeing the war end. As recent examples, from the Balkans to Iraq to Syria, have demonstrated, the longer a local or regional conflict lasts, the more polarization and hate it will produce, creating immense barriers to future efforts at reconciliation. For Germany and its European allies, the result of a prolonged war in Ukraine could be many years of instability on Europe’s borders.

Although Germany stands to benefit from a rapid end to the war, it will not benefit if such a resolution happens by Russian diktat. Germany must therefore do everything it can to support Ukraine in its effort to reclaim areas in the south and east of the country. Berlin, along with other European allies, must be prepared to provide much more heavy weaponry to Kyiv to help bring about the necessary conditions for ceasefire or peace negotiations. Such negotiations will begin only if each side concludes that its military options are exhausted. Five months after the start of hostilities, both parties appear quite far from making this calculation: Russia has not lost enough, and Ukraine has not won enough. Germany, therefore, should aim to change the equation and do everything in its power to help Ukraine fight better. And it must do so now rather than in the medium-term future: Ukraine cannot afford to wait.

So far, Scholz’s efforts to shift Germany’s approach have met with significant resistance from the left wing of his own Social Democratic Party. For much of the spring and summer, Scholz has been confronted by complaints about the potentially damaging political and economic fallout of gas shortages next winter, as well as about the chancellor’s controversial decisions to support unprecedented sanctions on Russia, dramatically raise the defense budget, and promise heavy weapons shipments to Kyiv. But there are signs that this opposition can be overcome. Astonishingly, one of Scholz’s coalition partners, the German Green Party—formerly known for its antiwar, anti-American stance—has leapfrogged the SPD to become a champion of realism in the governing coalition. Confronting Russia? No problem. Arms deliveries to Ukraine? Absolutely. Keeping nuclear reactors going? Maybe even that. The Greens appear to have grasped the shifting mood of the wider German public, which has begun to understand that the Russian invasion represents a turning point in global politics.

Indeed, a survey commissioned by the Munich Security Conference for the G-7 meeting last June found that it is not just Germans who perceive the Russian invasion as a Zeitenwende. Between 60 and 70 percent of respondents in all G-7 countries agreed that the new era would be shaped by the return of traditional security threats and that the West is “entering a new Cold War with Russia.” Unsurprisingly, in all G-7 countries except Italy, Russia was seen as the greatest threat. Thirty-two years ago, German leaders cheerfully, and correctly, announced, “We are now only surrounded by friends.” Today, that sounds like a message from the last century, which it is. Now, there is a war in Europe, one that will require Europe—and Germany—to act. And it will be up to Scholz to bring the SPD more fully around to that reality.

Whose Europe?

In addition to keeping the German public behind him, the German leader must keep the European Union together. With the United Kingdom continuing to exchange angry post-Brexit recriminations with Brussels, with French President Emmanuel Macron having lost some of his star quality, and with Italy abruptly ending the reliable administration of Prime Minister Mario Draghi and returning to political volatility, many are asking whether Berlin is once again prepared to lead. Yet successful leadership depends as much on trust as on preparation. Unfortunately, Germany has lost some of the trust it built up in Europe over the last three decades because of its intransigence on Nord Stream 2—its long planned, and now suspended, pipeline project with Russia—and its dangerous dependence on Russian energy. And European misgivings have been compounded by Berlin’s less than enthusiastic position on weapons deliveries to Ukraine. When Scholz presented some important proposals to the EU in July, including on how to reform the EU’s foreign policy decision-making process, it came as no surprise that some eastern member countries were less than lukewarm. They questioned the arrogance of such initiatives by a country that has followed, far more often than it has led, on Ukraine, and that had for so long, in their view, stubbornly refused to listen to its partners about Russia and energy.

If Germany can overcome skeptics at home and abroad, it could help lead a strengthened Europe.

If Germany can overcome this skepticism, however, it will be poised to lead. Perhaps the best opportunity lies in reforming and advancing the EU’s capacity to act. At the moment, of course, Europe needs U.S. political and military leadership more than ever. But a stronger EU that has greater capacity to act militarily is surely in the shared interest of the entire transatlantic community. Two steps in this regard need to be taken now. First, the EU must be more capable of military action when NATO is unable or unwilling to act. The less Europe is seen by American voters as free-riding off security paid for by their tax dollars, the easier it should be for future U.S. presidents to defeat isolationist and anti-NATO currents in Washington, such as those that defined the Trump administration. Clearly, Germany is well equipped to lead such an effort: for 70 years, it has provided the most important bases for the U.S. military presence in Europe, and its military has been fully integrated into NATO structures. In any military contingency in Europe, Germany would be the obvious strategic and logistical hub for the United States.

Second, the decision-making process of the EU must change. According to current protocols, any EU foreign policy decision requires unanimous support of all member states; any single member can cast a veto that can prevent action. Many members have proposed eliminating the unanimity requirement and replacing it with majority voting. Until the EU eliminates the cost-free veto, it will never be taken seriously as a major actor on global security. Scholz has now started to address that challenge, but because of Germany’s trust deficit, he lacks support from some of his 26 partners in the European Council. One way to make progress would be for Scholz to simply declare that Germany will not exercise a veto in a 26–0 situation, but would instead abstain, inviting others to follow this example. Even if success would not be guaranteed, such a bold step in Berlin would surely start an intense debate and demonstrate the German commitment to advancing the EU.

A Different Country

Germany faces many challenges all at once. It faces the most serious crisis of European security in decades. It faces a crisis of trustworthiness, in which many European governments have doubts about Germany’s readiness to stand up to Russia. It faces the collapse of its traditional economic diplomacy, the German strategy of providing prosperity by exporting goods and importing energy while outsourcing security, and of seeking to use trade and investment to effect change in Russia and China. And Germany also faces a crisis of the European Union, which despite its size and economic power has not been able to define itself as an independent international actor capable of defending and advancing its own security interests.

Although greater leadership from Germany could help tackle some of these challenges, they also point to a larger strategic issue for Germany and its allies. Consider the war in Ukraine: it has become popular among Western powers to claim that decisions about a ceasefire or peace negotiations must be left entirely to Ukraine and Russia. Proposals regarding how to bring about an early end to the war have been widely criticized. Yet countries that have been offering significant military, intelligence, financial, and economic support to Ukraine have a legitimate stake both in the conduct of the war and in efforts to end it. That is why it is necessary to build a broader forum in which Europe, the United States, and their allies can discuss all possible options related to the war with the Ukrainian leadership. Obviously, such discussions cannot be conducted publicly, for this is a strategy that will require quiet diplomacy. But much more could be done. For example, the United States and its major European allies could initiate a confidential contact group, together with Ukraine, to ensure that both Kyiv and its Western supporters act in concert. The Ramstein Air Base meeting, a forum of defense ministers led by the United States in April to discuss the Ukraine invasion, could serve as a useful model. 

In this respect, too, however, Germany has an unusual opportunity, since it currently chairs the G-7. Clearly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put the spotlight on differences between autocratic and democratic countries. But if the West wants to prevail in an era of growing geopolitical cleavages, the G-7 will need to build a coalition with countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Since the Ukraine war began, many governments in the global South see themselves not as allies of the G-7 but as casualties of Western sanctions, a view that both Russia and China have nurtured.

Within the G-7, Germany is perhaps the country with the lightest postcolonial burden; it has also had little if any involvement in Western military interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere. Thus Berlin, under the right circumstances, is particularly well suited to help lead a global campaign against the revival of Russian imperialism and colonialism, in Ukraine and elsewhere, and against the destruction of the rules-based international order. If Germany can build on Chancellor Scholz’s Zeitenwende program and embrace change instead of clinging to the status quo, it can help provide the leadership that is sorely needed in the European Union and among other democratic nations as they confront increasingly aggressive authoritarian regimes—not only on Europe's borders but around the world.

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  • WOLFGANG ISCHINGER is President of the Munich Security Conference Foundation Council. From 2001 to 2006, he served as the German ambassador to the United States.
  • More By Wolfgang Ischinger