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BERLIN – Love Germany or loathe it, few would dispute that it is a land of pessimists, a land where the glasses are half empty and every silver lining comes with a dark cloud. There is, of course, a German word for this phenomenon: pessimismpaint black.
In normal times, the gloomy nature of the German offers a source of joy to its neighbors and allies. With the tide seemingly turning in the war in Ukraine, no one is amused.
On Monday, Christine Lambrecht, the latest in a long line of German defense ministers with little or no military experience, made it clear that Ukraine’s gains on the battlefield would not change Berlin’s refusal to supply the country with badly needed tanks.
Delivering what was billed as a “landmark” address in Berlin, Lambrecht criticized Russia for its “terrible war of invasion” and said it was time for Germany to assume a “leadership role” in European security. Helping Ukraine win does not appear to be part of this strategy.
Germany’s refusal to supply tanks is a classic example of politics driven by pessimism. Rooted in fear, German reluctance threatens not only Ukrainian security; it undermines the stability and cohesion of the European Union and NATO.
“Berlin’s hesitation, its inaction seriously calls into question the value and alliance with Germany,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Der Spiegel in an interview published in the weekly’s current issue. The Polish leader, whose country has been among the most generous suppliers of arms to Ukraine, added that “many other government leaders in Europe” shared his view.
With Russian forces retreating in eastern Ukraine, if there was ever a time for Berlin to rethink its stance on tanks, it’s now. Instead, the convoluted debate continues.
In recent days, Germany’s black painters have been out in force. For all the progress Ukraine has made on the battlefield, it would be foolish, they tirelessly argue, to assume Kyiv can recapture its occupied territories, much less win the war.
“It’s probably not going to continue like this,” Christian Mölling, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a state-backed think tank, told ZDF, the German public broadcaster, over the weekend. The Ukrainians are running out of ammunition and fuel, he noted.
Johannes Varwick, a German political scientist who has been pouring cold water on Ukraine’s outlook on the country’s media for months, turned even darker.
“Unpopular opinion,” he wrote on Twitter. “In my opinion, the reports of Ukrainian military success do not change the big picture: Russia has (unfortunately) escalation dominance and, in the medium term, higher endurance. There is no alternative to a political reconciliation of interests.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany Andrij Melnyk offered his own honest assessment in response: “Unpopular opinion: Fuck off.”
While not all of the country’s war commentators are convinced that Ukraine will lose, the pessimism expressed by people like Warwick is at the heart of Germany’s reluctance – despite widespread public sympathy for the Ukrainian cause – not to do more to help.
While a clear majority of Germans want to support Ukraine, only about a third are in favor of sending heavy weapons such as tanks.
Indeed, Germany has delivered heavy weapons to Ukraine, including 10 howitzers, anti-aircraft systems and other, mainly defensive, armaments. Critics say the level of military aid, which totaled €1.2 billion in mid-August, according to data tracked by the Kiel-based Institute for the World Economy, is not commensurate with a country of its size and wealth. By comparison, the United States has so far committed around 25 billion euros in military aid to Ukraine.
Germany’s three-way governing coalition is divided on the issue of tanks, with some voices in the Greens and liberal Free Democrats calling for tank deliveries. But practically the answer remains ‘none.’
During a visit to Kiev at the weekend, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was pressed by her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba about his country’s need for tanks. She declined to make any commitments regarding the tanks, saying only that her government remained in “intensive” consideration of the arms deliveries.
Ultimately, responsibility for the decision not to send tanks rests with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who likes to point out that neither the US nor any other country has sent Western-made tanks to Ukraine.
Scholz’s argument is frustrating for those fighting in Ukraine. As the manufacturer of one of the world’s most effective tanks, known as the Leopard, no country in Europe is better placed to supply Ukraine than Germany. What’s more, the country has hundreds of dead leopards at its disposal.
If Berlin’s caution was easier for some to understand in the early days of the war, when the full scale of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s colonial ambitions was not yet clear to all, it has become increasingly difficult to justify.
Even US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has generally treated Berlin with kid gloves, has begun to take a more forceful tone. “As much as I admire and applaud everything Germany is doing … we must do more,” Amy Gutmann, the US ambassador to Germany, told German television on Sunday, adding that the West’s “own peace and prosperity” was at stake.
Much has been written about the reasons for Berlin’s soft approach to Moscow: the country’s business interests, the legacy of Ostpolitik and the russophilia of the German left have all played a role.
But with Ukraine finally making significant progress on the battlefield, it’s hard not to believe that Germany’s own history has nothing to do with continued intransigence.
Call it the Ghost of Stalingrad. It is not German war guilt over the damage Hitler’s armies inflicted on Russia that is at stake here (after all, Ukraine suffered more than Russia under German occupation). On the contrary, like the Ukrainians, the Germans were convinced that they could defeat Russia. Ultimately, however, they discovered they could not.
If Germans want to reflect on the lessons of history, they would do better to ask themselves another question. Instead of worrying about the miscalculations that led to their losses in World War II, they should reflect on what Europe would look like now if they had been allowed to win.