Argument

What Germany Owes Ukraine

On Ukraine, Angela Merkel enjoys a reputation as Europe’s Iron Lady. Here’s why it’s unearned.

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In a state visit to Hungary on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated what has become her mantra ever since Russian tanks, men, and materiel began pouring over the border into Ukraine last spring. “I am convinced that this conflict cannot be solved militarily,” the Queen of Europe, now entering her 10th year as the most powerful leader on the continent, said.

If only Vladimir Putin agreed.

Almost immediately following its stealth invasion of Crimea and subsequent illegal annexation of the peninsula last march, Russia began supplying arms and tactical support to rebels in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Soon thereafter, Russian soldiers themselves joined the fight. Official Russian claims to the contrary, the steady trickle of body bags back to Mother Russia over the past year has attested to the presence of Russian forces fighting (and dying) in Ukraine. In the past two weeks, pro-Russian rebels, emboldened by the support they have received from regular Russian military forces, have killed dozens of Ukrainian civilians, including children, by firing shells indiscriminately into non-combatant areas like transit stops.

Putin’s strategy is clear. He intends to punish Ukraine for ousting its pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, and for having the gall to seek a western political orientation. And he intends to do so by rendering it a failed state. A semi-permanent condition of low-intensity armed conflict in the East serves that function. To secure his grip on Crimea, Putin also seeks to establish a land bridge connecting it to the Russian mainland, which explains the increased military activity around Donetsk and Mariupol in recent weeks.

Putin seems to have no misgivings about using military means to achieve his goals. Which is why, according to the Ukrainian government, there are currently some 15,000 Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory and an untold higher number amassed at the border, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. A cease-fire agreement signed in Minsk last fall — in which Merkel and other European diplomats naively invested much hope — is no longer worth the paper it was written on, if it ever was.

Much has been said about how fortunate Europe is to have Merkel dealing with Putin at such a sensitive moment, given her East German upbringing, fluent Russian, and appreciation for cold, hard data instilled via a scientific education. A recent laudatory profile in the New Yorker by George Packer praised her “characteristically unsentimental view of Russia.” On the face of it, her tough posture has stood in stark contrast to the emotional attitudes held by so many of her countrymen, especially past Chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt, who have bent over backwards to make excuses for Putin. And yet, despite Merkel’s Teutonic stoicism, her position on Russia is anything but firm.

Mindful of her role as leader of the country that twice plunged Europe into war in the last century, Merkel has, from the very start of the Ukraine crisis, repeatedly advised NATO against providing military support to Kiev. “Military action isn’t an option for us,” she declared last March, days before Putin formally annexed Crimea, a line that she has recited at nearly every opportunity. So much for the principle of strategic ambiguity.

Not only has Merkel opposed NATO supplying weapons to Ukraine, she has also gone so far as to oppose the stationing of NATO forces further east on the territory of the alliance’s newer members so as to reassure them in the face of the new Russian aggression. To justify this stance, she has formulated a dubious interpretation of a clause in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, which stated that NATO would not station “permanent” forces in the new member countries in the “current and foreseeable security environment.” Calls today by Poland and the Baltic states for NATO troops to be deployed on their territory need not violate this provision, however, as they would not necessarily be “permanent.” Moreover, the Founding Act itself has been effectively nullified by the actions of Russia and Russia alone, which has perpetrated an Anschluss. Yet Merkel leads a bevy of other hesitant European statesmen in clinging to its outdated provisions, echoing positions favorable to the Kremlin.

Merkel’s leadership style hinges upon a deft reading of public opinion, followed by a gentle guiding from the front. This rule-by-consensus approach is what has kept her in power for the past decade. As the broad majority of Germans has always opposed sending any military support to Ukraine, there is little reason to believe that Merkel would ever risk standing athwart this popular accord. In the first place, Russia’s propaganda machine has done its work. The German public has been especially susceptible to Russian claims that the new government in Kiev is replete with “Nazis,” as Germans are ever sensitive to claims of nascent fascism on the European continent. Secondly, calls to get tough on Russia are often viewed as explicitly American machinations, something many Germans are allergic to in an era when they regard the U.S.-Germany alliance with growing skepticism. (Danke, Edward Snowden.)

But most immediately, Germans’ hesitation to confront Russia is rooted in their confused understanding of their country’s wartime history. Seventy years after World War II, German political discussion of Russia continues to be plagued by a misplaced sense of guilt toward Moscow. This sympathy for Russia is so wide and so deep that the epithet Russland-Versteher, or “Russia understander,” entered the political lexicon last year. Many German political leaders have difficulty separating the historic atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht and SS against Soviet troops and citizens with the atrocities being visited upon Ukrainians by Russians this very day. So, when, for instance, last year German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble very reasonably compared Putin to Adolf Hitler — on the basis that both men forcibly seized whole chunks of other countries’ territories based solely upon the utterly illegitimate predicate of ethnic comradeship — he was set upon by all sectors of German media and politics as an uncouth barbarian trampling upon Germany’s sacred debt to honor its wartime history. Their number included no less a figure than the Chancellor herself, who described Crimea as “a standalone case.”

Simply put, most Germans, already averse to violence in the first place, cannot countenance the idea of German weapons being used to kill Russians. It doesn’t matter if those weapons are being used purely in self-defense to protect Ukrainians, who would otherwise perish in the Russian onslaught. More important to the collective German conscience is its own moral immaculacy. It’s an understandable historical hang-up, but a deeply erroneous one. For in ascribing permanent victimhood status to Putin’s Russian Federation, the Germans not only absolve the Russian leader of responsibility for his actions — they commit a grave historical error by conflating the former Soviet Union with contemporary Russia.

“The vast majority of Ukrainians who fought in [World War II] did so in the uniform of the Red Army,” writes historian Timothy Snyder. “More Ukrainians were killed fighting the Wehrmacht than American, British, and French soldiers — combined.” By swallowing Russian propaganda about Ukrainian nationalists who fought on the side of the Nazis against the Soviets, Germans forget that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians who fought in World War II did so on the side of the Soviets and died at the hands of Germans. If war guilt is to be a major determinative factor in the formation of 21st-century German foreign policy (and it appears that it will), then Germans owe Ukrainians at least as much, if not more, than whatever they may owe Russians: after all, their grandfathers killed plenty of both. Ultimately, what Germany owes both countries in equal measure is an honest accounting of history. It is the very least that Germany, which has produced some of the best historians of World War II, can do.

An honest accounting of history, then, would show that Ukraine was a victim both of German and Soviet predations, and is today being set upon by a rapacious, authoritarian Russia. In words, at least, Merkel seems to understand this. “What Russia is visiting upon Ukraine is a violation of our European system of peace and security,” she said Tuesday in Budapest, stating that Moscow’s actions signify “the old pattern of thought that neighboring states are spheres of influence, and not partners.” It is just that she seems unwilling to match her words with deeds.

Today, Germans proudly see themselves as staunch advocates for liberal democratic values — the sharpest repudiation possible of their own dark past. In Budapest earlier this week, Merkel criticized Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose right-wing populist government has repeatedly come under fire from the European Union and human rights watchdogs for weakening checks and balances and for whitewashing the country’s World War II collaboration with the Nazis. But during the same visit, she repeated her position against arming Ukraine. Hungary, however, is not where the continent’s most desperate battles in defense of a struggling new democracy are being waged. It’s all well and good for Merkel to speak out for democracy with words and bureaucratic instruments. But in neighboring Ukraine, where the state’s very existence hangs in the balance, the battle for democracy must be waged with bullets.

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

James Kirchick is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.” Twitter: @jkirchick

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