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Why Germany’s Ukraine Approach Differs From Western Allies’

Germany’s historical reluctance on arms transfers disrupts NATO’s call for a united front on Russia.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Moscow, on January 18, 2022.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Moscow, on January 18, 2022.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Moscow, on January 18, 2022. MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Germany’s approach to Ukraine frustrates NATO allies, Burkinabe authorities deny coup amid army mutiny, and Italy picks a new president.

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Allies Question Germany’s Ukraine Approach 

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Germany’s approach to Ukraine frustrates NATO allies, Burkinabe authorities deny coup amid army mutiny, and Italy picks a new president.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Allies Question Germany’s Ukraine Approach 

As the United States continues to pursue diplomacy amid a Russian military buildup near Ukraine’s borders, recent developments have put NATO’s ability to present a united front in question.

On Friday, it emerged that Germany was blocking NATO ally Estonia from transferring German-origin howitzer artillery to Ukraine, while off-the-cuff remarks from Germany’s navy chief Kay-Achim Schönbach—saying that Crimea would not return to Ukraine and that Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved respect—forced his resignation over the weekend.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made no secret of the country’s hesitancy to provide arms that may be used in a future war. “Our restrictive position is well known and is rooted in history,” Baerbock said last week. The speedy departure of Schönbach also shows Germany has no desire to be seen as a Russian cat’s-paw.

Still, the relative reluctance of Germany to follow its NATO allies in supporting Ukraine has raised questions over Germany’s position should a Russian an invasion occur, and how far the country would be willing to go in supporting a Western sanctions campaign. German officials have privately said they are ready to shelve Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline direct from Russia to Germany, in the event of Russian military action, although such a threat has yet to be made explicitly.

The issue of arms transfers remains a difficult issue for German policymakers to follow their NATO counterparts on, Liana Fix, a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Foreign Policy. “Weapons deliveries are very clearly seen in other countries as a deterrence measure, whereas in the German political discourse they are seen as contributing to further escalation,” Fix said.

While arms transfers may be off the table politically, Fix doesn’t rule out further actions to reassure allies, like when Germany led a NATO battalion to Lithuania in 2016.

Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Germany’s prevarications stem from a domestic politics that is yet to grasp 21st-century realities. It can’t be blamed on the small number of explicitly pro-Russian elements in the country, but rather a cognitive dissonance among mainstream politicians, making them “unwilling to look reality in the face because it would force them to reconsider their position.”

When it comes to Ukraine, Stelzenmüller said, that dissonance plays out in Germany’s decision to help fund a field hospital in Ukraine while other allies provide arms: “I don’t know how we could say more obviously that we expect there to be bloodshed, but then we’re not going to do anything about it except co-finance an Estonian field hospital.”

If the United States is disappointed in Germany’s level of coherence, it is not showing it publicly. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC on Sunday that the Germans “very much share our concerns and are resolute in being determined to respond and to respond swiftly, effectively, and in a united way. I have no doubts about that.”

“German foreign policy is always slow and incremental,” Fix said, citing the country’s initial soft approach to sanctioning Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014, which then grew into much stronger measures. “I think it’s perhaps too early to judge yet whether Germany is really the weak link.”


The World This Week

Monday, Jan. 24: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joins the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, a meeting of EU foreign ministers, in Brussels.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland.

Tuesday, Jan. 25: Transparency International releases its annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hosts French President Emmanuel Macron in Berlin.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers an annual address on the eve of Republic Day celebrations.

Wednesday, Jan. 26: Taiwanese Vice President William Lai Ching-te travels to Honduras to attend the inauguration of new President Xiomara Castro. He will transit through Los Angeles and San Francisco on his way to and from Honduras.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov address the Russian State Duma.

The U.S. Federal Reserve makes its interest rate decision.

India celebrates Republic Day, while Australia celebrates Australia Day.

Thursday, Jan. 27: South Korea’s two leading presidential candidates, the Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung and People Power Party’s Yoon Seok-youl, will participate in the first televised debate ahead of the March 9 presidential election.

Sunday, Jan. 30: Portugal holds parliamentary elections.


What We’re Following Today

Burkina Faso. Burkinabe authorities denied that a coup attempt had taken place amid reports of an army mutiny and sustained gunfire at military bases in the country. The mutinying soldiers have called for “appropriate” resources to fight Islamist militants in the area as well as the resignation of senior military and intelligence leaders. Protests in support of the mutineers were met with tear gas by police, while protesters looted and burned the offices of the People’s Movement for Progress, the party of President Roch Kabore.

Italy selects. Italian lawmakers gather for a joint session today to begin the process of selecting a new president to replace Sergio Mattarella, whose seven-year term is at an end. Mario Draghi, the current prime minister, is heavily favored for the role, while former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has ruled himself out of the running. The presidential race, FP columnist Adam Tooze writes, goes beyond whether Draghi will ascend but is rather “the latest round in the decades-long struggle to reconcile Italy’s position as a member of the inner circle of Europe—and the euro—with the shifting currents of Italian democracy.”


Keep an Eye On

Taiwan incursions. Some 39 Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Sunday, the highest figure since October 2021, the island’s defense ministry reported. Taiwan scrambled its own fighter jets in response to the flights, which came close to the Pratas Islands.

Iran talks. The United States appeared to tie the success of a nuclear deal with Iran to the release of four U.S. citizens currently held by Iran. Asked about the Vienna negotiations and Americans, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley told Reuters that the two issues were “separate” but “it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran.”

Boris Johnson’s future. The results of an internal investigation into allegations of lockdown rule-breaking at No. 10 Downing St. are expected this week, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s future hanging in the balance. Dominic Cummings, a former Johnson advisor, is expected to be interviewed by investigator Sue Gray today. On Sunday, the Telegraph reported that members of the Metropolitan Police were part of the investigation and may provide independent corroboration to several allegations.


Odds and Ends

While British politicians weigh judgement on their own prime minister’s adherence to coronavirus restrictions, nearly 12,000 miles away, another prime minister has canceled her wedding to keep within national measures. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was set to marry her partner Clarke Gayford later this month, but new public health restrictions in the wake of the omicron variant have put the nuptials on ice.

“My wedding won’t be going ahead, but I just join many other New Zealanders who have had an experience like that as a result of the pandemic,” Ardern told reporters. “Such is life.”

Correction, Jan. 24, 2022: This article has been updated to correct a misspelling in the name of Honduras’s new president, Xiomara Castro. Also, some of the dates in the World This Week section were wrong in the original version of this article. They have been corrected.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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