An itemized list of Ukraine’s latest request for German security assistance has found its way into two major German papers (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel, February 5). The Ukrainian embassy and the military attaché’s office in Berlin addressed this request to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense, respectively. Citing the “very tense situation and threats of Russian aggression,” Ukraine seeks “undelayed assistance and urgent procurement” of: modern medium-range air-defense systems and missile-defense systems, anti-drone rifles, automatic cannons, ammunition for the above-mentioned weapons, night-vision devices, surveillance cameras, electronic tracking systems, as well as 100,000 helmets and an equal number of bullet-proof vests for Ukrainian territorial defense volunteers (the quantities requested have not leaked out except for the helmets and vests).
Ukraine sent its updated requests for lethal and nonlethal military equipment to Germany and some other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union countries on February 1. According to Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, the procurement should enable Ukrainian forces to raise the price of a Russian aggression, thus reducing its likelihood or helping to prevent it (Ukrinform, February 3).
Berlin is certain to turn down all lethal and most non-lethal items for ideological reasons peculiar to Germany. However, Berlin would find it difficult to meet some key Ukrainian needs even if it had wished to meet them. Ukraine‘s request has inadvertently brought to light some of the Bundeswehr’s own equipment deficiencies. According to domestic press accounts, the German army is itself short of modern air-defense systems and types of ammunition that Ukraine is requesting. Ukraine had earlier expressed interest in procuring German corvettes, but the German navy itself is in need of such vessels. From Ukraine’s current request, the German government would only provide helmets and bullet-proof vests (100,000 of each—see above), but the defense ministry’s inventory search determined that it could only come up with 5,000 helmets and no vests (Die Welt, February 2, 5; see Part One in EDM, February 3).
Germany’s arms export policy is restrictive in its theory, with big loopholes in its practice (see below), but is implacably prohibitive in the case of Ukraine; and it obstructs, when it can, arms transfers to Ukraine from third parties. Exploiting its veto right in the framework of NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency, Berlin blocked Ukraine’s procurement of 90 anti-sniper rifles from the United States (at a time when Russian and proxy forces were using snipers to kill Ukrainian soldiers in breach of the armistice) (Ukrinform, February 3).
On a bilateral level, Germany is currently blocking Estonia’s donation of nine medium-caliber howitzers to Ukraine. Those Soviet-legacy pieces passed from the German Democratic Republic to the reunified Germany to Finland to Estonia, necessitating German authorization for any re-export. Germany is grasping at the legal opportunity to block this Estonian donation to Ukraine. The Social-Democrat Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is stonewalling (see EDM, February 3), while the technical decision belongs to the Ministry of Economics, led by the pacifist Greens. According to Germany’s new Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (Social-Democrat), Ukraine cannot be allowed to receive even these Soviet-legacy pieces, because they are not only lethal but also “not defensive” (Funke Press Group, February 6).
Berlin’s policy to deny Ukraine’s right of self-defense—in effect, unilateral disarmament—dates back to an early phase of Russia’s war against Ukraine. It also helped the Barack Obama administration to impose its own arms embargo on Ukraine, citing the German example for justification. According to then-chancellor Angela Merkel’s top foreign policy advisor (2005–2017), Christoph Heusgen, in a retrospective interview (Der Tagesspiegel, February 7, 2022), “the decision to not supply any arms to Ukraine was made following the Minsk agreement, in order to calm down the conflict. This worked out for a while.” Heusgen, now incoming chairperson of the annual Munich Security Conference, cautiously suggests that “Germany should consider how to strengthen Ukraine’s defensive capacity.”
The government in Berlin is not indifferent to arms transfers from NATO member countries to Ukraine. The German government has criticized Ukraine’s use of Turkish-made armed drones (German politicians are currently immersed in a wrenching introspection about the legitimacy of and self-imposed limitations to the use of combat drones by the Bundeswehr). Last month, a British transport plane carrying anti-armor missiles to Ukraine bypassed German airspace, flying a longer route instead, out of concern that German authorities might block or delay the overflight authorization (see EDM, February 3).
Germany is ranked as the fourth-largest exporter of military equipment worldwide, with just under €10 billion ($11.4 billion) worth of exports in 2021 (Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 4, 2022). German policy bars exports of military equipment to non-members of NATO or the European Union in conflict theaters, but the wording contains loopholes and leaves room for interpretation. Decisions can be driven by political, commercial or humanitarian-interventionist considerations. Thus, Germany has in recent years delivered weapons in the Middle East’s conflict theaters: submarines to Israel, frigates and air-defense systems to Egypt, planes to Saudi Arabia during the Yemen war, or anti-armor missile systems to the Kurdish Peshmerga against the Islamic State in Iraq (anti-terrorism and humanitarian intervention). The new coalition government in Berlin, more prone to leftist-pacifist moralizing than its predecessor, plans to tighten the restrictions on German exports of military equipment.
In Ukraine’s case, however, Germany’s new government is set to continue the old policy of withholding any military support, regardless of Ukraine’s status as a NATO-aspirant and EU-aspirant country, and despite—or, actually, because of—Russia’s indisputable aggression against Ukraine.