Berlin leads the fracture, as some weapons flow but only after great damage has been done to Ukraine
With rifts busting out among European allies over the war in Ukraine, the touted unity of NATO is looking tattered.
Leading the parade of disunion is Germany, despite its self-declared psychological “turning point” regarding getting involved in conflict after Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is declining to provide heavy armaments and dithering over other weapons Kyiv says it needs.
Poland, whose eastern border touches Ukraine, fears that Germany, along with France and Italy, might ask Ukraine to make territorial concessions in return for peace. The leaders of the three were meeting Thursday with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev.
Polish President Andrzej Dud has raised the specter of Western appeasement, in the style of Europe’s notorious concession of Czechoslovakian territory to Nazi Germany in advance of World War II.
Zelensky is adamant about keeping Ukraine whole.
The three Baltic states – all of which were once Soviet republics – fear that economic costs to Europe due to the sanctions placed on trade with Moscow might outweigh the West’s declared determination to help Ukraine.
“Our goal must be for Putin to lose the war,” Krisjanis Karins, Latvia’s prime minister, told the Financial Times. “If it’s going to take some time, it’s worth it. In the West, we pay with our wallets. The Ukrainians are paying with their lives.”
Clear planning on how to deter Putin seems out of the questions. Domestic politics and fears of a wider war get in the way.
For almost two months after Russia invaded Ukraine, France kept secret its delivery of light rockets to Ukraine. President Emmanuel Macron feared upsetting anti-intervention voters in advance of presidential elections, which he won. Macron also refuses a long-standing request from Spain to construct a natural gas pipeline to eastern Europe that could ease dependence on Russian energy.
Meanwhile, Italy, which is ruled by a government that is divided among supporters of Russia and others that back Ukraine, speaks only in vague terms about the need for peace talks. Prime Minister Mario Draghi declines to specify exactly what weaponry his country is providing the Ukrainians.
Germany, France and Italy are all the object of suspicion among their neighbors to the east. Macron, Scholz, and Draghi visited Kiev Thursday for talks with Zelensky.
Poland expressed exasperation about the visit. “I am bewildered given all these talks with Putin at the moment,” said President Andrzej Duda.” They only lead to a legitimization of a person who is responsible for the crimes that the Russian army is committing in Ukraine
It’s been remarkable that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with 32 members that possess differing concerns, has helped keep Ukraine’s outgunned army afloat with weaponry. The notion that three Western non-frontline states somehow speak for the continent irks Eastern Europe.
Duda rejects treating Putin as a reputable negotiating partner. “Did anyone talk to Adolf Hitler like this during the Second World War? Did anyone say that Adolf Hitler must save face? That we should act in a way that is not humiliating for Adolf Hitler?” Duda said to Bild, the German newspaper.
Germany’s position inspires the most doubts. Is Germany unwilling to put its weight behind Ukraine because of its post-WWII pacifism? According to Der Spiegel magazine, Scholz refuses to supply tanks to Ukraine for fear they might cross into Russia and revive memories of Hitler’s eastward invasion.
Or is it simply a comfortable device that leaves the heavy lifting to US and smaller NATO members, all the better to leave unsullied its commercial business with Russia to resume at a later date?
“Part of the German economic sector doesn’t care at all about what happens to Ukraine,” complained Duda. “They say: ‘We want to do business and earn money.’”
Although Germany seemed to have shed its myopic view of Russia after the February 24 invasion, it took three days for Scholz to publicly react with anger and begin to provide military aid to Ukraine. Until February 27, the Germans had decided only to provide 5,000 military helmets.
Scholz was prompted to deliver arms after the Netherlands asked permission to send German-made anti-tank weapons by train across Germany. The request highlighted the German unwillingness to do the same.
Scholz ordered up a shipment of a few hundred anti-tank rocket launchers and Stinger surface-to-air missiles, to send them by land to Poland. Then he made his “turning point” speech.
Unsure about what to do next, he ordered an analysis from Germany’s foreign intelligence office, which apparently said more weapons were useless in the face of Russia’s more numerous arms and troop levels. In particular, heavy weapons, including tanks, were precluded from consideration.
More weapons were eventually promised, but what Germany actually delivered is secret and what is known is sometimes fogged by confusion.
Germany continues to resist calls to supply tanks and other armored vehicles. In May, Scholz told a parliamentary committee that tanks created questions of “risks and military efficiency” but then stopped short of ruling them out forever.
And instead of providing heavy fighting vehicles vehicles from its arsenal directly to Ukraine, Germany agreed to replenish supplies of such weapons sent by other countries – notably Estonia, Czech Republic and Poland.
Last month, when the US decided to send medium-range missiles to Ukraine, the Germans again moved to at least provide token new supplies – this time four MARS II multiple rocket launchers and ultra-modern IRIS-T SLM air-to-air systems. But a week ago, Germany said the MARS was not being sent due to some technical problem it would take months to fix. Now it’s been reported that there’s to be a partial shipment eventually but it may not arrive before November.
“Frankly speaking, we are not surprised by another refusal, because despite all the promises from the beginning of a full-scale invasion, Germany has supplied Ukraine with zero samples of heavy weapons,” wrote Mezha.Media, a Ukrainian information technology website.
NATO leaders are scheduled to meet at the end of this month in Madrid. Zelensky is going to speak and will have a chance to repeat his frequent appeals for heavier, long range weapons.
US President Joe Biden, Ukraine’s biggest weapons benefactor, is expected to attend. But is he already making excuses just in case Ukraine loses?
Earlier this month, Biden suggested that Zelensky had failed to heed wisdom from Biden himself, offered before February 24. “I know a lot of people thought I was maybe exaggerating, but I knew [Putin] was going to go in,” he told a group of well-heeled donors in Los Angeles. “There was no doubt and Zelensky didn’t want to hear it.”
The statement seemed to ignore the fact that Ukraine had been training its troops – with US and NATO help – since 2014, when Russia conquered Crimea over a space of three days.
In any event, Zelensky wasn’t willing to take the fall. Spokesman Serhiy Nykyforov responded by saying that, before the war, the Ukrainian president had asked Biden at least three times to place preventive economic sanctions on Russia before fighting broke out. “Therefore, the phrase ‘did not want to hear’ probably needs clarification,” Nykyforov said testily.
On Tuesday, Biden announced plans to provide Ukraine with $1 billion worth of anti-ship missiles and other weapons. But the US has refused to deliver long-range missiles the Ukrainians say they desperately need to counter Russia’s long-range arsenal.
Just as Scholz fears Ukrainians would drive German tanks into Russia, so does the United States worry that Ukraine would bombard Russia with Washington-supplied missiles – and set off a wider war.
That means Ukraine has no counter to Russia’s bombardments of towns and cities all over Ukraine. Russia said Thursday one such missile hit a depot of NATO arms in western Ukraine.
Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome. More by Daniel Williams