How German Hesitancy Prolongs the War against Ukraine

Despite Chan­cellor Scholz’ Zeit­en­wende, Germany’s actions since the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been dominated by hesitancy. The govern­ment often acts only when the situation on the battle­field is dramatic – or waits for decisions from Wash­ington. Berlin seemingly hopes for an eventual ceasefire. But this only raises the threat of an “eternal provi­sional arrange­ment”, similar to the Cold War-era division of Germany, writes Nico Lange.

This paper is published in the framework of the project „Russia and the West: Europe’s Post War Order and the Future of Relations with Russia“, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry.  Any opinions are the author’s own.

Read this paper in German.

Read the other papers published in this project.

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“I had to wait 28 years too!” — German Chan­cellor Angela Merkel is said to have exclaimed this allusion to the duration of the Berlin Wall, visibly annoyed, when then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko presented Russian passports issued by Moscow in Crimea and the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk at a joint press confer­ence in early 2015. After Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the Euro­maidan protests in 2014, Russia created military facts in Crimea and subse­quently inter­vened in the Donbas, while the West did nothing about it. From Merkel’s point of view, a serious confronta­tion or even retal­i­a­tion against Russia were unthink­able, espe­cially because the US under President Barack Obama was not prepared to intervene mili­tarily in any way, nor to use deter­rence or even a show of military force. So, the only option was to come to terms with the loss of Crimea and the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, to freeze the conflict as best as possible and to hope that, years or decades later, internal changes would occur in Russia, enabling a new approach to these issues. Until then, it would be necessary to come to terms, espe­cially as Russia would be needed to resolve a whole range of economic and political issues. These basic attitudes still char­ac­terise German policy towards Ukraine today.

Of course, a lot has happened since that press confer­ence in 2015. Germany had a “Zeit­en­wende” after the major Russian attack in February 2022. And yet it remains unclear to this day what strategic consid­er­a­tions are guiding the German govern­ment in supporting Ukraine and a future security order in Europe. You often get the impres­sion that Germany only hesi­tantly and reluc­tantly goes along with what others propose. Some partners and observers still harbour the suspicion that Berlin is secretly dreaming of a return to the status quo ante, despite Germany’s now very extensive military support for Ukraine.  Above all, however, there is a remark­able conso­nance: while Russian ruler Vladimir Putin is guided by a mixture of Russian neo-impe­ri­alism and rolling back the “greatest geopo­lit­ical cata­strophe” – the collapse of the Soviet Union – since 2014, the German govern­ment has perceived devel­op­ments in Ukraine as inevitably leading to a new form of European division. A division that could be ended in the distant future by a new fall of the Berlin Wall, just like Germany’s own experience.

There is no question that German policy towards Ukraine and Russia has changed consid­er­ably since the major Russian attack in February 2022. Never­the­less, the strategic thinking at the top of the German govern­ment still seems to be char­ac­terised more by conti­nuity than by a funda­mental rethink that the response needs a real “turn­around”. Although Germany also almost overem­pha­sises its loyalty to the alliance and close coor­di­na­tion with its partners in public, in reality the govern­ment has repeat­edly taken a special path (Sonderweg) in the discus­sion about support for Ukraine. Does the German govern­ment even have a strategy towards Ukraine and the future security of Europe? From a German perspec­tive, the endgame of the Russian-Ukrainian war seems to be guided solely by the vague objective that the war will “somehow get bogged down”. Instead of concrete ideas for a post-war Europe, German politi­cians still seem to expect – or hope for – a return to a modified pre-war Europe.  However, the pressure from military events, the position of the USA, of partners in both Scan­di­navia and Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the German Bundestag, and the public too could change German govern­ment policy.

German policy since 2022: Growing support, too slow and too late

Germany played a decisive role in the greatest failure of Western policy from 2014 onwards. After the annex­a­tion of Crimea, Western states did not do nearly enough to deter Putin from preparing and carrying out the large-scale military invasion of Ukraine. Instead, they resorted to wishful thinking, driven above all by the great German desire for no change and foreign policy conti­nuity. This led to cheap energy prices for the German economy and the hope, against all evidence, that co-operative solutions could be found with Putin’s Russia on important inter­na­tional policy issues. This was made possible by an absolute denial of the realities of Putin’s inten­tions and by delib­er­ately ignoring domestic political devel­op­ments in Russia. This was the only reason why Germany was finally able to perceive a “Zeit­en­wende” at all when the major invasion began in February 2022, which really was not a surprising change in the inter­na­tional situation but a harsh and unavoid­able confronta­tion between Germany and the reality of security policy.

Until the end of 2021 and early 2022, Germany was still telling itself that the Russian troop deploy­ments were exercises and that the Americans and British were exag­ger­ating their warnings. Imme­di­ately after the large-scale attack, Germany initially reacted help­lessly. The general mood in Berlin on 24th and 25th February 2022 was that Ukraine was lost, there was nothing that could be done, and arms deliv­eries would no longer arrive. All that could be done now was to expand the eastern flank into a new iron curtain, which was a pity but could not be changed.

As a result, Germany came under unprece­dented pressure from European and inter­na­tional partners, to the point of being threat­ened with isolation. By aban­doning Nord Stream 2, by beginning arms supplies to Ukraine and with the Chancellor’s powerful and historic “Zeit­en­wende” speech on 27th February 2022, Germany reestab­lished itself as a loyal alliance member and restored its agency. Since then, however, although Germany provides Ukraine with ever growing military support, there is a growing impres­sion that it is always reluctant, too slow, and too late to make decisions. Germany’s military support for Ukraine has the same gestation like the Zeit­en­wende speech: Germany is not imple­menting its own strategy or taking a strate­gical approach but is just trodding along with the US-led coalition of Ukraine supporters. Germany’s sheer size and consid­er­able economic and financial might mean that the effects for Ukraine are very significant.

The Govern­ment is unable to break with the assump­tion of an over­whelming Russian superiority 

On the battle­field, it became clear early on that Russia could be defeated mili­tarily in Ukraine. Central hypotheses about possible esca­la­tion risks have also been disproven in more than two years of war. The Marder infantry fighting vehicle did not trigger World War Three, nor did Russia respond to attacks against Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet with nuclear weapons. However, despite these findings, the German govern­ment is still unable to break with the basic assump­tion of an over­whelming Russian military supe­ri­ority and from presumed serious esca­la­tion risks.

Conti­nuity despite Zeitenwende

Since Chan­cellor Scholz’ ground-breaking speech on 27th February 2022, “Zeit­en­wende” has been the central leitmotif for all debates on German foreign and security policy. “Zeit­en­wende” or, as Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called it, “waking up in a different world”, means that nothing will ever be the same again. However, the German reaction to “Zeit­en­wende” has so far not been a rapid, far-reaching, and irre­versible change, but remains char­ac­terised by slowness and a great deal of continuity.

The German response to “Zeit­en­wende” has been much more transat­lantic than European 

Germany’s enormous assis­tance with weapons, ammu­ni­tion and military equipment for Ukraine repre­sents the central and paradigm change in German policy. German weapons give Ukraine’s armed forces an advantage on the battle­field. They also help Ukraine to survive and prevent Putin from achieving his military goals. Never­the­less, the German govern­ment as a whole seems to continue to assume that Germany itself cannot be a decisive factor in deciding the war and restoring peace. The govern­ment in Berlin adamantly looks to the White House for lead­er­ship. So far, the German response to Zeit­en­wende has been much more transat­lantic than European.

The German government’s policy still seemingly rests on the assump­tion that Russia cannot be mili­tarily defeated. In its contin­u­a­tion of US strategy, Berlin relies on a slow degra­da­tion of Russian military capa­bil­i­ties in Ukraine. The strategic assump­tion seems to be that measured assis­tance to Ukraine would cause frus­tra­tion for Russia and a rela­tively weak position for Ukraine at the same time, so that both sides would seek a military pause, a stalemate in the war and ulti­mately a ceasefire along a new “line of contact” further west than that of 2014. From this perspec­tive, real strategic change can only be achieved if the US changes its strategy or if signif­i­cant changes occur within Russia. The latter could still be decades away.

Tradi­tion­ally, German foreign policy does not want to do too little, but certainly not too much 

Despite “Zeit­en­wende”, Germany thus continues its tradi­tional foreign and security policy, except for supplying arms to Ukraine. The German govern­ment does not see itself as having a leading role in defending Ukraine against Russian aggres­sion and restoring Ukraine to its inter­na­tion­ally recog­nised borders of 1991. Instead, it remains reactive and plays small. Germany sees itself as one partner among many, ideally in a balancing middle position. In accor­dance with tradition, German foreign policy does not want to do too little, but certainly not too much. And the German govern­ment would rather take a position on the proposals of others than make proposals itself that might be open to criticism.

Recog­nising the looming threat to Germany and Europe, becoming aware of its own strength and duty, adapting German policy to the possi­bil­i­ties of its own size and capa­bil­i­ties and moving from being a hesitant and restraining player to a driver and shaper – this is still difficult for Germany. Germany could and should be a source of ideas and a driving force for joint European action in support of Ukraine. The intuition of German foreign policy regarding Ukraine seems to remain the same even after “Zeit­en­wende”: “We are watching this closely, we are examining it carefully, we will have to wait and see.”

Implic­itly, Germany’s Ukraine policy after “Zeit­en­wende” draws parallels with the division of Germany, as it did in 2014, even after the major Russian invasion of 2022. From this perspec­tive, all that needs to be achieved is a stalemate and a temporary ceasefire, which can then be trans­formed into an eternal provi­sional arrange­ment so that the funda­mental conflict can possibly be resolved decades later.

Between loyalty and Sonderweg

After the “Zeit­en­wende” speech finally brought the positions of German Ukraine and Russia policy back into line with the then consensus of the Americans, British, Central Eastern Europeans and Scan­di­na­vians, the consis­tent avoidance of an explicit agreement on strategic objec­tives for support of Ukraine in recent years has once again led to a distancing of positions. While it is clear to the Scan­di­na­vians, Central Eastern Europeans, and the British that support for Ukraine must serve to restore the country’s full sover­eignty within the 1991 borders and that this requires Russia to be defeated mili­tarily on Ukrainian soil, the strategic approach for the US and Germany appears to be to manage the war and hope that both sides get bogged down. Once again, Germany seemingly gives more wheight to Russian views, Putin’s state­ments and feared Russian reactions to German behaviour than to the positions of Ukraine, the Central Eastern Europeans and the Scan­di­na­vian partners. Germany’s complex and long-disproved fear of esca­la­tion with Russia is leading the country into self-deter­rence instead of making it a key player for the European order. Ulti­mately, there is still a danger that Germany will at least implic­itly accept Russian offers of a great power policy in Europe, which will translate into the policy of a German “special path” (Sonderweg).

Since the major Russian invasion and Germany’s change of course following the “Zeit­en­wende” speech, the German govern­ment has domes­ti­cally placed utmost impor­tance on the impres­sion that its action is always closely coor­di­nated with all partners. In principle, this corre­sponds to the classic and histor­i­cally correct German foreign policy approach. In decisive strategic issues, however, German coor­di­na­tion seems to apply only to the US and even includes the principle that Germany only ever does something if the Americans have already done something similar. The decision to deliver Leopard 2 battle tanks dependent on the delivery of M1 Abrams battle tanks by the US was the most notable example.

Germany must get back on track in order to act together with its European partners 

The German govern­ment rightly feels that public and inter­na­tional criticism of Germany’ aid volume for Ukraine is unfair. Why is Germany repeat­edly crit­i­cised while other large countries such as France, Spain, and Italy, which provide much less aid, remain largely unchal­lenged? Germany is obviously still suspected by many of wanting to return to the status quo with Russia due to its special rela­tion­ship with Moscow, which lasted until 2022. For this reason, every step is perceived with partic­ular scrutiny and every statement is judged with partic­ular criticism. Above all, however, the fact that Germany is not taking the lead in any of the steps for Ukraine is viewed crit­i­cally abroad. Berlin is also opposed to Ukraine’s NATO member­ship and seems not yet entirely convinced about Ukraine’s inte­gra­tion into the EU. Germany therefore now needs strategic agreement with the Scan­di­na­vians and Central Eastern Europeans on its Ukraine policy. French President Emmanuel Macron recently took a turn in this direction compared with 2023. Germany, too, must reconnect in order to act together with its European partners.

Does Germany have a strategy?

Germany has never formu­lated a strategy for Ukraine. Since the Orange Revo­lu­tion of 2004, the German approach can be summarised as follows: A European Ukraine governed by the rule of law is in our interest and we hope that this devel­op­ment will occur on its own. After the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008 the German position was: EU rapproche­ment with Ukraine is possible, but NATO rapproche­ment is not, due to Russian oppo­si­tion, even if it were agreed by NATO as a funda­mental perspec­tive. A slow EU inte­gra­tion of Ukraine, possibly without conflict with Russia, seemed to be Germany’s strategic hope. After Putin inter­vened against the EU Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement and Ukrainian President Yanukovych then made a U‑turn, Germany presented itself as a fervent supporter of Ukraine’s European perspec­tive during the Euro­maidan protests. As soon as Putin lost his political influence in Kyiv as a result of Yanukovych’s flight and imme­di­ately resorted to military force in Crimea, Germany cate­gor­i­cally ruled out military force and military demon­stra­tions of power, thereby leaving Ukraine in the lurch. From 2014 onward, it tried a three-pronged approach of freezing the war, investing in and engaging Ukraine, while simul­ta­ne­ously contin­uing close energy and economic relations with Russia. The result is well known: Squaring the circle could not succeed.

Without a strategy, Germany’s Ukraine policy is unlikely to succeed 

Since the large-scale invasion and the Zeit­en­wende speech, Germany has despite initial hesitancy become one of the biggest military supporters of Ukraine and a provider of consid­er­able financial and human­i­tarian aid. However, the impetus for this has almost always come from others: Anti-tank weapons, “heavy weapons”, the Ramstein format, battle tanks, air defence, ammu­ni­tion initia­tive – Germany ulti­mately supplies a lot – but in response to public sugges­tions of others and after initial hesi­ta­tion and foot dragging. The purpose of Germany’s military aid to Ukraine remains unclear and is dressed up with the formulas “Ukraine must not lose” and “we will provide support for as long as necessary”. After two years of war, it is long overdue that Germany develops its own organ­i­sa­tional ideas and sets itself strategic goals. This may be lacking because there is no unity within the governing coalition. However, without a strategy, Germany’s Ukraine policy is unlikely to be successful.

The endgame from the German perspective

In the third year of the war, the German government’s actions still seem to be guided by a vague idea that the fighting will stop without outside inter­fer­ence. Since the start of the large-scale invasion, Germany has been unable to free itself from this mindset. In February 2022 it was assumed that the war would end with a Russian victory in a few weeks; after Russia’s retreat from Kyiv, a stalemate was expected in the summer of 2022. After the Ukrainian counter-offensive in late summer 2022 it was believed that a stalemate would come with winter. Later it was assumed that stalemate would come after the large-scale Ukrainian counter-offensive of 2023 fizzled. All of these expec­ta­tions never materialised.

Presently, the US and, conse­quently, Germany appear to be focussing on a stalemate by the end of 2024, although, as in all previous cases, it remains unclear on what analyt­ical basis this thinking is based. The aim is gradual support of Ukraine in small steps, with as little effort and as little cost as possible, with the under­lying hope that the Ukrainians will at some point make “difficult” decisions, while also hoping that Putin “realises” that he is getting nowhere.

Even if such hopes are realistic, it will probably take a very long time for these ideas of an endgame to mate­ri­alise. Providing Ukraine with measured military support while at the same time refraining from rapidly building up higher indus­trial capac­i­ties in Germany and Europe for weapons and ammu­ni­tion also repeat­edly opens up new oppor­tu­ni­ties for Putin to win.

Post-war Europe or pre-war Europe?

According to Putin himself, he decided to invade Ukraine to funda­men­tally change the European order. In contrast, Germany is supporting defensive war in Ukraine without having developed a strategic vision of a post-war Europe. The German approach so far seems to be driven more by the desire to return to pre-war Europe: ceasefire in Ukraine, even if the line of contact is further west, no NATO member­ship for Ukraine, EU member­ship prefer­ably in the distant future.

According to this idea, the current European members of the EU and/​or NATO are sealing them­selves off in order to secure their pros­perity and security, while Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are left in a grey zone. Perhaps even relations with Russia could be gradually normalised over time in this constel­la­tion. Only on NATO’s eastern flank, and thus also on the EU’s eastern border, Germany would strengthen its commit­ment by perma­nently stationing a brigade and setting up a “European Sky Shield”. According to this concept, we are returning to a slightly altered pre-war Europe. However, it does not answer how exactly the end of the Russia-Ukraine war will be brought about and how a war that lasts years can be avoided. And the question of how Russia will be deterred from further military adven­tures and aggres­sion in the future also remains unan­swered according to current German thinking. Stability and security in the grey zone are also left unconsidered.

Although Germany has already agreed a multi-year bilateral security agreement with Ukraine, it did not specify any strategic objec­tives. The fact that Germany has agreed to Ukraine’s EU candidate status, but at the same time opposes Kyiv’s NATO member­ship, is like a mental regres­sion to the time after 2008, when it was thought that an EU rapproche­ment of states in the grey zone was possible without NATO security guar­an­tees. This hypoth­esis has been empir­i­cally refuted.

“A lack of concrete concep­tual ideas for a post-war European order”

Even in the third year of the war, the German strategy for military support for Ukraine remains implicit at best. There is a lack of concrete concep­tual ideas for a European post-war order. However, peace for Ukraine can only be achieved if Germany breaks out of its incre­mental approach intel­lec­tu­ally, develops a theory of victory for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia, aligns its military support with this theory and at the same time develops a concept for a European post-war order. So far, Germany seems to lack the concep­tual strength and political will to do this.

How can Germany’s position be changed?

However, more than two years of war have shown many times that the position of the German govern­ment change. Military devel­op­ments on the battle­field constantly reshape political thinking and govern­ment actions. After all, the battle­field deter­mines politics, not politics the battle­field. Ukraine’s successful defence against the Russian armed forces outside Kyiv opened the door for the delivery of anti-aircraft tanks and artillery, while the Ukrainian offensive in late summer 2022 laid the foun­da­tion for the decision to deliver infantry fighting vehicles and battle tanks. The Russian attacks on Kharkiv created the pressure to lift the restric­tions on the use of German weapons and ammu­ni­tion on Ukrainian territory.

At the same time, the most important key to changing Germany’s Ukraine policy still seems to lie in Wash­ington. Germany is copying changes in the American approach and always moves forward when the Americans move forward. It is possible that German deci­sion­makers derive this approach from the fact that Germany is not a nuclear power and remains dependent on US protec­tion. In the light of domestic political devel­op­ments in the US, this close link will soon raise questions. A change in strategy from incre­mental military aid to faster decisions is conceiv­able in the US either in Biden’s or Trump’s second term.

France can also influence the German debate, but only if Paris takes concrete action instead of just far-reaching rhetor­ical commit­ments. Together with France, allies in Central Eastern Europe and Scan­di­navia are among the most important supporters of faster Ukrainian NATO member­ship. Their strong engage­ment and close dialogue with Germany, their prodding of the German govern­ment, their constant public and non-public engage­ment with German positions can get things moving in Berlin and help the German govern­ment to catch up strate­gi­cally. As with the united response to the start of the major Russian invasion, successful European action will only be possible if the strategic positions of the Scan­di­na­vians, Central Eastern Europeans, French, British, and Germans converge again.

Germany’s moves towards stronger support for Ukraine is also a story of parlia­men­tar­i­anism and public opinion. Pressure from parlia­ment, public debates and public opinion have played a decisive role in repeat­edly bringing the govern­ment to move forward. Many of the important support measures for Ukraine, for which the govern­ment is now rightly praising itself, would not have been possible without parlia­men­tary and public pressure. It will be necessary to keep these debates going and at the same time keep intro­ducing new ideas, in order to widen the German govern­ment bureaucracy’s struc­tural narrow­ness in foreign and security policy.

Does it really have to take 28 years for the Ukrainians to get a chance to live in freedom and unity? Will Germany help to ensure that things happen differ­ently and faster? Do we really have to wait for a new fall of the Berlin Wall, or can we do more ourselves to force an end to the war through Ukraine’s military assertive­ness? Will Germany find the strength to break out of the status quo and create an image of a post-war Europe that elim­i­nates grey areas and expands the zone of peace, security, and pros­perity? These questions can only be answered step by step. It would be helpful if, as a first step, Germany finally clarified the objective of its military support for Ukraine and what resources are needed to achieve this and in what timeframe.


Nico Lange is Senior Fellow at the Munich Security Confer­ence and Senior Fellow for Transat­lantic Security and Defence at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was a senior civilian official in the German Defence Ministry from 2019–2022. Lange has lived and worked in the USA, Ukraine and Russia. He is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian.



This paper is published in the framework of the project „Russia and the West: Europe’s Post War Order and the Future of Relations with Russia“, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry.  Any opinions in this paper are the author’s own.

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