Even as the U.S. intelligence community warns that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could come this month, the German government has rebuffed Ukrainian requests for defensive weapons. While Kyiv requested urgently-needed ships and weapons, Berlin decided to send helmets.
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht attempted to justify the decision by saying, “The German government is agreed that we do not send lethal weapons to crisis areas because we don’t want to fuel the situation.”
Actually, Germany has an admirable record of success in using arms sales to help threatened democracies deter aggression, ranging from South Korea to the Baltic states in Vladimir Putin’s crosshairs. Indeed, Berlin’s global arms exports hit a new record in 2021, and security assistance to threatened democracies was a large part of that.
Accordingly, Berlin should build on its past record, drop its double standard, and join the NATO effort to support Kyiv.
Ukraine certainly qualifies as a threatened democracy. Russia has dramatically increased its combat power on the Ukrainian border since late October, which now stands around 130,000 troops, according to Kyiv. Despite transparently cynical assertions to the contrary, Moscow’s clear message is that it may invade Ukraine (again) if the West does not accept Kremlin suzerainty over Kyiv.
Such concessions by Washington and Brussels would betray their fundamental security interests and democratic principles. This crisis is “entirely engineered by Russia and President Putin as an overt act of coercion against Ukraine,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Friday.
Berlin’s decision to refuse Ukraine the weapons it needs to deter Russian aggression stands in stark contrast with the actions of many other NATO countries rushing vital armaments to Kyiv. Complementing diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis, the United States, Estonia, the United Kingdom, and several other NATO countries have rushed arms to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, grenade-launchers, small arms, and other equipment.
These transfers will not bring Ukraine anywhere close to military parity with Russia and do not present an offensive threat to Russia — and Putin knows it. The transfers, however, can strengthen Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, making an invasion more costly for Russia and therefore potentially less likely.
Germany’s decision also stands in stark contrast to Berlin’s own previous policy. While Lambrecht’s statement that Germany does not “send lethal weapons to crisis areas” builds on the new German government’s policy to further restrict arms sales, Berlin has frequently used arms sales to help several threatened democracies deter aggression.
Consider a recent case: South Korea.
Germany has sold South Korea significant amounts of weaponry over the past decade, helping Seoul deter aggression from Kim Jong Un. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea was the top destination for German arms exports from 2013 to 2017, peaking in 2017, the year of heightened tension and fears of “Fire and Fury” on the Korean Peninsula. So much for not sending weapons to crisis zones.
Germany’s arms exports to South Korea included items such as cruise missiles and howitzer parts that helped maintain deterrence against nuclear-armed North Korea. The transfer of German weapons did not fuel the crisis, as Lambrecht’s theory would posit, but rather bolstered South Korea’s ability to defend itself, thereby increasing the costs of potential North Korean aggression. That is exactly what German weapons could do in Ukraine with respect to Russian aggression.
This same logic of deterrence explains why previous German governments supplied other European nations with the weapons they need to defend themselves. Since 2012, Germany has sold arms like self-propelled howitzers and tanks to NATO members Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, and Norway as well as to non-NATO countries Finland and Sweden, all of which have been the targets of Russian threats or provocations.
German weapons did not create or inflame tensions between those nations and Russia. Instead, the German arms strengthened their ability to deter aggression from their powerful neighbor.
That’s what makes Berlin’s rebuff of Ukraine so disappointing.
Some have suggested that Moscow’s economic and energy leverage over Germany helps explain Berlin’s decision. That may be the case. But Germany should show Putin that it won’t allow energy dependence to determine its foreign policy.
Predators such as Putin like nothing better than prey kept weak. Germany should not serve as the Kremlin’s accomplice in that effort. Berlin should reverse its current policy on arms exports to Ukraine and return to its impressive track record of helping threatened democracies deter aggression from authoritarian neighbors. That would help Ukraine, spur the Germany economy, and potentially help deter a major war in Europe.
Bradley Bowman serves as senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst.