Germany risks becoming a pariah in Europe

Published by The i paper (23rd January, 2023)

Russia’s generals have long thought that they could win a war with the West. They knew any conflict would be bloody and they would lose many men, but history shows this has never been of much concern for Moscow’s rulers. They accepted their foes would have better weapons, smarter technology and deeper pockets. And they knew better than most of their citizens the scale of the corruption hollowing out their military machine, even as Vladimir Putin poured in money to strengthen it from the moment he took power at the start of this century.

Their confidence was based on a belief that the value of life is higher in democracies than dictatorships, so any long struggle would grind down elected leaders as deaths and fears mounted, forcing them eventually into submission. Yet in the months after their invasion of Ukraine – effectively an assault not just on an independent nation but on European democracy – the Kremlin worried this blueprint had gone astray.

Thanks to the impetuousness of their foolish president, they rushed into a full-scale traditional war with too few troops. They did not expect to meet such fierce resistance inside the country under attack, nor such firm resolve from Western allies rushing to support Kyiv. And the blood was being shed by Ukrainians engaged in an existential fight for survival rather than the Poles, Brits or Americans in their plans, which envisaged direct confrontation with Nato. “They think that they picked a fight with Nato in the wrong place,” said Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov after Putin’s humiliating retreat from Kyiv.

Almost one year into this hideous conflict, it is reaching a critical stage. After Kyiv’s unexpected breakthrough in the Kharkiv region, followed by the recapture of Kherson in November, there has been little movement along the 600-mile frontline that sits like a poisonous snake across eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin, having expected Ukraine to collapse in days, is digging in for a long war: beefing up fortifications, throwing in fresh waves of recruits, trying to smooth tensions between its military and Wagner mercenaries, and switching to a wartime economy as energy revenues fall.

There are suggestions Putin might draft another 500,000 men for the Donbas meat grinder, while Ukraine is adjusting to these human wave tactics and integrating new Nato military equipment into its forces.

Yet as both sides regroup under cover of winter, we face a sudden test to determine if those long-held theories of Russian military strategists, along with Putin’s belief in the West’s fundamental weaknesses, were correct. In Britain, there has been welcome unity across the political spectrum in showing leadership to support Ukraine. Nations that have endured Russian barbarity, from the Baltic States to Poland, fully understand our continent’s need to stand firm in support of people fighting for freedom.

But in Germany, a country whose recent history is stained by genocidal atrocities, we see shameful pusillanimity that undermines Kyiv’s determination to achieve victory.

Ukraine has asked for Western tanks. These are faster than its Soviet-era tanks, technologically superior and compatible with standard Nato ammunition as supplies for its own fleet run low. Kyiv needs them rapidly as Russia shores up its defences. Britain responded by offering 14 Challenger 2 tanks, an important symbolic gesture to set the ball rolling.

The spotlight turned on Berlin to sanction the supply of Leopard 2 tanks, which is critical, with more than 2,000 sitting in the arsenals of 13 European nations that need German approval before any can go to Ukraine. Instead the Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, decided to defer the decision, sparking a furious response in Kyiv. “Indecision is killing more of our people,” said Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

He was right to be angry, since Scholz is playing shameful political games. First, Berlin said it could not spare tanks from its forces, shrunken since the end of the Cold War. Then, it said it would only send some if Washington provided cover by doing the same with its lumbering Abrams, a disingenuous feint when Leopards are better suited to the battlefield terrain and already in Europe.

On Friday, Germany said it needed to audit stocks before making a decision. This sounded strange when there is a full-scale war in Europe – and quickly Der Spiegel discovered a Bundeswehr document from last summer that identified 19 Leopard 2 tanks in its armoury ready for use by Ukraine.

The foot-dragging is a sordid political tactic to appease sceptics in a country split on the issue, by the timid leader of a party long scarred by pro-Russian sympathisers. This underlines how German claims to leadership in Europe have been challenged by this war. The invasion exposed its reliance on Russian energy and appeasement of Putin – which included frustrating Ukraine’s attempts to join Nato in 2008. The tank blunder is just the latest example of Scholz’s hesitancy on the supply of weapons.

As Poland says it may send some Leopards without approval, Germany risks being left badly wounded on the diplomatic front. Its behaviour looks so weak, so self-serving, that it could turn the most devout Remainer into a Brexit fan.

Nato is already supporting this proxy war between democracy and dictatorship. It is too late to worry about the risks of escalation. Scholz might do well to listen to Kaja Kallas, the Prime Minister of Estonia, which has donated more to support Ukraine’s cause than any other nation in per capita terms – three times more than Britain, for all our claims of leadership, with another batch of howitzers, grenades and ammunition confirmed last week. “Russian aggression has a price to all of us – a price we pay in euros but Ukraine pays in human lives,” she said. “That price would be much higher for the whole world if aggression paid off.” She is right.

Unfortunately Germany, like alarming numbers of Republicans in Washington, seems to be playing the role predicted by Russian strategists. Let us hope good sense prevails to prove the Kremlin plans wrong.

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