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Arming Ukraine: Could Germany step up if the US steps back?

Scholz may be among Zelenskyy's close allies, but polls show the German electorate doesn't want Germany to play a leading role on the world stage

Scholz may be among Zelenskyy's close allies, but polls show the German electorate doesn't want Germany to play a leading role on the world stage

Ukraine's biggest backers in its struggle against Russia's invasion appear to be wobbling. Kyiv is at risk of losing its number one weapons supplier, the United States — an aid package proposed by US President Joe Biden worth $61 billion (€56.6 billion) has been blocked since late last year due to a fight in Congress. Who can Kyiv count on these days?

London, Paris, Berlin

London is one of the first doors Ukraine can knock on. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Kyiv and announced an unprecedented military aid package for the Ukrainian armed forces worth over $3 billion. Britain is also the first Western ally to sign a security agreement with Ukraine, ensuring long-term arms supplies. France is preparing a similar deal. But what about Berlin?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly brought up the prospect of Germany taking on a leadership role in Europe in supplying arms to Kyiv.

According to calculations from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), the US remains the undisputed biggest donor to Ukraine in terms of pure military aid, having sent the equivalent of close to $50 billion. Germany, however, has climbed from third to second place. From the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 until the end of October 2023, Berlin has sent military aid worth more than €17 billion. In third place comes London, whose support the IfW tallied at €6.6 billion.

Germany a big backer, at least in relative terms

Given that Germany has the biggest economy in the European Union, shouldn't it be in the number one spot?

"It should, but that doesn't mean it's ready to," German journalist Gesine Dornblüth, an author of several books on Russia, told DW on the "Geofaktor" podcast.

Berlin may be proud of its second-place spot, but it's all relative, she said.

"If you look at the country's economic output, you see that German aid per inhabitant is less than that of some Baltic countries," Dornblüth said.

At the end of January, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he expected Berlin to conclude a security agreement with Kyiv soon but did not specify a time frame. As last year came to a close, Berlin announced a plan to double its aid to Ukraine for 2024 to €8 billion.

Berlin has also made progress in providing new types of weapons: at the end of January, the German Ministry of Defense announced it would deliver six decommissioned Sea King Mk41 military helicopters to Ukraine for the first time, following in the footsteps of London, which had already sent some.

Is Berlin really comfortable in the lead?

"Helicopters are good, but they're not enough," Dornblüth said. According to her, Germany isn't ready to significantly step up aid to Ukraine because the Bundeswehr itself does not have sufficient reserves, and new orders for weapons production have not been placed in time.

At the same time, there are weapons in Germany's stockpiles that Berlin is simply not prepared to hand over. Taurus missiles, for example. Scholz has reasoned, among other things, that possible Ukrainian attacks deep into Russian territory could lead to a dangerous escalation of the war.

Dornblüth said the chancellor's arguments did not convince her. So far, Kyiv has kept its promises not to use Western-provided weapons on the internationally recognized territory of the Russian Federation.

On the other hand, Germany, overall, already does "really a lot" for Ukraine, particularly in providing aerial defense systems.

Andreas Umland, an analyst for the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies, said Germany would not be in a position to take over a leading role from America." For Berlin, that would be an "unusual role," he said.

Germany, for decades, has been happy as a leading economic power that held back on the world stage, not seeking to take the diplomatic lead, but rather taking cues from its nuclear weapon-equipped allies, the US and Britain.

German people want restraint

That strategy also reflects the mood of German society, Umland explained. A survey commissioned by the Körber Foundation in November revealed that most Germans do not want their country to play a leading role in the world.

Among respondents, 71% were against Germany taking on a military leadership role in Europe in addition to economic leadership. More than half (54%) think Germany should be more restrained in international crises.

Umland noted that Berlin does not have "sufficient resources for military aid" for Ukraine, adding that "Germany is not a military superpower."

There is a particular paradox in this. On the one hand, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Germany has a significant arms industry and ranks fifth in the world in terms of arms exports. On the other hand, the country is dependent on NATO and has only a small army of its own, which does not have any significant reserves of equipment and ammunition.

Only after the Russian invasion of Ukraine did Germany begin a comprehensive rearmament that would take years for the new orders to be implemented.

Anyone else ready to take the lead?

Within Europe, "a country like Britain would be more likely to take over a leadership role in terms of helping Ukraine," Umland said. But European countries, including Britain, would not be able to fully replace the US regarding the level of military support for Kyiv, he added.

Europeans, he said. have already provided considerable humanitarian aid to Kyiv and will continue to do so, but their military resources are not comparable to those of the United States.

The EU recently admitted that it would not be able to fulfill its pledge to supply Ukraine with 1 million artillery shells and missiles by March. The adoption of a €50 billion aid package for Ukraine over four years was finally approved by the heads of state and government of all 27 EU countries at a dedicated summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Should Donald Trump return to power in the US, Ukraine would face "serious problems," Umland said. However, this does not mean that Europe would refuse to help.

If Russia were to break through the front, he said this would create "millions of refugees from Ukraine to the EU. Therefore Kyiv can count on its backing, also because of the EU's own interests."

This article was adapted from the original Russian.