On 25th October 2022, Berlin hosted the European Union’s (EU) International Expert Conference on the Recovery, Reconstruction and Modernisation of Ukraine. With speeches by Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Volodymir Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, the conference aspired to be a noteworthy addition to the series of multilateral meetings held within the wider Group of Seven (G7) context affirming the sanctity of Ukraine and the EU’s continued support of its effort to resist Russian aggression. On this mission, however, it was doomed to fail.
The explicit parameters of the meeting precluded any mandatory political or financial agreements from being agreed upon by attending governments. Yet speakers, especially those from Ukraine, repeatedly emphasised the need for additional funding to repair their war-torn nation. While estimates vary on the cost of reconstruction – from the World Bank’s US$350 billion (£288.7 billion) to US$715 billion (£618.8 billion) from Denys Shymhal, Prime Minister of Ukraine – the conference demonstrated that money was a prerequisite, but not a panacea, for a fully functioning Ukraine. Without funds, the speakers claimed, the post-war challenges Ukraine faces rejuvenating civil society, rebuilding critical infrastructure, and strengthening political institutions would become exponentially more difficult, if not outright impossible.
Given ‘the probability that Russia will fail in its war against Ukraine is as high as ever’, the conference operated under the assumption that the Ukrainian Government will oversee the area’s post-war reconstruction effort. But when Ukraine succeeds, it will not be because Germany has assumed a leading role in the free world’s effort. In fact, despite Scholz’s forceful rhetoric in declaring a ‘Zeitenwende’ or ‘epochal turn’ in Germany’s military and foreign policy’ on 27th February 2022, Germany’s actions have shown this supposed ‘180-degree course correction’ on security to resemble a 360-degree circle and a return to the status quo.
The Berlin location of the Conference illustrates Germany’s desire to guide the future transition and reconstruction of Ukraine. Yet, Germany has simultaneously shown little desire to lead the present campaign to support Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia. It starts at the top; Scholz has faced domestic and international pressure to gift a batch of Germany’s Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine. Both the European Parliament and experts have advocated for Leopards to be sent to Ukraine to augment the Ukrainian Army’s operational capabilities and boost its chances of pushing Russia back to its own borders. Leopards also have a low learning curve, benefitting a quick, effectual deployment on the battlefield. But Scholz refuses to lead by example; despite the fact that Poland has already sent older tanks to Ukraine, he says Germany will not be the first European country to send modern battle tanks for fear that Russia would view it as an ‘escalatory red-line’.
Germany can and should lead the battle tank charge either bilaterally or through Euro-Atlantic partnerships. Not only would Berlin gain legitimacy in the eyes of leading Ukrainian supporters, such as the UK, US and Poland, but the German decision would also make it easier for other countries to follow.
Vacuums of leadership beget opportunities to seize the initiative. Oleksiy Reznikov, the Ukrainian Defence Minister, elucidated the prevailing expectation when he said ‘all our partners who have an industry that can produce tanks – like Britain, France and Germany – they will wait for the political decision from the United States [US]’. But there is little need here to follow the maxim that where/when the US goes, the rest of the world follows. Joe Biden, President of the US, has already made it clear that ‘Germany should determine for itself whether to deliver battle tanks’, a clear sign that Washington perceives an opportunity for Germany to ‘open the floodgates’ to encourage others to follow.
Germany can and should lead the battle tank charge either bilaterally or through Euro-Atlantic partnerships. Not only would Berlin gain legitimacy in the eyes of leading Ukrainian supporters, such as the UK, US and Poland, but the German decision would also make it easier for other countries to follow. It would go some way in repairing Germany’s reputation among Euro-Atlantic allies given its recent failures to provide sufficient support for Ukraine.
After all, the Leopard issue is but a microcosm of Euro-Atlantic frustration with the low level of material support Germany has given Ukraine relative to its economic and military power. In absolute terms, the numbers may appear in-line with expectations. According to the Kiel Institute’s ‘Ukraine Support Tracker’ German military aid nears €1.5 billion (£1.29 billion) while humanitarian and financial aid amounts to just over €2 billion (£1.7 billion). These sums, however, mask reality. The total sum donated – around €3.3 billion (£2.8 billion) – corresponds to only 0.085% of Germany’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
This places Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy and a key power in European defence, just 16th in the world. Not only does Germany fall behind smaller, less affluent countries such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which share borders with Russia and therefore possess a logical commitment to European security, but it also lags behind similar sized economies like the UK. Britain has contributed €6.65 billion (£5.7 billion) in bilateral aid to Ukraine, almost twice what Germany has committed. More telling is the UK’s expenditure as a percentage of GDP – 0.238% – which is almost thrice that of Germany.
The US also offers lessons for Germany in providing assistance to Ukraine. Just as the UK remains relatively distant from the war and protects itself from Russia’s armies by the sea and the Royal Navy, the US, underpinned by great power, is even farther removed than Germany and Europe from the consequences of the war. But it has dispersed a whopping €52 billion (£44.7 billion) in aid, which is almost double the combined sums from all EU members and organisations.
Germany cannot rely on such geographic features for protection, yet it drags its feet when it comes to strengthening Ukraine. So it appears that despite Scholz’s ‘Zeitenwende’, Berlin remains unconvinced of the extent of the threat the Kremlin poses to Euro-Atlantic security, a threat which would be greatly amplified should Russia defeat Ukraine. This is a profound mistake. Russian victory in Ukraine would boost the Kremlin’s confidence and extend its reach to the heart of Europe. While this proposition looks increasingly unlikely, Germany has the UK, US and the Euro-Atlantic institutions to thank for that substantially more than itself.
German and Ukrainian security are increasingly entwined, but Scholz continues to reject that view in favour of a narrow, restrained posture. Curbing Russia’s geostrategic ambitions is in Berlin’s interest. Germany should reevaluate its strategic calculus to reaffirm its position at the head of the European table. It ought to replicate the leadership and financial support provided by the UK and the US – as well as Poland and the Baltic countries – to Ukraine as their equal in Europe. Else, Scholz and Germany risk getting ahead of themselves with any discussion on post-war reconstruction in Ukraine; their inaction increases the chance that more Ukrainians will die unnecessarily, or even, that when the war ends, there will be no Ukraine left to rebuild at all.
Jacob Graff is the Charles Pasley Intern at the Council on Geostrategy.
Image credit: High Contrast.
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