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OPINION

Political anti-missile strategy: Why Germany refuses to supply Taurus missiles to Ukraine

In early March, Margarita Simonyan released a recording of an intercepted conversation between high-ranking officers of the Bundeswehr, the German military. The officers were discussing the possibility of supplying Ukraine with Taurus cruise missiles — and of using them to strike the Kerch Bridge connecting Russian-occupied Crimea to mainland Russia. The revelation of this confidential conversation sent shockwaves through German society, and the resulting scandal ignited heated debate about the wisdom of providing Kyiv with long-range missiles. Given Germany's recent pacifist history, such discussions are particularly difficult to have. Dmitri Stratievski, Director of the Berlin Center for Eastern European Studies, suggests that the primary obstacle to supplying these missiles isn't German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — or even any particular political faction in the Bundestag — but rather the red lines ingrained in German society's collective conscience.

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Politics of peace

To an outsider, the extent to which peacemaking is ingrained in German politics may not always be apparent. Germany's acknowledgment of historical guilt for Nazi crimes, and the subsequent passing down of historical responsibility from generation to generation, has evolved into a kind of state ideology in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).

Inside the halls of power in Berlin, diplomacy, disarmament, the implementation of peaceful initiatives, and prioritizing negotiations over political or military pressure have become absolute guiding principles. The term “Friedenspolitik,” or “politics of peace,” still prevails in the foundational documents of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Two fundamental foreign policy concepts — “Preventing crises, overcoming conflicts, promoting peace” and “Basic principles of German foreign policy” — adopted during Chancellor Angela Merkel's tenure and still in effect, advocate for a commitment to the “politics of peace” through “diplomatic efforts aimed at peacefully resolving crises and conflicts, including those in Ukraine.”

After the annexation of Crimea and the onset of the war in Donbass in 2014, Germany's stance on defense capability saw no significant change. The Bundeswehr remained underfunded. In 2021, the FRG allocated a mere 1.33% of its GDP to defense, falling far short of NATO's recommended 2%. Responding to criticism from Washington, the new government devised an elegant solution, emblematic of the German political landscape. The architects of the coalition agreement intertwined “war and peace,” earmarking a combined 3% of GDP for “long-term international endeavors,” which encompassed “diplomacy, development policy, and meeting NATO commitments.”

Berlin persisted in pursuing a balanced policy in Central and Eastern Europe, employing a mix of investment, cultural-humanitarian initiatives, and trade mechanisms. Germany tempered the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, while also showing some leniency towards the concerns of the Baltic States and Poland. Merkel succeeded in shielding German corporations involved in the Nord Stream 2 project from U.S. sanctions.

The geographical proximity of Ukraine, its looming confrontation with Russia, the German aspiration to wield influence through non-military means, and Berlin's confidence in the potential for a peaceful resolution of the conflict combined to erect a formidable barrier in the minds of the German elite against supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. Even before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Germany’s non-military aid to Ukraine continued to increase, ranking second only to that of the U.S. in terms of the volume of unconditional assistance provided. Still, the idea of providing arms remained an unyielding taboo.

These convictions were shared even among genuine allies of Kyiv. In May 2021, Robert Habeck, co-chairman of the Green Party, cautiously suggested considering the possibility of supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine. However, this proposal met with public criticism, even from within his own party, and ultimately, Haback was compelled to moderate his stance. Moreover, the majority opinion among the country's populace did not favor military assistance to Ukraine: according to a January 2022 survey, conducted just before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, only 15% of Germans were inclined to support the provision of German weaponry to Kyiv.

In January 2022, only 15% of Germans were inclined to support the provision of German weaponry to Kyiv

Zeitenwende and red lines

February 24, 2022, sent a chill through the entire German establishment. The previous geopolitical strategy towards the vast eastern region, the lands beyond the Oder River, had suffered a devastating collapse, necessitating a radical rethinking.

Just three days later, Chancellor Scholz addressed the Bundestag, admitting to grave errors in the German approach towards Russia and heralding a Zeitenwende — a “turning point” — in the FRG's policy. Since then, this German term has become firmly entrenched in the global political lexicon. Scholz vowed that Putin would face severe consequences for his aggression, proposed a landmark fund of €100 billion for the Bundeswehr, and guaranteed German adherence to the NATO “2% norm” by 2024.

Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a key advocate for “reconciliation” with Moscow throughout his political career, also acknowledged to having had misperceptions about Russia. Germany underwent its most significant political shift since 1990, the year of the country's reunification.

At the moment the Chancellor delivered his speech, the first thousand anti-tank rocket launchers and 500 portable missile systems were en route to Ukraine from the Bundeswehr's reserves. They were swiftly followed by thousands of other systems designed to counter Russian armored vehicles. Germany rapidly overcame the psychological barrier to supplying further types of weaponry. In June 2022, the first German self-propelled anti-aircraft guns — Gepards — were deployed to the front lines in Ukraine. These were followed by Panzerhaubitzen 2000 self-propelled howitzers in July, and then by Mars II multiple rocket launch systems. Playing a significant role in defending the Ukrainian skies were the German tactical missile system Iris-T SLM and the Oerlikon Skynex air defense system.

However, the unity among political elites around the necessity of assisting the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom and sovereignty quickly began to erode. The decision to send Leopard main battle tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles was made after such a long delay that some political analysts began to speak of a “failure to provide aid,” with some going so far as to compare the German reluctance to assist the victims of open aggression to a criminal act. Military experts concur that the Ukrainian counteroffensive of 2023 would have had a much higher chance of success had the Ukrainian Armed Forces received Western military support — especially German, British, and American main battle tanks — just a few months earlier, before Russian forces had had time to construct a vast array of defensive positions on newly occupied territory.

Had the Ukrainian Armed Forces received Western battle tanks more promptly, the outcome of the summer offensive of 2023 would have been different

The verbal “tank battles” of 2022 share many similarities with the “missile debates” of 2023–2024. For months, Ukraine has spoken of its need to receive German Taurus missiles, and for months, Berlin has delayed approving any shipments. The ongoing debate on the German side highlights three red lines ingrained in the German social consciousness, which remained unaffected by the pivotal events of February 2022. These lines are closely intertwined.

Firstly, there is the imperative to prevent Germany's involvement (or gradual entanglement) in the conflict. The individual fear among Germans of their country entering into a war continues to rise. While in 2022, 21% of survey participants expressed this fear, by 2023, it had risen to 47%, and by 2024, 48% of respondents shared this sentiment. Despite clear legal verdicts stating that tank and missile deliveries cannot be construed as acts of war, and despite the military assistance of the British and French, who had long ago sent Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine while remaining outside the conflict, concerns on this matter persist in Germany.

Scholz himself is a key purveyor of these fears. The head of government has repeatedly emphasized that Taurus missiles could be utilized by the Ukrainian Armed Forces to strike targets inside Russia, beyond the occupied territories, thereby making Germany liable for direct retaliation from Moscow. It seems Ukraine's compliance with similar agreements in the case of the French and British missile deliveries has not convinced Berlin that Kyiv can be counted on to limit its use of the Taurus missiles in a similar way.

Secondly, Germany cannot afford to find itself at war, particularly with Russia. In recent years, the German collective consciousness has begun to disassociate the Russian Federation from the Soviet Union — a country that fell victim to Nazi aggression 83 years ago. However, Germans are not willing to go to war, even in the name of defending Ukraine and preserving peace in Europe.

Germans are not willing to go to war, even in the name of defending Ukraine and preserving peace in Europe

Germans are not just alarmed by the potential for an aggressive response by a nuclear-armed state with a million-strong army , but also by the mere prospect of armed confrontation with the Russian people. Amidst the significant statements in Chancellor Scholz's address to the Bundestag, there were a few key words that observers largely failed to properly note. The Chancellor emphasized that “Putin, not the Russian people, made the decision to start the war,” and that the conflict in Ukraine is “Putin's war.”

Thus, official Berlin drew a clear distinction between the leader of the Russian Federation and its populace. The suggested need for Bundeswehr servicemen or civilian specialists to participate in programming and targeting Taurus missiles on the ground in Ukraine stands as one of German society’s most compelling arguments against delivering the missiles, even though some experts consider the involvement of German military personnel to be unnecessary. Still, in surveys, many Germans view this hypothetical casus belli as a potential trigger point after which Germany could find itself at war with Russia.

Finally, there remains a desire in the FRG to avoid escalation and the progression of the conflict, preventing a “local” war from evolving into a pan-European or global one. The continuous expansion of the array of weapons supplied to the conflict zone is seen by a segment of the German establishment as a step towards a larger standoff.

Scholz under fire

Over the two years of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine, Germany has provided a total of €32 billion in aid to the Ukrainian people, with €6 billion earmarked for armaments. Additionally, more than 1.1 million Ukrainian residents have sought refuge in Germany. However, critics of the government tend to focus on its shortcomings rather than its achievements. The recent negative fallout from the RT publication of the conversation between German military officials has been notable — acknowledged not only by Chancellor Scholz and his ministers, but also by the heads of relevant parliamentary committees and party leaders within the governing coalition.

Nevertheless, this situation doesn't immediately threaten Scholz’s political standing. His coalition maintains its majority in the Bundestag, and the leadership of the largest opposition faction, CDU/CSU, is acutely aware of the risks associated with attempting to pass a vote of no confidence against the Chancellor. Such an action could trigger snap elections and plunge the country into turmoil, especially considering the ongoing war raging just 700 kilometers from the German border.

Scholz faces far greater challenges on the international stage due to his continuing refusal to send Taurus missiles to Ukraine. While criticism from Berlin's allies in Washington, London, and Warsaw avoids direct accusations against the Chancellor, retired politicians are less reserved in their assessments. Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen labeled Scholz as “too slow and indecisive,” overly mindful of public opinion, and lacking in leadership qualities.

Navigating within the Western alliance presents the primary challenge for Scholz, but not the only one. In Germany, the head of government must balance a complex array of interests ranging from pacifist movements to major NGOs aiding Ukraine and demanding more decisive action from Berlin. However, any cautious policy has its limits. Germany, already a leader in assisting Ukraine, will have to make clear decisions if it is to truly bring about the promised Zeitenwende in its relations with Russia.

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