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Germany baffles some allies with its refusal to supply weapons to Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United States says a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be, quote, "imminent." And while most NATO members are showing a unified front against Russia, Germany has staked out its own position - one that has baffled some allies. Germany has not joined NATO countries in sending defensive weapons to Ukraine or other military support around the region. Is it because of Germany's big energy pipeline deal with Russia?

Constanze Stelzenmuller is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on German foreign policy. She joins us this morning. Thanks for being here.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: Hi. Well, thank you very much for having me on.

MARTIN: Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands are just some of the NATO countries that have sent military aid into Eastern Europe to fend off the Russian threat to Ukraine. Why not Germany?

STELZENMULLER: So I think one point to make that's important - it's not all of NATO that's sending weapons. It's individual NATO nations - some more, some less. In the German case, the new German government, composed of three center-left parties, actually have it in their coalition agreement not to send weapons into crisis zones. And why is that? Germany is one of the biggest arms exporters in the world - I think the third or fourth largest. And it sends - it sells weapons to some pretty unsavory regimes. And the dirty secret of German security policy, if you will, is that that helps keeps unit prices for armaments down for the German armed forces.

That's something the German public has never liked, which is why the German parties have been - or the German authorities of the center-left have been working for a long time to get this kind of prohibition in place. So they would be counteracting their own coalition agreement. Now, the problem with that, I think, is that I think there is a lack of nuance here, which is that this is not just any crisis, though. And this is an...

MARTIN: Right.

STELZENMULLER: ...Admittedly flawed democracy being threatened by an authoritarian-grade power. The tensions are already there. And by sending armaments to Ukraine, I think that we would not be creating tensions or adding to them; we would - helping the Ukrainians defend themselves. So I'm critical of that policy. But I expect it to develop, actually.

MARTIN: I want to talk about this pipeline project.

STELZENMULLER: Sure.

MARTIN: This is the Nord Stream 2. And this is a huge...

STELZENMULLER: Who doesn't? (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Energy project that would allow gas coming from Russia to Germany to bypass the antiquated pipeline that goes through Ukraine. So it's big money for Russia. It gives Germany a more stable energy source. Officials in both Russia and Germany say, hey, we should ignore this right now. This is not geopolitical. Let's just say it's all about business. But it can't be separated, can it?

STELZENMULLER: No, of course not. And again, let me parse the word officials, if you don't mind. The only actual official in government who said that was the defense minister, who was the previous government's justice minister. And I think I'm not being rude to her if I say she has no experience in defense and security policy. She has also walked back that remark. There have been a lot of other people who are not actually in decision-making power who've said this kind of thing. But again, they're muddying the waters.

The key thing to understand, I think, is that the chancellor himself, Olaf Scholz, has put Nord Stream 2 on the line explicitly. It took him a long time. He was hemming and hawing. Could he have said it more clearly? Absolutely. But he has put it on the line as part of the potential sanctions toolbox that will be put in place by the Western alliance if the Russians really attack Ukraine.

The problem, if I may, with sanctions is something different, which is that there is, I think, legitimate disagreement to be had in case the Russians do anything that's underneath the level of an outright invasion, the kind of probing and prodding over - probing over weaknesses that they've been doing so far in very different places, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea to outer space. Remember, they shot down that satellite that said - that had the people on the ISS scrambling for safety. That's a legitimate debate to be had. But I think, on the whole, unity on sanctions has been much greater than disunity.

MARTIN: Much more to talk about - we'd love to have you on again. Brookings Institution senior fellow Constanze Stelzenmuller - we appreciate your time and context this morning. Thank you.

STELZENMULLER: It's been my pleasure - any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.