The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Germany once committed war crimes in Ukraine. Now it subsidizes Russia’s.

The words "No Money for Murderers, Stop the Oil and Gas Trade" are projected by activists onto the Russian consulate in Frankfurt on April 4. (Michael Probst/AP)
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When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz responded by suspending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, announcing an additional investment of 100 billion euros in defense, and sending weapons to Ukraine. These were all major shifts in German foreign policy, prompting headlines such as this one in the Atlantic: “Europe’s Sleeping Giant Awakens.”

More than two months later, it’s more accurate to say that the sleeping giant did awaken — but then hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. While Germany was initially at the forefront of responding to the Russian attack, it has now fallen embarrassingly and inexcusably behind many of its allies when it comes to both supplying Ukraine and sanctioning Russia despite horrifying revelations of Russian war crimes.

It’s not as though Germany is doing nothing. It has sent a considerable quantity of munitions to Ukraine, including thousands of antitank and antiaircraft missiles. But its military aid to Ukraine lags behind not only the United States and the United Kingdom but also tiny Estonia. As a percentage of gross domestic product, Germany’s contributions look even stingier — 11 other nations are doing more than Europe’s largest economy.

Germany has been reluctant to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine — meaning tanks, howitzers, drones and long-range air defenses — at a time when that country desperately needs such weapons to win the battle for the Donbas region. The Social Democratic Party governing Germany has offered a series of shifting and unconvincing explanations for its hesitation, including the claim that its armed forces have no armored vehicles or artillery to spare, that the Ukrainians are not sophisticated enough to use German weapons, and that sending heavy weaponry would provoke Russia. Under heavy pressure from allies, Germany finally agreed on Tuesday to deliver 50 antiaircraft tanks to Ukraine. “I am doing everything I can to prevent an escalation that would lead to a third world war,” Scholz told the German news magazine Der Spiegel. “There cannot be a nuclear war.”

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Scholz is shamelessly amplifying Russian propaganda: Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps dropping hints about his nuclear arsenal to dissuade the West from aiding his victims. Is the chancellor seriously suggesting that Germany’s NATO allies are risking nuclear war by sending heavy weapons to Ukraine? In fact, he has it backward. The best way to avert a world war is by stopping Russia in Ukraine. If Putin wins this war, he would be emboldened to further aggression against neighboring states, including members of NATO.

Even worse than Germany’s unwillingness to send more aid to Ukraine is its unwillingness to stop all energy imports from Russia. Berlin does plan to stop buying Russian oil and coal this year, but there are no immediate plans to shut the Nord Stream 1 natural gas pipeline. Germany has actually become more reliant on Russian gas over the past decade despite Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In 2011, Germany counted on Russia for 39 percent of its natural gas supplies. Today it’s 55 percent. Every day Germany pays about $220 million to Russia for energy. That’s more than $80 billion a year that finances the Russian war machine.

Germany committed genocide in Ukraine during World War II and vowed “Never Again.” Yet it is now financing Russia’s horrific war crimes in Ukraine — which arguably amount to genocide.

Once upon a time, Germans could convince themselves that trading with Russia would mellow the bear. Germany’s Ostpolitik, dating back to 1969, was premised on “Wandel durch Handel,” or “change through trade.” Beneath the surface, of course, there was a heavy undercurrent of sleaze as many German elites — most infamously former chancellor Gerhard Schröder — became rich off Kremlin largesse.

Germany can no longer argue that there is anything remotely idealistic about its dealings with the Butcher of Bucha. Schröder has become a pariah in his own country. But, having become addicted to cheap Russian energy, the German government now insists that it would be too economically painful to wean itself.

In fact, Germany can end its unconscionable dependence on Russian gas by simply reversing the worst mistake that former chancellor Angela Merkel made: She decided, after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, to phase out all nuclear power, even though there is no chance of a German nuclear reactor being disabled by a combination of an earthquake and tsunami. Germany once had 17 nuclear power plants. Now only three are left, and they are due to close by year’s end.

Shutting down the nuclear power industry not only makes it harder to stop the Russian war machine but also to slow global warming. German per capita carbon dioxide emissions are nearly twice as high as in France, a country that is expanding, not shuttering, its nuclear power industry. Germany urgently needs to keep its three remaining nuclear plants open and to restart its closed ones. By doing so, it could radically reduce — even end — its immoral reliance on Russian gas imports.

Given that nuclear energy is both far cleaner and far safer than fossil fuels, this would appear to be a no-brainer. Yet the Scholz government, resting on a coalition that includes the Green Party, refuses to take this vital step. It prefers to subsidize Russian war crimes instead. Germany should be ashamed.