The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Putin’s war in Ukraine has moved Germany into a new era

A Christmas market in front of Berlin's Charlottenburg Palace illuminated in the Ukrainian national colors on Nov. 24. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
6 min

Emily Haber is the German ambassador to the United States.

An American friend called me the other day, having just returned from Berlin. He told me he’d been struck by how deeply Russia’s war in Ukraine has affected Germany. He could trace its impact throughout his visit. One telltale sign he mentioned — dimly lit airports and streets in the late afternoon of his arrival — seemed a bit superficial to me. That, after all, is almost nothing compared with Russia’s systematic attacks on the Ukrainian energy system and the hardships it is inflicting on the Ukrainian people. And yet his impression — as first impressions often do — had the ring of a more profound truth.

It is a fact that Germany and Europe are affected by the war in ways that the United States is not. First, the war is nearby — the drive from Berlin to Lviv, Ukraine, is a mere 10 hours. Ukrainian refugees, more than 1 million by now, are visible everywhere (as is the Ukrainian flag). Their status is comparable to that of a green card holder in the United States. They’re entitled to social benefits, work permits, housing. They enjoy full health insurance. Schools, which are tuition-free, are struggling to accommodate their children (more than 200,000).

Daily life is changing in many other ways. Temperatures in homes and public buildings are going down; energy bills are going up from a level that was already high by international standards. The rate of inflation in Germany, which rose from 4.9 percent in January, before the Russians invaded Ukraine, to 10 percent now, is among the highest in the larger advanced economies. A gallon of gasoline costs almost twice as much as it does in the United States. Energy-intensive small companies, such as bakeries or metalworking factories, are facing insolvency.

For Germany, as the most powerful engine of Europe’s economy, these effects will proliferate. Increasingly, it is Europe (and not least Germany) that is bearing the brunt of the sanctions, not the United States.

Yet this is all on the surface.

Our national psychology is undergoing a profound transformation. A rug has been pulled out from under our feet. That rug is — was — the illusion that our relationship with Russia amounted to a milder version of the Cold War. In Europe, that meant that we didn’t have to worry about potential changes to borders. This illusion arose thanks to a steady improvement in relations with the then-Soviet Union, starting in the early 1970s. It was not without setbacks, but it did contribute to the enormous success of Russia acquiescing to German reunification (even if the real force behind that success was the United States).

That decades-long experience of improving ties reinforced the assumption that interdependence was conducive to stability, transparency and, eventually, systemic change. We ignored warning signs to the contrary, and we failed to take criticism from our allies and partners as seriously as we should have, especially on the geopolitical implications of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.


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All of this is now over, and it is amazing to observe just “how over” it really is. Our old strategic axiom of “Wandel durch Handel” (“change through trade”) is dead. To be sure, there are dissenting voices, and there is discontent brewing in some parts of the country. Yet the consensus continues to reassert itself, underlining the break with past orthodoxies.

Take energy. We have ended our dependence on Russian energy imports. We are no longer buying coal or gas from Russia, and the same will soon be true of oil. This massive shift has occurred at lightning speed — within just a few months. We are accelerating our transition to renewables, extending the operation of nuclear plants (a very difficult decision domestically), reactivating coal plants and building liquid natural gas infrastructure. True, our previous dependence on Russia was self-inflicted. But we have drawn the necessary conclusions and are determined to see through a corrective revolution.

Take weapons exports. It used to be a cardinal principle of German foreign policy not to export weapons to war zones and conflict regions. Today, Germany is one of Ukraine’s largest suppliers of sophisticated and highly efficient weaponry, such as the IRIS-T air defense system. Ukrainian officials have pointed out how much of a difference this aid made in the latest Ukrainian advances on the ground. Yes, some want Germany to provide Western-made tanks or infantry fighting vehicles. Yet doing this would pose serious logistical issues concerning training, maintenance and ammunition. And let’s not forget: No other nation has so far provided Ukraine with Western-made main battle tanks.

Take national defense within the NATO alliance. For many years, Germany has been criticized for lagging on defense spending. Now we have enshrined in the constitution a 100 billion euro fund to ensure the implementation of spending commitments. Together with the regular defense budget, Germany is thus fully committed to allocating 2 percent of its GDP for defense over the coming years. The disbursement of funds will vary and depends on what defense products are available on the international market.

It is worth emphasizing: In February, when Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the increase in defense spending, Germany reached what is probably its most significant turning point in decades. Of course, German reunification more than 30 years ago was a momentous event. Integrating the former East Germany was an effort that, internationally, earned Germany the “sick man of Europe” epithet for many years. Even so, reunification vindicated past strategic decisions and did not require a break with them. But that is precisely what happened in February.

For Ukraine, which is struggling for its very survival, these German tribulations are of secondary concern. What counts for Kyiv, entirely understandably, is the supply of weapons, the provision of humanitarian and financial support, and the accommodation of refugees.

Yet it is still vital to note just how far Germany has come in such a short time and at great psychological and material cost. This change is real and lasting. And we are happy to see that it is deepening our already close ties with our allies — first and foremost the United States.