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Germany abandons muted approach to aid for Ukraine, sending weapons and greenlighting sanctions

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is seen in Berlin on Feb. 26. (Markus Schreiber/AP)
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Germany on Saturday took significant steps toward shedding its post-World War II caution about being a significant global security player, announcing it would deliver extensive lethal weaponry to Ukraine and embracing broad restrictions on Russian banks that it had previously rebuffed.

The double-barreled shift following the Russian invasion of Ukraine — “the turning of an era,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said — came after years in which German policymakers declared they could separate business from politics, even approving the construction of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline linking Germany and Russia, in 2015, the year after the Kremlin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Germany’s deep economic relationship with Russia is decades old and, many critics say, has led to a foreign policy orthodoxy that long held back Europe from sharper criticism of the Kremlin.

But Saturday’s move opened up Europe’s weapons-packed armories to Ukraine, since Berlin retained a veto power over how German-manufactured armaments were used even after they were sold elsewhere. More broadly, Scholz’s decision to swing more directly into confrontation with a country that helped defeat the Nazis, Russia, was a major break for the richest and most-populous nation in the European Union. Berlin’s focus on trade rather than security has led it to spend far less on defense than NATO guidelines require.

“This might be one of the biggest shifts in German foreign policy since World War II,” said Marcel Dirsus, a German political scientist and fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, who has often been critical of Germany’s hesitant stance in the past. “There has been an awakening, not just by the political class, but also by ordinary voters.”

Scholz said he would rush 1,000 antitank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to Ukraine. German policymakers also agreed to cut off many Russian banks from a key financial transactions mechanism, a step Berlin had been resisting for days. They were also preparing to close their skies to Russian aircraft.

“It is our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our ability in defending against Putin’s invading army,” Scholz said in a statement.

The policy shift cleared the way for other countries to send German-made weaponry to Ukraine on Saturday, unleashing a tide of weaponry. Berlin greenlighted a shipment of 400 Dutch-owned rocket-propelled grenade launchers and several Estonian-owned howitzers to Ukraine, three European officials said. Germany, like many other countries, retains a stake in how its weaponry can be used even after it is sold or transferred abroad. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic arms transfer agreements that were still receiving their final approvals.

It came just days after Scholz froze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project — another decision that weeks ago seemed inconceivable.

“Putin might be in the process of losing Germany — which honestly, you got to really try,” Dirsus said. “Everything in this political system is stacked in your favor if you’re Russia’s president, so for you to succeed in turning Germany against you to such an extent that they will be ready to deliver [rocket-propelled grenades] to Ukraine is honestly an achievement almost.”

Germany has rarely sent weapons into conflicts, a long-standing political taboo that is related to its guilt over World War II. (Detractors note that the German defense industry has nevertheless sold extensive armaments to authoritarian leaders around the world.) The country has been especially cautious about sending weapons that would be used against Russia, a country to which many Germans feel indebted for their role in ending World War II.

Sending arms to Ukraine “is such a concrete measure and it stands in such stark contrast to what they were pushing for beforehand, that I can’t help but think that this is going to create a new precedent that will change German foreign policy in the future,” Dirsus said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Feb. 22 that he would halt authorization of Nord Stream 2 for the time being. (Video: Reuters)

In the past, Germany has occasionally sent allies weaponry for active use: In 2014, the German army sent RPGs to the Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq to help stop the massacre of the Yazidi minority ethnic group.

But many Germans — both policymakers and ordinary citizens — had said in recent weeks that sending arms to Ukraine would fuel the conflict by escalating the confrontation with Russia. They said they preferred a diplomatic solution. Advocates of arms shipments said that doing so would increase the likelihood of a peaceful outcome by making it clear to the Kremlin that it would face a fight if it tried to invade.

‘Weapons to anyone’: Across Ukraine, militias form as Russian forces near

Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine ended that debate.

“This is the result of an intense search for what we stand for and how it fits the current state of the world,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a German Green lawmaker in the European Parliament who was the first senior elected politician in Germany to call for arms shipments to Kyiv.

“The Russian aggression showed to many that we carry a lot of responsibility for both our values and peace in Europe, and that assisting a victim of aggression is just as important for peace as being cautious about not contributing to war,” he said.

But he said he thought a key test of the durability of Germany’s shift would be whether it boosts its military spending. Last year it spent an estimated 1.53 percent of its annual economic output on defense, well below the 2 percent NATO target.

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who stepped down in December, had condemned Putin’s actions Friday.

The invasion has caused a “deep rupture in Europe’s history following the end of the Cold War,” she said.

Although she remains popular in Germany, the country’s approach to Russia is deeply intermingled with her legacy, since she had served as the country’s leader since 2005, nearly as long as Russia has been led by Putin. He came to office on the last day of 1999.

A plan by the United States, European Union, Britain and Canada on Saturday to cut many Russian banks from the international SWIFT payment system and take measures to restrict the Russian central bank was also made possible by Berlin’s newly hawkish stance. Germany had previously opposed the move on SWIFT, partly because it feared a cutoff in Russian gas shipments if Russian energy companies can no longer be paid.

What is SWIFT and why does it matter in the Russia-Ukraine war?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the German change of heart.

“Our diplomats fought days-long and inspiringly, so that all European countries agreed to this very strong and just decision, to cut off Russia from the international interbank network,” Zelensky said Saturday night.

SWIFT — short for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication — is a messaging network connecting banks around the world. The Belgian-based consortium links more than 11,000 financial institutions operating in more than 200 countries and territories, acting as a critical hub enabling international payments.

Noack reported from Paris. Kim Bellware contributed to this report.