Moral nation? Why Germany changed course so radically on Russia.

Germany’s warm welcome for Ukrainian refugees has accompanied a wider societal and political about-face – the shedding of a decadeslong pacifist nature in the face of the war in Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz overturned long-held policies by promising to send weapons to Ukraine, bolster an under-equipped German military, and shift away from cheap Russian energy supplies.

The bold moves highlight a pattern of moral leadership and responsibility from Germany, as the country takes positions that may not be politically optimal but show strong ethical considerations.

The sudden shift from decadeslong ambivalence toward Russia, to 2022’s strong policy stance, is actually characteristic of German politics, says Tyson Barker of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

It falls under the concept of wendepolitik (“change policy”), in which a massive event is a catalyst for a major strategic upheaval. In such instances, a strong executive can ram through an abrupt policy change in one moment, explains Mr. Barker. Following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government immediately decided to phase out nuclear power, for example.

“Mr. Scholz did not create the necessity,” says sociologist Mirco Liefke, “but he understood this is the right moment to make a point at a time there is acceptance.”
Berlin

Vita Berehova’s train tickets may permit a 12:05 p.m. departure to Munich. But more importantly, they are passage to a new life.

She and her young son had experienced overstuffed buses, long waits while sleeping in streets, and the random kindness of strangers during their jarring three-day journey out of the besieged city of Kharkiv, Ukraine. But while the trek was filled with uncertainty, Ms. Berehova was always sure of her destination. It would be Germany, even though Poland is closer to home and the Polish language closer to Ukrainian than to German.

“In Germany, the sociopolitical environment for refugees is the best in Europe, and maybe best in the world,” says Ms. Berehova, standing in a cordoned area for Ukrainian refugees at Berlin’s main train station, with local volunteers dishing out bean soup in the background. “The mentality of Germans is to treat other people as people, regardless of origin, nationality, their appearance, or the availability of money. It’s the biggest European country who does that.”

Germany’s warm welcome for Ukrainian refugees has accompanied a wider societal and political about-face – the shedding of a decadeslong pacifist nature in the face of the war in Ukraine. In one monumental policy speech the weekend after Russian troops rolled into Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz overturned long-held policies by promising to send weapons to Ukraine, bolster an under-equipped German military, and shift away from cheap Russian energy supplies.

Germany’s newfound moral clarity around Russia, say the experts, has opened the door to societal acceptance of bold actions and sacrifice in the name of defending Ukrainians’ shared values of freedom and democracy. It has also served as a call to action for Europe to stand on the right side of history.

“We are all now talking about Putin’s war – the phrase the German government used from the first day,” says Mirco Liefke, a sociologist at Freie Universität Berlin. “They have used communication strategically to create a very specific understanding of this war – turning a necessity created by this conflict into a virtue – so that it demands a response. Yet their messaging has been so successful in creating an urgency to act that they’re now facing criticism for not moving fast enough.”

“Taking advantage of a moment”

The German foreign policy world has seen Russia as either an ally or a threat to Germany over the centuries. Then came Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stabilized Russia at a time when Russia was “a little incalculable.”

“He did bring in a degree of order to the country,” says Jürgen Hardt, a former German naval officer and member of parliament through 2021. Now, it’s clear that Germans have underestimated Mr. Putin’s “ambitions of becoming a major dictator.”

The sudden shift from decadeslong ambivalence toward Russia, to 2022’s strong policy stance, is actually characteristic of German politics, says Tyson Barker, head of technology and foreign policy for the German Council on Foreign Relations. It falls under the concept of wendepolitik (“change policy”), in which a massive event is catalyst for a major strategic upheaval. In such instances, a strong executive can ram through an abrupt policy change in one moment, explains Mr. Barker.

German reunification, for example, took place 11 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government immediately decided to phase out nuclear power. Ms. Merkel also helmed the seemingly abrupt 2015 decision to take in what would ultimately be 1 million refugees mostly from Syria and Afghanistan.

Mr. Scholz’s decisions around the war in Ukraine are in the same vein, with the government announcing the mothballing of the Russo-German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, a €100 billion infusion into the German military, and the reversal of the long-held policy of not sending weapons into conflict zones.

“It’s a complete turnaround, and because it’s in line with public opinion at the moment, the political establishment just takes it and buys into it,” says Mr. Barker. “It’s not planned. It’s taking advantage of a moment.”

That moment, of course, came with Mr. Putin’s troops rolling into Ukraine. Before that point, says Joanna Bryson, an ethics professor at the Hertie School in Berlin, it was easy to argue either for or against the idea that Mr. Putin may be a reliable partner for the West.

“Everyone could turn their heads both ways,” says Dr. Bryson. “Large numbers of people staked their entire identities and professional histories in saying things like ‘The Cold War was over, and we have these institutions that will secure us.’ Then suddenly Russia proved that one narrative was false and one narrative was true” – shaking Germany’s long-held policy foundation toward Russia to its core.

And because Germany is currently run by a coalition government, Dr. Bryson adds, it has the legitimacy to make bold moves to respond to the new circumstances: Most voters saw their first or second choice of party in power. While each party might have to agree to something it normally would find unacceptable, because all the parties were making such sacrifices, it became palatable.

“So, all three parties [in the coalition government] did 180s. The Greens agreed to consider restarting nuclear power; the Free Democrats said, ‘We’ll take debt’; the Social Democrats said, ‘We’ll spend on weapons,’” says Dr. Bryson. “And they brought their people with them because everyone could see why they were doing this.”

A moral position comes into focus

The clear, newfound morality around Russia has also made it politically acceptable to swiftly support sanctions on Russia, ban the country from the SWIFT banking system, and proclaim that Germany must shift away from Russian energy supplies. That also goes for raising defense spending to the 2%-of-GDP target required of NATO members, which Germany has always managed to sidestep.

“Somehow the government found a fitting narrative to do something that had to be done long ago,” says Dr. Liefke, the sociologist. “Mr. Scholz did not create the necessity, but he understood this is the right moment to make a point at a time there is acceptance.”

Prior to the invasion, government language and media coverage describing Mr. Putin’s troop buildup around Ukraine left it all open to different interpretations. The language allowed for nuance. Instead of “soldiers” it was “pro-Russian separatists,” for example.

“Now we’re falling back to old language that’s much more connected to Cold War times and classical war coverage,” says Dr. Liefke. “It’s Putin’s war. And it’s very clear that the Russian side are the bad guys and Ukrainians are the good guys. That is a big change. It’s an indication to society that it’s actually no longer acceptable to be somehow pro-Putin.”

This morality has brought trouble to public figures such as Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor who’s a close friend of Mr. Putin’s. After leaving public office, Mr. Schröder joined the board of Russian energy giant Gazprom with an accompanying hefty salary. Now Mr. Schröder’s political party is being pressured to oust him.

Mr. Schröder’s “relationship to Putin was always somehow disputable, but in the OK zone. It no longer is,” says Dr. Liefke.

Germany’s welcome to thousands of Ukrainian refugees also has a strong moral foundation, as society has opened its arms with donations of food and shelter, while the government proclaims there is no upper limit on the numbers of Ukrainians who can pass into the country. Analysts say the Ukraine war hits the right combination of factors: namely, flight from war or persecution by a population that’s geographically close and similar in culture and religion. (More than 70% of Ukrainians are Christian, as are the majority of Germans.)

Hence what ensued was a mass outpouring of empathy.

“It’s very clear and prominent in news media and political speeches that Ukrainians really are fleeing a war,” says Christian Cyzmara, a sociologist at Goethe University Frankfurt. “It also feels very drastic and close, which boosts acceptance among Germans and Europe in general.”

Germany’s warm reception resonates with Yuliya Kosyakova, who migrated from Ukraine to Germany 20 years ago. Now a migration researcher at Germany’s Institute for Employment Research, she is “touched to tears” when observing Germans welcoming Ukrainians into their homes.

The majority of Ukrainian refugees will go elsewhere – likely to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Moldova, or Poland, which has already taken in more than 2.5 million Ukrainians – with 300,000-plus settling in Germany. Even so, most Ukrainians will want to return home eventually, says Dr. Kosyakova.

What’s unclear is how Germany’s welcome will evolve over time. One prominent image around the 2015-16 migration of Syrian refugees into Germany was that of teddy bears greeting new arrivals at the Munich train station. Yet the public grew weary as the months wore on, and the far-right political party Alternative for Germany eventually gained influence in parliament in part by stoking anti-Muslim sentiment.

“Public opinion shifted a bit as the inflow went on,” says Dr. Cyzmara, “and I’m not sure whether that will be similar this time.”

A slip backward?

In the weeks following the start of the invasion, Germany’s zeitenwende – as Mr. Scholz dubbed this “historical turning point” – has come to seem shaky at times.

A German political establishment so resolutely supportive of Ukraine in the beginning became quickly beset by internal bickering. Some coalition members felt Germany should be moving faster on promises to supply weapons. Then Kyiv disinvited the German president from a visit, in part to protest his business ties to Russia and what Ukrainian leaders perceived as Germany’s dragging its feet on supplying heavy weapons.

Where morality is quite clear, it’s become befuddled by the reality of politics and a German culture that tends to be “plodding and iterative” rather than sweeping and grandly decisive, as is the French policymaking way, Mr. Barker wrote in a New Statesman essay. “Deferred action has long been the default political setting for Germany.”

Yet none of the political back-and-forth could shake the gratitude of Ms. Berehova, the Ukrainian single mother who arrived in Munich from Kharkiv via the Berlin train station. She reports that her young son is enrolled in a German public school, a local German family hosted them until they found housing, and the government is supporting them with housing payments and stipends. Her new adopted country is moving away from Russian energy, which will ultimately “help rid the world of the dictatorship of a degrading country,” she says.

This week, Germany finally committed to sending dozens of anti-aircraft weapons and tanks, days after other allies had committed heavy weapons. And it has decided to end fossil fuel purchases from Russia. Poland and Bulgaria – which Russia has cut off from energy shipments – didn’t have any choice in the matter, but Germany, should it fulfill its timeline to stop buying Russian oil by year’s end and Russian gas by 2024, could lead the way for the rest of Europe to do the same, no matter the economic pain.

As Ms. Berehova puts it, Germany’s actions “broadcast stability and tranquility. Germany gives guarantees and is responsible for its words.”

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