May 26, 2023

Who’s Afraid of (Ukraine’s) Victory?

For Germany’s chancellor, victory seems to be the hardest word. This reluctance appears driven by fears of geopolitical change, which he seems hesitant to shape, let alone master, and by drawing the wrong lessons from German history.

DOCUMENT DATE:  14 May, 2023  German Chancellor Olaf Scholz looks on as Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy waves from the stage on the day of receiving Germany's prestigious Charlemagne Prize (Karlspreis) during the ceremony in Aachen, Germany, May 14, 2023.
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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz refuses to say Ukraine should win the war against Russia—or even that Russia should lose. Some will say that actions speak louder than words and point to long-term funding for Ukraine’s military, the recent approval for Mig-29 fighter jets, which once belonged to communist East Germany, and Berlin’s latest and largest weapons package for Ukraine. These steps are being heralded as evidence that Germany has turned a corner and that Scholz is making good on his promise of a Zeitenwende.

Yet, on one of the crucial, indeed defining, questions of the biggest geopolitical issue of the day, Germany’s chancellor remains non-committal. To be fair, he has said that there should not be a frozen conflict or a Russian-imposed peace—and Scholz has repeatedly stated that Russia should not win and Ukraine should not lose. However, this is not the same as Ukraine winning—and the distinction makes a big difference.

Failing to embrace Ukraine’s victory shows that the reluctant and reactive posture that previously dogged Berlin’s approach to supplying and supporting Kyiv still lingers. This hesitance cost German prestige and, more importantly, Ukrainian lives. Continued equivocation may have dangerous implications for Ukraine but also for German and European security going forward. So what is holding Scholz back?

What Victory—and Who Wants It?

It is often, falsely, claimed that there is no agreed-upon definition of a Ukrainian victory. However, Ukrainians are clear that it means expelling the Russian invaders and restoring their country to its internationally-recognized 1991 borders. That, plus the ability to defend those borders—and, more importantly, the people within them—after the cessation of hostilities, is the definition we work with here and which Scholz has so far been unwilling to affirm.

Other Senior German Social Democrats (SPD), including Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael Roth, have had no problem in endorsing this. Neither have leading figures from Scholz’s coalition partners such as Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Chair of the Defense Committee Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), nor have opposition politicians such as senior Christian Democrats (CDU) Norbert Roettgen and Roderich Kiesewetter.

Despite the discursive pressure exerted by these politicians, Germany’s Ukraine policy is a matter for the head of government to determine and thus firmly in the hands of the chancellery, which remains resolutely timid, despite the example set by many of Germany’s allies. Premiers Petr Fiala (Czech Republic) and Ingrida Šimonyte (Lithuania) have explicitly avowed Ukraine’s war as their own. Like his predecessor Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also been clear that Ukraine must win—as has Estonian premier Kaja Kallas and her outgoing Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin.

US President Joe Biden has, like Scholz, not explicitly said that Ukraine must win, although he came close to it at the G7 summit in Hiroshima. Given its position as the only democratic superpower, many in Washington worry on the one hand about triggering a direct conflict with Russia and, on the other hand, having to deal with a victorious and empowered Putin regime at the same time as an increasingly hostile China. Nonetheless, the US has still been by far Ukraine’s leading supplier, without which—unlike the support of any other country, however valuable—Kyiv would have already lost.

As Biden and others have affirmed, the decision about when to fight until and for what aims is Ukraine’s. Yet, it is not unreasonable for the countries that are funding and supplying Ukraine’s struggle, whether Estonia, Germany, or the United States, to form their own view of desirable and undesirable outcomes of the war—and it’s silly to pretend they don’t. However, those views can and should be evaluated against the countries’ values and interests—and those of their allies and partners.

Given the broad range of support among those allies—and his own colleagues—why is Scholz so scrupulously shy of endorsing a Ukrainian victory? After all it would be the triumph of a brave democracy standing up for freedom against an authoritarian and imperialist Russia, an aggressor that is overtly opposed to everything Germany is supposed to stand for.

To understand Scholz’ harmful hedging, it is necessary to look at how the present conflict may impact future geopolitics. First, however, it is useful to reflect on the influential lessons some Germans draw from their particular past, but which no longer serve their country well.

The Wrong Nightmare, The Wrong Lessons

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine brutally exposed the shortcomings of Germany’s longstanding approach to geopolitics, there have been plentiful pleas for mitigation focusing on the need to take account of how the country’s history has conditioned its approach to the conflict. These have often focused on the impact of the pacifist movement with its famous rallying cry of “Never Again.”

Yet those who understand “never again” as referring to war rather than genocidal and expansionist dictatorship ignore the fact that in Germany’s case the former was necessary to stop the latter. The just war waged by the allies was the only means by which the Holocaust and Nazi imperialism could be stopped—and by which Germans could be “liberated” from continuing to perpetrate such horror.

This effectively rebuts arguments from those who are trying to push Ukraine into early “peace” negotiations, which would, in reality, reward Russian aggression and condemn many Ukrainians to oppression. Nonetheless, when recently explaining his country’s position to an international audience, senior German diplomat Thomas Bagger quoted Ivan Krastev’s formulation that while the nightmare of many Central and East Europeans is occupation, the German nightmare is still war.

This approach resonates with the philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ influential advocacy for a “post-national” and “post-heroic” society: a Germany committed not only to atoning for but also not repeating past crimes by eschewing the belligerent pursuit of national interest, averting confrontation through dialogue, and, when that is impossible, seeking to transform rather than engage in (armed) conflict. This post-heroic and post-national approach is embodied in the structural transformation of Franco-German conflict into cooperation through European integration and the much-trumpeted merging (or perhaps submerging) of German interests in the European project.

However, despite Germany’s substantial military contributions to NATO between 1955 and 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall the post-heroic society also came to see itself as having been “post-war” (in every sense). While this may have been understandable in aftermath of the Nazi period—even if it didn’t fully reflect the reality of Germany’s Cold War posture—it is manifestly ill-suited to dealing with the challenges of the present.

The drawbacks of post-heroism were seen in Germany’s slowness to supply Ukraine with military hardware, but they have also impeded the understanding of conflict dynamics and deterrence in the country. Disavowal of military logic and tools bled into distaste for deterrence itself—and ignorance as to how it works—leaving Germany particularly susceptible to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s (nuclear) blackmail.

Exaggerated fear of escalation meant too much attention being paid to the Kremlin’s supposed “red lines”: from sending any military aid at all to Ukraine, to sending heavy weapons and now, seemingly, Ukraine retaking all of its territory and thus “winning.” Yet crossing these red lines has seen no escalation—because NATO has effective deterrence against Russia. Rather it has been when the allies have self-deterred, succumbing to the Kremlin’s attempts at reflexive control, that we have created the space into which the Putin regime has aggressively moved.

The “post-national” perspective plays into this problem and also the struggles with the us-and-them logic that remains essential to war fighting and war winning: Ukraine’s victory implies Russia’s defeat, which means seeing Russia as an enemy. Endorsing victory implies definitively choosing sides and pushing this to its conclusion rather than hedging to keep open the possibility of conflict transformation through dialogue: an impossibility in this case without selling out Ukraine and endangering European security.

Fear of Change: in Geopolitics and in Russia

Eliot A. Cohen has compellingly argued that defeating Russia does not mean marching on Moscow or occupying the country (anyway likely impossible against a nuclear power). Rather, it means Ukraine restoring control over and being able to defend its 1991 borders, but also that Russians feel they have been defeated by, for example: being shown their military inferiority via battlefield humiliation, losing military assets to the extent it removes martial aggression from the Kremlin’s toolbox for the foreseeable future, and, most importantly, Russians realizing that they have lost Ukraine for good.

Cohen also views Ukraine’s victory through the lens of the sharpening systemic competition and the need for democracies to triumph over autocracies. The German chancellery, by contrast, has not embraced this view—perhaps out of a lingering hope for conflict transformation, but also fear of geopolitical change. A microcosm of this fear can be seen in reluctance to endorse NATO membership for Ukraine, a step that would be made easier should Kyiv retake all its territory—and thus win—but also one which would more clearly bind Germany into a conflictual relationship with Russia.

If Ukraine wins, the worry therefore goes, it will indeed unleash a major transformation in the international system, with bipolar bloc formation presaging a new Cold War—something that Scholz has described as “fatalistic” and to be avoided. Yet, this ignores the Cold War function of bloc formation as a way of not only preventing confrontation between ideologically opposed superpowers getting out of hand, but also of ensuring that democracies could defend themselves and eventually see off a very real authoritarian threat.

Some may point to the US reluctance to pronounce victory as showing a similar position, although this is getting harder as the Biden administration’s rhetoric sharpens. Moreover, not only does Germany still depend on America for its security, it plays a very different role to the US—and has different relations to Russia, China, and other states. Aping the careful process of superpower calibration, without anything like the same level of responsibility—or ability to act—is thus unconvincing as an excuse not to endorse victory. Besides, the US not only approves of, but is actively driving systemic competition and bloc formation against Russia and, particularly, China.

The chancellor’s hesitance may also be driven by fear of instability and even Russian collapse stemming from a humiliating defeat. Stability is not an unalloyed good, as many people trapped on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War would confirm but, as much as many of us would wish for regime change in Russia, this seems unlikely. Any such potential instability should also be weighed against the high probability of Europe-wide insecurity should Russia not clearly lose, and the guarantee of suffering for Ukrainians should their country not clearly win.

A Question of Strategic Vision

It is this combination of historical and future fears that Scholz will have to overcome if he is to embrace the cause of Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat. As many other Germans, including the senior politicians mentioned above, have shown—it is possible to sensibly move on from the hard-won changes Germany made after World War II and to adopt a more appropriate posture to deal with the challenges the country faces today. As Bagger noted, history is a powerful teacher—but as the pupil matures, they are also responsible for deciding which lessons to draw and how they fit their wider worldview.

If Scholz and his aides are aiming to avoid bloc formation and a new Cold War and instead seeking to push Europe into becoming a pole in a new multipolar order then not endorsing Ukraine’s victory, which would likely accelerate bipolarity, is logically consistent. Multipolarity may seem to allow Germany to assert greater influence and maintain more of its previous geo-economic approach to international affairs. It would mean a softer scaling down of dependencies on China and allow Berlin to cling to more of the previous rules-based order and institutional framework from which it benefitted.

Yet, any such quest to become a pole in a multipolar system would also be fraught with danger. A Europe led by France and Germany, distanced from the US, lacks the capabilities to defend itself in a dangerous and competitive world. It is also hard to imagine many of the Central and East European states signing up to this strategy so there would be a big question as to which Europe is envisaged and what its relations to China and Russia would be.

Most pertinently, if the US proceeds with its bloc formation against China and other autocracies, it will expect its allies to effectively choose sides and take commensurate actions, including on military contribution, trade, and international ordering. Failing to account for this possibility risks leaving Germany exposed and again having to endure changes wrought on it by others rather than taking strategic ownership of and shaping those changes in advance.

This dangerous view of the future, therefore, not only draws questionable lessons from history but also manifests itself in cautious hedging that fails to learn from the Zeitenwende. It would be far better for Scholz to commit unequivocally to a Ukrainian victory and to playing a fuller part in delivering the triumph of democracies over autocracies that would better serve Germany’s values as well as its interests.

Benjamin Tallis is a senior research fellow at the DGAP’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe and leads its “Action Group Zeitenwende.”

Julian Stöckle is project assistant for the “Action Group Zeitenwende.”

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