The German parliament finally agreed on April 28 to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. Moreover, the decision was supported by an overwhelming majority of parliamentary deputies, with 586 votes in favor and only 100 against. We are perhaps witnessing today the emergence of another Germany which has put aside its geopolitical fears and is ready to take the leadership on the international scene.
In Ukraine, the Bundestag’s decision was hailed as “the final nail in the coffin of Putin’s lobbying in Europe”, according to presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. Personally, I’m not sure if this is really the final nail or if we can even talk about a coffin at this stage, but the vote was certainly an important development for all Ukrainians and for Europe as a whole.
Since the start of the Russian invasion two months ago, Germany has been regarded in Ukraine as one of the least favorable European nations. Whenever my radio station has hosted discussions about Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration and Western military aid to Kyiv, the two countries consistently cited as the biggest hurdles are Germany and Hungary. I can see why the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian leader Viktor Orban might see Russian support as a source of legitimacy, but I find it difficult to understand why a free and economically powerful Germany would compromise itself in order to cultivate close ties with the Kremlin.
When it comes to downplaying the conflict with Putin, new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has honed his skills. He zigzags between Russia, the German public, German industrialists and the wider Western world with a message that if he opposes the war, any meaningful support for Ukraine would be a dangerous escalation. To me, the logic of this position is akin to depriving a victim of domestic violence of support for fear of offending the abuser. It also keeps Germany in its current comfort zone.
Berlin’s attempts to avoid any confrontation with Moscow contrast sharply with the outpouring of German public support for Ukraine since the start of the war. I was moved to tears when I saw crowds of over 100,000 people in the streets of the German capital expressing their solidarity with Ukraine. I have also heard many testimonies of Ukrainian refugees being warmly welcomed in towns and villages across Germany.
My German media colleagues offered words of support and, to my surprise, backed this up with generous financial help from their own pockets. Unofficially, some told me that they were ashamed of the position taken by their government. In an authoritarian country like Russia or Iran, I would not have been surprised to encounter such a stark divergence between public opinion and government policy. But in Germany it was a shock.
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As a journalist, I have long been curious about the German phenomenon of the “Putinversteher” or “Putin Understanders”, and I have often broached this subject during trips to Berlin. I encountered three common arguments that help explain why so many of Germany’s business and political elites are eager to make excuses for Putin and forge ties with Russia at the expense of European values and the interests of neighbors such as Germany. ‘Ukraine.
The reason most often cited is Germany’s sense of guilt towards Russia for the crimes of World War II. This argument has always baffled me because it directly equates modern Russia with the Soviet Union while completely ignoring the wartime suffering of other Soviet republics. In reality, Ukraine and Belarus both experienced much worse destruction and lost comparatively many more people than Russia did during the Nazi invasion of the USSR.
My grandfather, Efrem Grygorovych Sych, was drafted into the Red Army in early 1945. I guess he didn’t really have a choice in the matter. My father was born soon after, but he never met my grandfather, who was killed in the spring of 1945 somewhere near Berlin. I still have the brief official letter from the Red Army announcing his death.
I personally have not been interested in Soviet propaganda since I was young. As a result, I never saw Germany as a threat, either to my family directly or to modern civilization as a whole. The same cannot be said for Russia, unfortunately. As a business traveler and tourist I have had the chance to visit many parts of Germany. Meanwhile, for about ten years, I have not even been able to transit through Russia for fear of being detained and imprisoned because of my work as a journalist in Ukraine. I’m sure my grandfather would have been surprised to see things turn out like this.
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The second common justification for the “Putinversteher” culture in Germany today is the strength of anti-American sentiment. I can understand why some Germans might resent American influence, but I struggle to understand why that resentment should translate into support for Russia. How can disagreements between other democracies lead to increased sympathy for a tyrannical one-party state?
The third argument that I often hear is financial. It is simply good business for Germany to maintain strong ties with Russia, regardless of the nature of Putin’s regime. This needs no further explanation, but I feel compelled to make an observation. As someone from a country with a long history of fighting dirty politicians, it seems obvious to me that many German politicians receive heavy compensation from the Kremlin in exchange for their support. It is also evident that these politicians strongly influenced German foreign policy for many years.
The pervasiveness of “Putinversteher” sentiment within the German establishment makes the recent Bundestag vote on arming Ukraine even more symbolic and, I hope, historic. This vote can help my country defend itself against Russia and could allow my family to return home to Kyiv in the not too distant future. It also represents a major step in Germany’s return to a position of moral leadership befitting the country’s status.
The Germany of today should be a world leader, but that means adhering to a clear set of national values, even if they come at a cost. The German public has already demonstrated that they are ready to pay the price for leadership. The Bundestag has now done the same. This is the Germany the world needs.
Vitaly Sych is editor of the NV media house, which includes a weekly magazine, a national radio station and a news site (NV.ua). A version of this article was originally published in German by Die Zeit newspaper.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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