Inertia and Reactiveness in Germany's Russia Policy

From the 2021 Federal Election to the Invasion of Ukraine in 2022

in German Politics and Society
Jonas J. Driedger Researcher, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

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Despite signs that Russia was preparing an invasion of Ukraine, the newly elected German government stayed with pre-existing approaches that involved engagement and the threat of limited sanctions. However, in February 2022, just before the invasion began, Germany blocked the Nord Stream 2 pipeline system, announced weapon deliveries to Ukraine, and massively increased defense spending. This article shows that inertia and reactiveness heavily influenced the timing, nature, and extent of this massive shift in Germany's Russia policy. German leaders continued the existing policy in part because it had been formed by still influential figures and was in line with societal views. However, at the dawn of the invasion, the failure of previous policies had become undeniable, pressure from Ukraine and nato allies peaked, and societal views finally shifted. Reacting to this untenable situation, key figures in the German elite pushed through a series of measures that nato allies and Ukraine had long demanded.

In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a Zeitenwende—a “change of times.”1 The term entails the double meaning of an era ending and a paradigm shifting. Indeed, within a few days, Germany reverted policy in three major areas: it prohibited the use of Nord Stream 2, a recently finalized addition to the Russo-German gas pipeline system; it started to deliver arms to Ukraine; and it announced major investments in its own armed forces, the Bundeswehr, as well as a dramatic rise of annual defense spending above the nato threshold of 2 percent of gross domestic product.2

These policy changes were as wide-ranging as they were abrupt. The war threat from Russia had been looming and building since the autumn of 2021. However, until just before the invasion, Germany had refused to halt Nord Stream 2. It had also denied delivery of German-manufactured weapons to Kyiv and kept defense spending at a low level. Indeed, these policies precede the federal elections of 2021 and the new three-party (traffic light) coalition formed under Scholz, reaching back well into the Merkel era.

Amid the mounting war threat, and before the Zeitenwende, Ukraine and various eu and nato allies heavily criticized Germany's hesitancy toward Russia. Many of these allies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic states, sent weapons to Ukraine to deter the seemingly imminent Russian attack.3 For the same purpose, the uk and Poland even announced a new security pact with Ukraine one week before the invasion.4 However, while other states adapted policy proactively and early on, Germany did not change gears until just before the invasion, diminishing what deterrent effects its policies might have had.5

All this raises various questions: Why did Germany's Russia policy remain unchanged for so long? Why did it shift so late—and so drastically? Why did Germany then adopt the measures it did and not others? Addressing all these questions, the article shows that the German policy shifts toward Russia were characterized by inertia and reactiveness. Rather than acknowledging changing conditions and developing new policies to account for them, the newly formed German government stuck to the Russia policy of the previous administration, vaguely threatening retaliatory economic sanctions and engaging Russia through pre-established diplomatic channels.

However, amid the ever-growing prospect of Russia invading Ukraine, increasing pressure was put on the newly elected government to support Ukraine. Berlin initially sought to maintain existing policy through rhetoric and measures that were mostly symbolic. In part, this policy persistence can be traced to German societal views, which, up until the invasion, largely favored restraint. However, Russian recognition of separatist entities on Ukraine's legal territory on 21 February and its all-out invasion of Ukraine on 24 February drastically changed views and exacerbated existing pressures on Berlin. German elites calculated that the only feasible option was a pivotal policy shift. Consequently, Chancellor Scholz and a few key figures of the ruling coalition rapidly (and semi-clandestinely) put into place new policies. In doing so, they largely sought ways to directly implement long-standing demands by nato allies and Ukraine.

The argument is developed as follows. The next section shows how, facing the mounting threat of war, the new German government sought to continue traditional policy toward Russia. The section thereafter showcases how Berlin was faced with increasing pressure from German society, nato allies, and Ukraine to change its Russia policy. The penultimate section analyzes how Russia's recognition of separatist entities on Ukrainian territories and the eventual invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022 intensified pressures and led Germany's foreign policy elite to implement changes within a few days. The conclusion sets the findings of this study into a larger pattern of inertia and reactiveness in German policy, lays out how future German foreign policy approaches can benefit from this analysis, and discusses what they suggest for the future development of German-Russian relations as well as for Germany's future behavior toward its allies and Russia.

Sticking to the Old Ways

While Germany did threaten economic sanctions if Russia were to invade Ukraine, for a long time it remained non-committal on specifics, especially regarding Nord Stream 2. On 10 September 2021, construction of the pipeline system was officially finalized, and full operability was confirmed on 18 October. Germany kept referring to the pipeline as a merely economic project, ignoring persistent demands to terminate it made by the United States, Ukraine, and various Eastern European allies, who feared that the project would increase dependency on Russian gas deliveries and decrease transit proceeds for Ukraine.6

In her last meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on 22 August, Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, had expressed support for extending contracts ensuring Russian gas transit through Ukraine rather than solely through the Nord Stream pipelines, but she did not give specific guarantees.7 When Scholz took the chancellorship, he continued to follow Merkel in designating Nord Stream 2 as a merely economic project.

On 15 November, amid mounting signs that Russia was preparing for an invasion of Ukraine, the foreign ministers of Germany and France issued a warning to Russia that attempting to violate Ukraine's territorial integrity would have “serious consequences.” However, these consequences were not specified, and Nord Stream 2 was not named.8 This nebulous rhetoric remained German language policy well into February 2022. During a visit to Kyiv on 7 February, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated that Germany would increase economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and that it was willing to pay a high economic price for sanctioning Russia in the case of an invasion.9 During a press conference with u.s. President Joe Biden on the same day, Scholz only made vague statements regarding the issue of canceling the pipeline.10 When meeting Zelensky in Kyiv on 14 February 2022, the German chancellor, similar to Baerbock one week earlier, warned Russia of far-reaching consequences if it attacked Ukraine while avoiding any mention of Nord Stream 2. Meanwhile, Zelensky called the pipeline a geopolitical weapon that Russia was using against Europe's energy security.11

On German defense spending and military capabilities, the new coalition was initially inactive and non-committal. Its coalition treaty did not even mention the 2 percent nato target for military spending. Instead, it lumped military spending into a wider 3 percent category of international action (internationales Handeln), which also included diplomacy and international cooperation, probably implying the complete budget of the German equivalents of the u.s. State Department and usaid. The treaty also named a “Deutschland frei von Atomwaffen” (Germany free of nuclear weapons) as a long-term goal.12

At the outset, Germany abstained from supplying weapons to Ukraine. The coalition treaty had emphasized that the new government would pursue a more restrictive policy of arms exports, specifically toward crisis zones.13 In their policy on Ukraine, German leaders followed the prescriptions of the treaty. They also echoed the treaty's rationale that such deliveries would escalate tensions. In mid- to late January, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht stated that sending weapons to Ukraine “will not help to defuse the crisis at the moment,” and Scholz excluded the supply of arms while expressing support for Ukraine's economy and democracy.14 On 6 February 2022, the German defense minister re-emphasized that Germany would not deliver weapons to Ukraine—a position she echoed one day later during a visit to Kyiv.15 German policy was in line with these statements. While Germany is the world's fourth-largest arms exporter and saw record sales in 2021, it withheld sending arms to Ukraine, which has been a profitable market since the start of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.16

When pressed for active steps, German representatives usually referred to a vague threat of economic sanctions while calling for “diplomatic solutions” and multilateral negotiations within the long dysfunctional Normandy Format, a diplomatic process based on various agreements seeking to provide a peaceful resolution of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict since 2014, in which Germany and France took a mediating role.17 Dissatisfied with Germany but dependent on any measure of support, Ukraine sought accommodation. On 14 February, in line with the spirit of the Minsk agreements, on which much of the Normandy Format was based, Zelensky assured Scholz he would seek to advance the process by pushing for a new special status of the separatist Russia-aligned “People's Republics” in Eastern Ukraine.18 When Scholz met Putin one day later in Moscow, both stated that they sought to continue negotiations. Scholz addressed neither Putin's allegation that Kyiv was currently committing genocide in Donbass, nor Putin's implication that this would constitute a Russian right for intervention comparable to Western actions in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.19

German reluctance to go beyond the established multilateral negotiations was arguably in part due to the policy legacy of previous administrations. Indeed, up until she left office in December 2021, Merkel, the main figure of established German policy toward Russia, petitioned Putin in various calls and meetings to implement the Minsk agreements and stick to peace.20 Merkel's cdu/csu parties had ruled jointly with the spd since 2013. From then until 2017, the spd's Frank-Walter Steinmeier was foreign minister, overseeing the formation and implementation of the various Minsk agreements. Steinmeier went on to become president in 2017, a largely ceremonial yet prestigious position that he has held since. His “Steinmeier Formula” was signed by the Normandy Format parties in 2019. Steinmeier's approach of relying on multilateral negotiations and abstaining from siding more decisively with Ukraine remained pillars in Germany's foreign policy establishment.21

Lastly, Gerhard Schröder—the former spd chancellor from 1998 to 2005, a personal friend of Putin, and the holder of various elevated offices in Russian state-controlled energy corporations—maintained some ties with his party. Schröder, under whom Scholz had become the spd's general secretary, attended Scholz's inauguration. In a subsequent television interview, Schröder criticized Baerbock, the new foreign minister from the Greens, for her stance against Nord Stream 2.22 Schröder also accused Kyiv of needless “saber-rattling” toward Russia. In early January, he exchanged views on Russia with some mid-level spd politicians, including former Russia Commissioner Johann Saathoff, former General Secretaries Martin Schulz and Matthias Platzeck, and Heino Wiese, who had been honorary consul of Russia until he stepped down in protest of the invasion.23 Schröder has also been a long-time personal friend of Lars Klingbeil, then and now one of the two co-leaders of the spd. At the end of January 2022, Klingbeil called for restraint toward Russia, stating that he did not want that “we, through threats and actions, are getting into a situation, where suddenly, perhaps unintentionally, a war situation emerges in the midst of Europe.”24

However, Schröder arguably has little influence on spd decision-making. Klingbeil was among those spd leaders who were open to sanctioning Nord Stream 2, even though he did not comment on the issue right away.25 Social Democratic leaders routinely emphasize that Schröder is seen simply as a person with some insider knowledge into the Kremlin whose voice is heard there, but not as a consultant or with any effect on the party's Russia policy.26 Even before the invasion, Schröder had been far from a popular figure in Germany and in his own party as well. After the poisoning of Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny in 2020, a slim majority of spd supporters wanted him to step down from his positions at various Russian state-led energy corporations. Notably, there was less support for this demand in the libertarian fdp, the far-left Die Linke, the far-right AfD, and among the undecided.27 Although Germany has expressly not given Schröder any mandate, he met with senior figures in the Russian and Ukrainian negotiation teams in mid-March. This process had been initiated by Ukrainian officials.28

Another likely contributing factor for policy persistence involved societal views. Public opinion has long been skeptical toward international involvement and did not display much willingness to confront Russia. A poll issued by the Körber Stiftung in September/October 2021 found that 50 percent of respondents stated that Germany should follow a policy of restraint rather than becoming more involved in international crises. While 62 percent favored close relations with the United States, 16 favored close relations with Russia, and 17 favored equidistance between the two. Just above 10 percent of respondents named Russia/Putin as the greatest challenge facing German foreign policy. Asked if Russia represented a threat to German values, 16 percent answered “major threat,” 49 percent “minor threat,” and 33 percent “no threat.” Showcasing widely diverging transatlantic perspectives, a simultaneous Pew poll in the United States asking whether Russia was a threat to American values found 54 percent responding “major threat,” 29 percent “minor threat,” and 16 percent “no threat.”29

Ordinary Germans’ reluctance was evident in more specific areas as well. On 3 February 2022, 72 percent of respondents in an Infratest dimap poll opposed weapons deliveries to Ukraine, while 20 percent were for it. Only 43 percent supported new sanctions on Russia, and 57 percent favored exempting Nord Stream 2 from sanctions. A slim majority (51 percent) even supported nato giving some security assurances to Russia following Moscow's wide-ranging demands of late 2021.30 Aspects of these societal sentiments were reflected throughout the spectrum of Germany's established political parties. In mid-January, Friedrich Merz, who would soon become the leader of the cdu/csu Bundestag faction as well as party leader of the cdu, warned that shutting Russia out of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (swift) “could trigger an ‘atomic bomb in the capital markets.’”31

The AfD firmly opposed sanctions against Russia. On the far left, influential Die Linke politician Sahra Wagenknecht demanded that Russian security interests should be accounted for, stating that Putin and Russia did not want to invade Ukraine but rather prevent further nato enlargement. She attributed concerns about a Russian invasion to ongoing “aggressiveness” from the United States. Similarly, Die Linke Representative Sevim Dagdelen accused the United States of warmongering (“Kriegstreiberei und Kriegshetze”). She also stated that Ukrainian behavior constituted a declaration of war against Russia.32 Nonetheless, with the increasing prospect of war, pressure grew on Germany's leaders to shift policy.

Mounting Pressures

While German policy remained basically unaltered, its nato allies and Ukraine put increasing pressure on Berlin to change course by giving more support to Ukraine and by opposing Russia more robustly. Germany's foreign policy elite had resisted major changes, trying to wait things out and opting for minimal measures that left previous policy largely intact.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, employing diplomatic tact but delivering a sharp message with it, stated that German policy did not “correspond to the level of our relations and the current security situation.” Widely known and popular in Germany where he had long lived, Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing legend and the current mayor of Kyiv, posted on Facebook: “On whose side is the German government today? On the side of freedom, which means—Ukraine? Or on the side of the aggressor?”33

Criticism by Ukraine and nato allies increased when, in January, Germany blocked Estonian shipments of formerly German weapons to Ukraine. Around the same time, British air shipments of weapons to Ukraine opted to avoid German airspace, thereby taking longer routes.34 Adding to Ukrainian outrage and criticism, news emerged on 13 February that in 2020 German firms had sent goods with dual usability for military purposes worth 366 million Euros to Russia.35 President Biden suggested that there were divisions within nato over Ukraine,36 and senior representatives of the transatlantic community joined in the chorus in various nuanced ways.37

To a lesser degree, pressure also began to come from within Germany's political establishment. In mid-January 2022, Greens member of the Bundestag Omid Nouripour and cdu member Kiesewetter demanded that Nord Stream 2 should not go online if Russia invaded. Both are considered influential in their respective parties, representing significant voices from a center-left ruling party and the center-right opposition.38 On 25 January, Friedrich Merz turned on its head the staple German argument that historical responsibility to secure peace in Europe necessitated restraint. Merz stated that because of this very responsibility, Germany was obliged to give more support to Ukraine.39

Heightened sensitivity to allied and domestic misgivings probably played a role in Berlin's attempts to avert situations that would make German policy look even worse. On 23 January, the commander of the German Navy, Kay-Achim Schönbach, stepped down after footage had surfaced in which he stated that Crimea was lost to Ukraine and that Putin “probably” deserved respect, sparking further outrage from Kyiv.40 Around the same time, the German Foreign Office forbade the former German ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dieter Walter Haller, to continue his activities on the supervisory board of the European arm of Nord Stream 2. 41

In what was arguably a failed attempt to placate critics, German Defense Minister Lambrecht announced on 26 January that Germany would send 5,000 combat helmets to Ukraine, emphasizing that this would be “equipment, not weapons.” As Ukraine had asked for much more, widespread international criticism followed. The Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, called this a “purely symbolic gesture” and stated that “Ukraine is expecting a 180-degree about-face” and a “true paradigm shift” from Germany.42

However, while Scholz publicly stuck to the declared German line, he privately signaled that Germany would pursue a much more robust policy should Russia invade Ukraine. This was particularly the case when Scholz met with u.s. President Biden and members of Congress in Washington in early February. During a dinner at the German embassy on 7 February, Republican and Democratic senators conveyed just how bad Germany's image was in the United States, adding to the pressure they knew other allies were putting on Scholz. Scholz responded candidly, laying out the constraints of formulating policy amid a three-party coalition. Lawmakers from both u.s. parties affirmed that Scholz convinced them of German loyalty toward a unified alliance: a forceful German response would be put in place if Russia invaded, one that would include halting Nord Stream 2. In October 2021, before he had been officially nominated as chancellor, Scholz had already made such a confidential assurance to Biden when they met at a G20 summit in Rome.43

On 7 February, the same day of the dinner, during a press conference with President Biden, Scholz remained vague on whether the pipeline would be canceled. Oddly, he also stated that Germany and the u.s. would act in total agreement (komplett einvernehmlich agieren) when it came to sanctions. In case of an invasion, there would be “tough, jointly agreed, and extensive sanctions” (harte, gemeinsam vereinbarte und weitreichende Sanktionen). Speaking just before Scholz, Biden had said that a Russian invasion would mean the end for Nord Stream 2.44 In a similar instance, three days before, eu Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the eu would slap robust and comprehensive financial and economic sanctions on Russia should it decide to attack Ukraine. She explicitly stated that the fate of Nord Stream 2 would depend on Russian behavior. Considering Germany's major role in eu decision-making, tacit approval of Berlin can be assumed.45

Shifting Policy

The policy shift in Germany started a few days before the actual invasion. On 21 February, Putin signed presidential decrees recognizing the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk entities and ordering Russian ministries to establish close contractual and diplomatic ties. One day later, Putin stated that Russia supported all foundational documents of the entities, including their claims not just to de facto controlled territory, but also to the rest of Ukraine's Donbass and Luhansk oblasts.46 This Russian move flat out discarded the foundational provisions of the Minsk agreements, snubbing the main Western representatives of the Normandy Format—France and Germany. The reaction within Germany's political class ranged from shock to outrage. Nils Schmid, an spd member of the Bundestag and the faction's spokesperson for foreign policy, called Russia's action a “serious affront.”47

The recognition caused immediate adverse reactions even at the radical fringes of German parliamentary politics, although they were couched in familiar tropes. Die Linke representative Dagdelen denounced Russia's recognition and the deployment of troops into the entities as illegal under international law, “just as we have always condemned violations of international law through nato … like the separation and recognition of Kosovo” (so wie wir auch immer Völkerrechtsverletzungen durch die nato … wie zum Beispiel bei der Abtrennung und Anerkennung des Kosovo verurteilt haben).48 Implying at least some misgivings, a statement of the AfD Bundestag faction warned against “ascribing responsibility for these developments solely to Russia” (Russland allein die Verantwortung für diese Entwicklung zuzuschreiben). However, the statement also opposed sanctions and declared that Russia's move had been a consequence of the West violating the “legitimate security interests” of Russia.49

Meanwhile, with Russia discarding Minsk, the ruling coalition enacted the first major change in Germany's Russia policy. On that same day, 21 February, Scholz held a video conference with Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron to coordinate sanctions. The next day, Scholz announced that Nord Stream 2 would not go online.50 This was a major reversal of German policy. For a long time, Berlin had resisted immense pressure from its allies to halt the pipeline project.51 On the same day, eu foreign ministers agreed on additional sanctions against Russia, which included restrictions on Russian access to eu capital markets, prohibition of trading Russian state bonds, and sanctions against nearly 400 Russian people and institutions.52

When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, pressures on the German government mounted even further. On the same day, eu leaders met in an emergency meeting, agreeing to a new sanction package. However, Scholz pushed back against Ukrainian demands to deny Russia access to swift, being concerned that this would leave huge sums of Western (and German) money trapped in Russian banks. With the support of Italy, Austria, and a few other countries, Scholz averted the ban.53 Ukrainian Ambassador Melnyk stated that Germany's finance minister, Christian Lindner, told him on the same day that there would be no point in sending weapons to Ukraine or shutting Russia out of swift as Ukraine had only “‘a few hours’ of sovereignty” left.54

Now that the invasion had begun, societal views in Germany shifted dramatically. Nearly half of German respondents had seen Russia as a danger for international peace just before the start of the invasion—and over three-quarters right after.55 This also affected how Germans viewed policy. Just before the start of the invasion, a majority of German respondents were against sending weapons to Ukraine.56 However, right after Russia attacked, a majority disapproved of the government's handling of the crisis.57

These shifts in societal policy preferences are also evident in polls issued by the Körber Stiftung in September/October 2021 and in 8–10 March 2022. Primed by reference to the events in Ukraine and changes in German policy, support for more involvement in international crises grew from a slight minority (45 percent) to a firm majority (67 percent). Support for closer relations with the United States grew from 62 to 73 percent, while support for closer relations with Russia remained virtually unchanged (16 to 14 percent), and support for equidistance declined significantly (from 17 to 7 percent).58

With pressure from the larger population, German elites, and its allies, Germany implemented further massive policy changes in the course of a few days. These included additional economic sanctions, arms deliveries to Ukraine, and an unprecedented armament program. As confirmed by a source close to the chancellery, Wolfgang Schmidt, the head of the chancellery and influential right-hand man of Scholz, urged more action. The administration was being pressured from all sides to do more, and the current policy was rapidly becoming unsustainable.59

On 26 February, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nause.da secured a last-minute meeting and urged Scholz to change Germany's stance on swift, pointing out that Austria and Italy had agreed to support a ban. Heading to the meeting, Morawiecki said that he wanted “to shake Germany's conscience” and that this was “no time for … selfishness.” The same day, Scholz eventually agreed to back swift sanctions, although only against specific banks and not the Russian economy writ large.60

Also on 26 February, Germany finally reverted its stance on sending arms to Kyiv. Having long blocked other nato allies from sending originally German weapons to Ukraine, Germany now permitted the Netherlands and Estonia to deliver German-manufactured rocket launchers and artillery. Furthermore, Berlin itself committed to sending 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Kyiv.61

Again, this decision had been preceded by outside pressure and hasty adjustments. Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck was instrumental in bringing about this change. He had visited the Donbass conflict lines in 2021 and had consequently lobbied for supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons. His own party, the Greens, had rejected the idea back then; however, hours after the start of the invasion, Habeck and Greens co-leader Nouripour visited Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador, to discuss how Germany could help. One day later, on 25 February, Sven Giegold, a close Habeck aide, circulated a memo proposing to make permissions for arms exports dependent on the recipient country's stance on democracy and human rights, not, as in previous policy, on whether it was engaged in an armed conflict.62

These inner-coalitional politics coincided with, and were helped by, the Dutch government asking Germany for permission to authorize delivery of 400 anti-tank missiles of German origin to Ukraine. Having experienced intense backlash after denying a similar request by Estonia before the invasion had even started, the Defense Ministry gave its go-ahead. Habeck jumped on the decision, arguing that if Germany permitted allies to deliver German-made weapons to Ukraine, it should also send weapons itself. By the morning of 26 February, Scholz had agreed.63

The last major policy shift came on Sunday, 27 February. In an emergency meeting of the Bundestag, Scholz announced that Germany would create a special fund for its Bundeswehr—to the tune of 100 billion Euros—and raise Germany's annual defense spending above the nato threshold of 2 percent of gross domestic product until 2024. This, again, came after years of allied pressure and Germany lagging well below 1.5 percent. In the declaration, Scholz gave “top priority” to the development of next-generation air fighters and tanks, particularly with France. He also announced that the aging Tornado warplanes would be replaced, emphasizing a new-found commitment for nuclear sharing.64

These massive spending plans had been worked out secretly and within a few days, mostly between Jörg Kukies, Scholz's chief advisor on Europe and financial policy, and Finance Minister Lindner and his team. Agreement on the special fund was reached on Saturday, 26 February, but most of the Cabinet did not learn about it until Sunday, when the policy shift was announced at the Bundestag.65 Scholz's announcement drew applause not only from the coalition parties (the spd, Greens, and fdp), but also from the cdu/csu.66


By uncovering the major role of inertia and reactiveness in the development of Germany's Russia policy between the 2021 federal elections and late February 2022, this study yields supplementary insights into related areas. The shifting approaches to Russia in this period seem to be part of a larger pattern in Germany's policies and suggest avenues for further research. For example, Germany was long reluctant to intervene in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, but eventually came around to actively participate in the Kosovo intervention. The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 caused the Merkel II administration to drastically reverse course on German nuclear energy. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fomented hybrid war in Donbass, Germany was instrumental in organizing joint eu and transatlantic sanctions and increasing nato deterrence in the Baltics.67

Future research should map these patterns of inertia and reactiveness in German policy to theorize on generalizable causes and consequences. The findings of this study suggest that for Germany's Russia policy from late 2021 to early 2022, policy inheritance, continued influence of key figures across administrations, and public opinion played key roles. This pattern of reactiveness and inertia does not fit neatly with prominent concepts of Germany as a state acting proactively and deliberately as a “civilian power,” warranting theory development.68 Germany's economic clout and its close interconnections with Russia rendered its inactive policy toward Russia particularly notable, especially when compared to, for example, the policies of the u.s., the uk, and Poland. However, other major European states, such as Italy, displayed a behavior similar to that of Germany.69 This indicates that comparative research on various states’ Russia policies and their respective causes is warranted to better understand intra-Western policy dynamics toward Russia.

As of early September 2022, German policy has remained on the course announced in late February, although implementation seems also characterized by the familiar patterns of inertia and reactiveness. For example, Germany did deliver arms, but only with significant delays, drawing sharp criticism from allies.70 Only a third of Germans support the delivery of heavy arms,71 and public opinion about Ukraine's eu candidacy is split.72 However, even amid rising gas prices and Russian stoppages of gas deliveries through Nord Stream 1, a majority opposed lifting sanctions on Russia. In a Forsa poll in early September, 66 percent of west German respondents supported full maintenance of sanctions (42 percent of east Germans). Only 14 percent of west German respondents supported lifting the sanctions altogether (35 percent in the east). Overall, German public opinion points to continuity on sanctions, as western Germans represent about 80 percent of the country.73 German policy, again, was in line with these sentiments. At the end of August, Baerbock re-emphasized that Germany would push for additional sanctions against Russia and seek to maintain existing sanctions in the long run.74 In the winter of 2022–2023, Scholz re-emphasized German steadfastness, declaring the Zeitenwende to be global.75

A policy driven by inertia and reactiveness is bound to lack foresight and planning. A 2021 study from the German Institute for Foreign and Security Policy (swp) admonished reactive patterns and ad hoc decisions in German foreign policy, while calling for forward-looking and medium-term approaches to decision-making. The findings in this article showcase the continued salience of the study's recommendations and further corroborate them.76 However, German inertia and reactiveness might have its advantages from a transatlantic perspective, as they may help steady Germany on its post-Zeitenwende course, with Berlin more likely to multilateralize and institutionalize its new Russia policy within the eu and nato.


The author thanks Stephen Szabo, Butter Greenbay, Jule v. Köhlerwald, the participants of the workshop on the 2021 German Federal Elections organized by the American Institute of Contemporary German Studies (aicgs) and the bmw Center for German and European Studies (Georgetown University), as well as the German Politics and Society editors and the anonymous reviewers for their most valuable support and feedback.



Bundesregierung, “Regierungserklärung von Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz” (27 February 2022),


See Jeff Rathke, “Putin Accidentally Started a Revolution in Germany,” Foreign Policy (27 February 2022),


For more about early steps taken by some countries, see “Western Allies Sending Ukraine Arms, but Not Germany,” bne IntelliNews (25 January 2022),


For more details about the security pact, see Sebastian Sprenger, “Ukraine, UK, Poland Announce Security Pact amid Heightened Tensions,” Defense News (17 February 2022),


See Jonas J. Driedger, “Did Germany Contribute to Deterrence Failure against Russia in Early 2022?,” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies 16, no. 3: 152–171.


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland,” Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen (10 September 2022),


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (22 August 2021).


For the joint warning, see French Foreign Ministry, “Gemeinsame Erklärung der Außenminister Frankreichs und Deutschlands zur Unterstützung der Ukraine” (15 November 2021),


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (7 February 2022).


“Biden: Aus für Nord Stream 2 bei Invasion,” ZDFheute (8 February 2022),


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (14 February 2022).


See “Mehr Fortschritt Wagen: Bündnis für Freiheit, Gerechtigkeit und Nachhaltigkeit. (7 December 2021), 114–115,


Ibid., 115–116.


For additional commentary, see Patrick Smith and Yuliya Talmazan, “Why Germany Might Be the West's Weak Link in the Russia-Ukraine Standoff,” NBC News (26 January 2022),


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (6 and 7 February 2022).


For more analysis, see Nik Martin, “German Arms Exports Surge during Merkel's Last Days,” Deutsche Welle (25 December 2021),


Kristian Åtland, “Destined for Deadlock? Russia, Ukraine, and the Unfulfilled Minsk Agreements,” Post-Soviet Affairs 36, no. 2 (2020): 122–139.


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (14 February 2022).


Bundesregierung, “Pressekonferenz von Bundeskanzler Scholz und Präsident Putin zum Besuch des Bundeskanzlers in der Russischen Föderation” (15 February 2022),


See Matthew Karnitschnig, Hans von der Burchard, Florian Eder, and Andrew Desiderio, “Inside Olaf Scholz's Historic Shift on Defense, Ukraine and Russia,” politico (5 March 2022),




“Beziehungsstatus Ungeklärt,” Süddeutsche Zeitung (28 January 2022) (accessed 26 April 2022).


“Altkanzler Schröder sprach mit führenden SPD-Politikern über Russland—Union kritisiert ‘fatales Signal,’” stern (2 October 2022),


“Klingbeil verteidigt Russland-Kurs,” tagesschau (31 January 2022),


“Beziehungsstatus Ungeklärt.”




Michael Stifter and Niklas Molter, “Mehrheit fordert: Schröder soll Ämter bei russischen Staatskonzernen räumen,” Augsburger Allgemeine (5 September 2020),


Matthew Karnitschnig, “Schröder Presses on with Ukraine Peace Bid after ‘Intense’ Meeting with Putin,” politico (14 March 2022),


Körber Stiftung, The Berlin Pulse: German Foreign Policy in Perspective (November 2021), 33–44,


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (3 February 2022).


Matthew Karnitschnig, “Putin's Useful German Idiots,” politico (28 March 2022),


Patrick Gensing and Carla Reveland, “Verständnis bei der AfD,” tagesschau (22 February 2022),


Smith and Talmazan, “Why Germany Might Be the West's Weak Link.”


Bill Bostock, “UK Planes Took a Long Detour around Germany to Deliver Weapons to Ukraine in Case Russia Invades,” Business Insider (18 January 2022), See also “Germany Blocks Estonian Arms Exports to Ukraine: Report,” Deutsche Welle (21 January 2022),


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (13 February 2022).


Smith and Talmazan, “Why Germany Might Be the West's Weak Link.”


See, for example, the 18 statements in “Judy Asks: Is Germany Damaging Europe's Position on Ukraine?,” Carnegie Europe (27 January 2022),


“Nord Stream 2 als Vorbereitung für russische Invasion?,” tagesschau (17 January 2022),


Smith and Talmazan, “Why Germany Might Be the West's Weak Link.”


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (23 January 2022).


Fritz Zimmermann, “Auswärtiges Amt verbietet Ex-Botschafter Job bei Nord Stream 2,” Die Zeit (27 January 2022),


“5000 Militärhelme für die Ukraine,” tagesschau (26 January 2022),


Karnitschnig et al., “Inside Olaf Scholz's Historic Shift.”


“Biden: Aus für Nord Stream 2 bei Invasion.”


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (4 February 2022). See also Paul Carrel and Michael Perry, “EU Has ‘Robust’ Russia Sanctions Ready If Needed over Ukraine—von der Leyen,” Reuters (4 February 2022),


Victor Jack and Douglas Busvine, “Putin Recognizes Separatist Claims to Ukraine's Entire Donbass Region,” politico (22 February 2022),


Karnitschnig et al., “Inside Olaf Scholz's Historic Shift.”


Gensing and Reveland, “Verständnis bei der AfD.”




Karnitschnig et al., “Inside Olaf Scholz's Historic Shift.”


Jonas J. Driedger, “Trump, Merkel, and Putin: Lessons and Legacies for Transatlantic Cooperation toward Russia,” American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (23 December 2020),


Länder-Analysen, “Chronik Ukraine, Russland” (21 February 2022).


Karnitschnig et al., “Inside Olaf Scholz's Historic Shift.”


Karnitschnig, “Putin's Useful German Idiots.”


“Mehrheit gegen Waffen an Kiew und für Merkel als Vermittlerin,” Rheinische Post (23 February 2022),


For more details, see Fabian Kluge, “Mehrheit unzufrieden mit Krisenmanagement der Bundesregierung,” Augsburger Allgemeine (26 February 2022),


Körber Stiftung, The Berlin Pulse, 33–44; Körber Stiftung, Berlin Pulse Spezial (14 March 2022),


Karnitschnig et al., “Inside Olaf Scholz's Historic Shift.”




“Deutschland liefert Waffen der Bundeswehr,” tagesschau (26 February 2022),


Karnitschnig et al., “Inside Olaf Scholz's Historic Shift.”




Bundesregierung, “Regierungserklärung von Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz.”


Karnitschnig et al., “Inside Olaf Scholz's Historic Shift.”


Hans-Joachim Vieweger, “Ende der Gemeinsamkeiten,” tagesschau (23 March 2022),


Jonas J. Driedger, “Bilateral Defence and Security Cooperation despite Disintegration: Does the Brexit Process Divide the United Kingdom and Germany on Russia?,” European Journal of International Security 6, no. 1 (2021): 86–108.


See Hanns W. Maull, “Reflective, Hegemonic, Geo-economic, Civilian …? The Puzzle of German Power,” German Politics 27, no. 4 (2018): 460–478.


With regard to Italy, see, for example, Giorgio Leali, “Putin Serenades Italy Inc. amid Ukraine Crisis,” politico, (25 January 2022),


David Zajonz, “Für uns eine große Enttäuschung,” tagesschau (24 May 2022),


“Ukraine-Krieg spaltet Deutschland—in Ost und West,” rtl News (5 September 2022),


“Deutsche uneinig über möglichen EU-Beitritt der Ukraine,” Der Spiegel (13 June 2022),


“Ukraine-Krieg spaltet Deutschland.”


“Deutschland für achtes Sanktionspaket,” tagesschau (31 August 2022),


Olaf Scholz, “The Global Zeitenwende: How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2023),


For more about the swp study, see Günther Maihold, Stefan Mair, Melanie Müller, Judith Vorrath, and Christian Wager, eds., “Deutsche Außenpolitik im Wandel,” swp-Studie, no. 15 (30 September 2021),

Contributor Notes

Jonas J. Driedger is a Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (prif-hsfk). Previously, he was a daad Postdoctoral Fellow at the Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (sais), Johns Hopkins University. Before joining sais, he was an Officer for Security Policy at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics. From 2018 to 2019, he was a Visiting Scholar and Alfa Fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He earned his PhD from the European University Institute in 2020 and in that year was a Research Fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (aicgs) in Washington, dc.

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