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Germany says ‘never again’ — but still sends Putin $200 million a day

Europe’s most powerful country is in the midst of a debate involving economics, energy and 80 years of war guilt.

It was a pointed message to a country where a reckoning with the legacies of World War II and the Holocaust — and “never again” — have been part of the political discourse for nearly eight decades. Zelenskyy’s point was that Germany had a particular obligation to act to stop the sort of scenes not witnessed in Europe since the 1940s.

Since the war began, Germany has been the key country to watch in terms of how the West would respond — and not only because of its history. As Europe’s largest economy and arguably its dominant political actor, Germany is in a unique position to bring pressure to bear on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. And Germany sends $220 million a day to Moscow in the form of payments for Russian oil and gas. That is sparking a fierce debate within and outside Germany about what more the country should be doing to punish Putin and his war machine.

A zeitenwende — turning point — for Berlin

“It would have been hard to imagine Germany doing these things and saying these things even two months prior,” Steven Keil, a fellow for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund, told Grid. “But what was a significant shift for Germany wasn’t necessarily enough for the rest of the trans-Atlantic community.”

“Germany takes two steps forward and then at least one step back. That is what’s so confusing to its partners,” Liana Fix, program director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung, a German think tank, told Grid.

The German behavior that so frustrates some of its allies in this conflict is rooted in both cold economic logic and history, and breaking those patterns won’t be easy.

Uneasy friends

Keeping the lights on

Zelenskyy’s message to Germany married the historical theme with a very current reality: What Ukraine needs right now, much more than tanks or even fighter jets, is for Germany and other Western governments to stop sending Russia the money it needs to keep fighting.

The government claims to be working to alter its dependence on Russian energy sources. According to Economy Minister Robert Habeck, Germany has cut Russian oil imports to 25 percent of the total and gas imports to 40 percent, but under current targets, it will wean itself off Russian imports only by mid-2024. “This timeline just does not fit the time that Ukraine has,” Fix told Grid.

To some Europeans who put up with years of lectures from Germany’s government about the need for austerity and belt-tightening during the worst years of last decade’s financial crisis, the notion that Germany can’t sacrifice a few percentage points of growth in response to a major land war on its doorstep doesn’t elicit much sympathy. Especially when the Baltic states, which imported nearly all their gas from Russia before the start of the war, have moved to cut those imports entirely. “Do you prefer peace, or the air conditioning on? That’s the question we should ask ourselves,” said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

The “never again” factor

There’s another way that World War II plays into Germany’s thinking about this conflict. Julia Friedrich, a research fellow focused on Russia and Ukraine at Germany’s Global Public Policy Institute, told Grid that “a lot of German remembrance has equated the Soviet Union with Russia. And given German atrocities against the Soviet Union, a lot of people were against supplying weapons to shoot at Russians. They were saying, ‘How can we do this again?’” That perception, she said, has only recently started to shift in the face of Russian human rights abuses in Ukraine.

Given how frequently Nazism, the Holocaust and World War II have been invoked on both sides of this conflict, it can seem at times like Europe is still mired in the battles fought 80 years ago. And sadly, this is unlikely to be the last conflict that forces Germany’s leaders to debate the true meaning of “never again.”

But this time around, the question for Germany is less about whether it should be willing to use military force to prevent mass killing than whether it should be willing to use its economic might, imposing economic pain on its own citizens in the process.

Friedrich told Grid that in Germany, there’s a tendency by politicians to treat foreign policy as “something that is supposed to go unnoticed by the German population. They shouldn’t feel bothered with it or feel any detrimental effects from our foreign policy.”

Given the daily scenes coming out of Ukraine, that kind of insulation from the world may no longer be a luxury the country can afford.

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