Is Germany changing tack on Ukraine?

While there are signs of war fatigue in the German society, Berlin is unlikely to have a change of heart.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives for the G20 leaders' summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, November 15, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Pool
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives for the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia on November 15, 2022 [Reuters/Kevin Lamarque]

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Germany has often been criticised, especially from European Union members in Eastern Europe, for being too cautious. They have berated the German government particularly for dragging its feet on supplying arms.

To be fair, Berlin has sent some weapons, including self-propelled howitzers and multiple rocket launchers, which have proven their worth in fighting against Russian forces. And the German government has been quite forthcoming on sanctions against Russia. It halted the lucrative Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, supplying Russian gas to the country, even before the Russian invasion started.

Yet now there are some signs that German society is growing tired of the Ukraine war. A survey conducted in October suggests that 40 percent of Germans fully or partially believe that NATO provoked Russia into invading Ukraine. That number increases to a staggering 59 percent in provinces that were once part of communist East Germany.

About a third of respondents share the view that Ukraine is historically part of Russia and roughly the same number accept the conspiracy theory that the US had set up secret laboratories on Ukrainian soil to develop biological weapons.

What matters in this survey is the trend. Compared with a poll conducted by the same organisation, CeMAS, in April, the share of respondents with Russia-friendly or Russia-compatible views has grown.

That the Kremlin’s propaganda has purchase in Germany is hardly news. Anti-Americanism on the hard left and on the far right, together with the pacifism embedded in Berlin’s political culture, provides fertile ground for Russian narratives. But Germany is not alone in that, as data show.

In Italy, public support for sending arms to Ukraine has been hovering around 41 percent, compared with 57 percent in Germany and 62 percent in France. Scepticism prevails in Slovakia, Bulgaria – whose parliament, nevertheless, decided to send military supplies to Kyiv – and Hungary, the only EU hold-out at present. In Greece, 28 percent blame NATO for the conflict, and in Bulgaria, 44 percent.

The war – and particularly its impact on energy inflation – has bred discontent, too. On October 29, a large rally was held in Prague against the policies of the pro-EU government in support of Ukraine. On November 5, tens of thousands marched in Rome, calling for peace and for halting arms deliveries to Kyiv. Germany has also seen rallies and strikes against the war and the rising cost of living.

This is precisely what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy is aimed at. By prolonging the war in a variety of ways – from a mass mobilisation to relentless attacks against civilian infrastructure across Ukraine – he is banking on Western unity unravelling down the line.

He has also tried to put economic pressure on the EU by cutting off gas supplies just before the European winter starts. EU countries have managed to fill up storage sites to use during the heating season, and the price of natural gas has gone down after spikes over the summer, which could mitigate the effect of Russia’s energy blackmail.

Still, a recession is on the horizon, and EU governments could face a robust challenge from populists yet again. Recent elections in Italy and Sweden, in which far-right parties made significant gains, are a warning sign.

Populists may scapegoat Ukrainian refugees, including the more than 1 million who are currently in Germany. If Berlin flips and cuts support for Kyiv, others in the EU would quickly follow suit. Having suffered humiliating setbacks on the battlefield, Putin is hedging his bets on winning on the political front in Europe.

For now, such a victory is not that likely. Public opinion in Germany is still supportive of Ukraine.

A poll from September carried out by the public broadcaster ZDF shows that 74 percent of Germans favour supporting Ukraine despite high energy bills, which have gone down since. In another poll from October, some 86 percent of citizens see Russia as a “global threat factor”. That is unlikely to change going forward.

Germany’s longer-term strategy also reflects strong support for an anti-Russia front. Berlin has unveiled an ambitious programme to ramp up defence spending and overhaul foreign and security policy.

With the German government setting up a 100bn-euro ($102bn) fund to modernise the military, Russia is facing a much more potent EU west of its border. And as weapons deliveries to Ukraine show, some of the new kit Berlin acquires could well end up on the battlefront in the Donbas or Zaporizhia regions.

On the diplomatic front, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has not hastened to back calls for peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. In fact, he is putting effort into persuading China, India and other powers to distance themselves from Putin.

Scholz received some criticism for paying a visit to Beijing, but the trip seems to be paying off. The final communique adopted at the recent G20 summit in Indonesia points in that direction. Leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – rejected “the era of war” and condemned threats to use nuclear weapons, a not-so-subtle snub of Putin.

But if there is one Western actor that could change the course of the Ukraine war, it is not Germany but the United States. American support has been essential in helping Kyiv resist aggression and liberate about half of the land Russia occupied at the start of its invasion. The inconclusive midterm elections will not significantly change US policy, but there is a huge question regarding Donald Trump.

Putin’s best hope is to carry on with the war, wreaking havoc and causing immense human suffering in Ukraine while waiting for a change in the White House in two years. Trump’s comeback in Washington would be a much bigger prize for the Kremlin than a change of heart in Berlin.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.