In many ways, Ukraine and Germany are strategic allies: they actively cooperate, and German support is critical in bringing Ukraine closer to the West and repelling the Russian invasion. On the other hand, Kyiv and Berlin often spar publicly over a range of issues.
This contradiction primarily stems from the countries’ different stances on Russia. While the differences were significantly bridged in 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they didn’t disappear altogether. There are still palpable disagreements on many issues, such as what an acceptable outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian war would look like.
In the years preceding the invasion, Ukraine and Germany had very different approaches to the threat posed by Russia. In its discussions with Europeans after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the armed conflict in the Donbas, Kyiv sought to focus on security and defense, financial assistance, and sanctions against Russia.
Berlin had other priorities. It stressed reforms in Ukraine, combating corruption, and transforming Ukraine’s political system. German leaders wanted Ukraine to successfully make pro-Western changes, distance itself from Russia, and choose the European path.
The Germans considered the Russian military threat to be far less great than the Ukrainians did. Former chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, continued by Angela Merkel, convinced many Germans that their country should cooperate with Russia, while Russia’s actions and threats were perceived as attempts to defend its own interests. France and Germany consistently supported Russia’s involvement in European security. This was in part why Europeans were skeptical about the prospect of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Ukrainians saw this position as a sign of weakness, indecision, and even corruption. For their part, many Germans believed Ukraine had been exaggerating the Russian threat.
The events of 2013–2014 somewhat weakened the German belief in constructive cooperation with Russia. Berlin imposed economic sanctions and curtailed its political relations with Moscow. Still, Merkel continued to believe in the “new Ostpolitik” and tried to get Russia to mend its ways through situational cooperation: for instance, she worked toward freezing the Russian-Ukrainian conflict under the Minsk agreement framework.
From 2016 to 2020, Europe tried to return to something approaching normal cooperation with Russia: there were more calls for easing sanctions, and European leaders started visiting Moscow again.
To some extent, this change in European attitudes stemmed from disappointment with the situation in Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko’s presidency did not bring the expected democratic reforms. Instead, oligarchic rule—a staple of post-Soviet Ukrainian politics—returned, and the scale of the deep state even increased.
In addition, Poroshenko often manipulated the subject of European integration to boost his own ratings and legitimacy. He made no attempts to overhaul the economy, social policies, the financial sector, law enforcement, or the legal system. Ukrainian leaders viewed some of the proposed European reforms as a threat to the dominance of the oligarchs, to whose ranks Poroshenko himself belonged.
The Europeans were frustrated by the situation. They were also growing tired of the conflict with Russia and sanctions-induced economic losses, which strengthened the position of those in Germany advocating for a return to business as usual. This generated a number of public disagreements between Germany and Ukraine, such as over the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in 2017–2021.
The Ukrainians responded with the narrative of “German betrayal,” which irritated Berlin. Many in Germany have always considered Ukraine part of the Russian sphere of influence; hence, they weren’t prepared to discuss its full-scale Euro-Atlantic integration. As far as Germany was concerned, the Eastern Partnership project started in 2009 served as a substitute for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany could no longer afford to stand idly by while another assault was made against European security architecture: this time directly. It dramatically reversed Merkel’s long-standing Russia policy.
Russia’s invasion has strengthened Kyiv’s position in its dispute with Berlin, and allowed Ukraine to sharply criticize Germany for its sluggishness and excessive caution. Now Ukraine is enjoying enormous public and lobbying support in the EU states, and feels it has a moral right to pressure the German government.
Many Ukrainians hold former chancellor Merkel partly responsible for the start of the war. She is blamed for everything: the Nord Stream projects, calls to lift anti-Russian sanctions, and attempts to push Ukraine into signing the disadvantageous Minsk agreements. Her recent calls for negotiations with Russia have not improved her reputation.
On the one hand, this criticism has helped Kyiv to prod Germany toward more active support of Ukraine. On the other hand, public clashes—including between German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz and Ukraine’s then ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk—have done little to improve bilateral relations.
Since Ukraine is focused on defense, and has made little headway on restarting its economy and launching other reforms, the war has narrowed the scope of the countries’ relationship to security issues and military assistance.
Bilateral relations cannot improve right now, because the two countries have fundamentally different outlooks on the progress and prospects of the war. Kyiv believes it has no time to spare: its resources are rapidly being depleted by the war, and the humanitarian crisis is getting worse, while the West is growing tired of the protracted conflict and will soon be more insistent in urging the two sides to freeze it. Ukraine, therefore, is appealing for swifter military aid so it can drive the Russian troops at least from the territories occupied since February 24.
Germany can’t meet all of Ukraine’s demands so quickly. Some of the elites don’t want to do so at all, fearing a conflict between Russia and NATO or, even worse, the use of nuclear weapons by Moscow.
Still, the war has prompted Germany to reevaluate its role in the EU. Having long been its economic leader, it now aspires to be the bloc’s security and defense leader, too. Since no cooperation on Eurasia’s security architecture with Russia is possible, Berlin is focusing on active containment strategies. Since any containment of Russia is impossible without active Ukrainian participation, that means Kyiv will be integrated in Western structures in some form.
Yet Ukrainians will remember what they call “Germany’s appeasement of Russia” in 2014–2022 for some time, making it hard for Germany to earn Ukraine’s complete trust. Also, unless Ukraine restarts its economy, its relations with Germany will remain limited to military aid and financial and humanitarian assistance.
Even though Ukraine’s foreign policy will continue to be pro-Western and focused on joining the Euro-Atlantic organizations, the country will also seek to strengthen regional partnerships with Turkey, Poland, the Baltic states, and the UK to counterbalance German and French influence, since Kyiv won’t trust these countries completely. It’s also possible that Kyiv and Berlin will disagree on how to contain Russia in the future. Ukraine won’t want to become another buffer zone separating Russia and the West, but that is the scenario Germany will give serious consideration, fearing another war or Moscow’s nuclear threats.
The problems in bilateral relations, therefore, are unlikely to disappear any time soon. To transcend them, Germany will need to leave behind old ideas and stereotypes, while Ukraine must overcome the effects of war, build a new economy, and present a long-term development plan that its Western partners can embrace.
- Iliya Kusa