In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU leaders remained divided on how best to respond.

Baltic governments pushed for a firm response to the build-up of Russian troops in Belarus, while the UK rapidly increased arms shipments to Ukraine. Germany, however, urged restraint, sending only helmets and calling for dialogue with the Putin government.

In the wake of the invasion, Germany has been forced to row back from this position, cancelling its Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia and adopting a tone much more aligned with the US. Whether the difference in attitudes will continue to cause trouble for the transatlantic alliance, however, remains to be seen.

Germany: hawk or dove?

To some extent the difference is cultural in origin. Germany’s 20th-century history provided both an object lesson in the horrors of war and a strong incentive to avoid any actions that could be perceived as belligerent.

Germany’s cultural pacifism is, however, easy to overstate. West Germany’s lack of nuclear weapons was an imposition rather than a choice (as evidenced by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s efforts to secretly build his own stockpile), and did not extend to refusing to host US bombs.

In the modern era, Germany has been perfectly willing to adopt hawkish positions where it felt it right to do so. The 1991 decision to unilaterally recognise the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, against the warnings of other Western leaders, precipitated the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s treatment of Greece and Italy during the Euro crisis could hardly be described as dovish, either.

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Nor has Germany been too squeamish about the risk of getting blood on its hands. In 2020, Germany sold weapons to authoritarian regimes in Hungary (66 tanks), India (sonar for warships) and Egypt (two attack submarines, along with 125 torpedoes). The three countries amounted to 30% of Germany’s total arms exports.

A gas panic?

The alternative explanation for US-German tensions in the weeks leading up to the invasion has been that Germany’s attitude to Russia reflects more practical concerns, chiefly energy security. 

Germany is not particularly reliant on gas, which makes up 24% of its energy mix (the same as the European average), but its gas supplies are heavily dependent on Russian imports, which were equivalent to half of gas consumed in November 2021 (49%). 

Worse still, Germany’s reserves currently stand at approximately 40% full, meaning that they are running low more than six weeks faster than usual (43 days, compared with the 2011–21 average). 

Germany is not the only European country in such a predicament, however. Belgium and the Netherlands are similarly dependent on Russian gas, which makes up 23% and 38% of their energy mix, and Russian imports are equivalent to 61% and 41% of domestic consumption, respectively.

Like Germany, both Belgium and the Netherlands are also facing a major winter gas crisis. The Netherlands' reserves are just 28% full, the lowest on record, while Belgium’s reserves are also unusually low, although a more modest 18 days earlier than normal.

Unlike Germany, however, both the Netherlands and Belgium have voiced clear support for Ukraine, up to and including sending military support.

What, then, is Germany’s problem? If the transatlantic rupture was not reducible to cultural qualms or energy security, it is undeniable that a mixture of the two factors were playing a role. That Germany’s position was domestically contested, however, suggests that this was not purely about structural factors and grand strategy – part of it may simply have come down to a genuine disagreement over the proper means to reaching shared ends.

Similarly, Ukraine’s efforts, in hindsight misguided, to distance itself from the White House’s dire predictions were hardly a sign that the country had shifted its position on its own sovereignty. Rather, it more likely represented a different analysis of the best way to de-escalate the crisis and, in doing so, defend that sovereignty.

This article was amended on 24 February 2022 to reflect that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has now taken place.