One year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the magnitude of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic mistake is becoming clearer every day, but one misjudgment stands out: Germany. Putin considered Germany too dependent on Russian energy, too weak militarily, and too business-minded to mount any significant resistance to his war. He was wrong.
In the decade leading up to the February 2022 invasion, Russia became emboldened by the presumption that Germany valued its economic interests above all else. These interests were heavily tied to Germany’s significant reliance on importing cheap Russian natural gas. Its energy dependence on Russia continued to grow even after Russia annexed Crimea and sparked a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, seemingly affirming Moscow’s thinking. When Russian troops invaded Ukraine early last year, Russia was providing just over half of all the natural gas consumed in Germany, worth about $220 million a day.
Germany’s deep-seated aversion to the use of military force, rooted in its World War II history, fostered Russia’s misjudgment. In 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that there was no military solution to the conflict in Ukraine and rejected suggestions that Germany provide weapons assistance to Kyiv. Germany’s mediation of the so-called Normandy Format from 2014 to 2022 between itself, Russia, Ukraine, and France confirmed Russia’s impression that Germany would prioritize diplomacy as its primary foreign policy approach. Russia expected that—beyond political rhetoric and economic sanctions—Germany would eventually defer to Russian dominance in Eastern Europe.
Putin’s German Past
Putin’s misperceptions were also shaped by his deep personal connections to Germany. He lived and worked as a KGB officer in Dresden for several years in the late 1980s, and he witnessed the mass protests that marked the final days of the German Democratic Republic and the end of the Warsaw Pact. He speaks fluent German and in 2001 delivered a speech in the German Bundestag—the first Russian head of state to do so—in German. He also has a close personal relationship with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. After Schröder left office, he was appointed chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG and Rosneft, Russian-controlled energy companies. All this strengthened Putin’s belief that he knew and understood the inner workings of—what he believed to be predominantly business driven—German politics.
Putin has repeatedly emphasized the historical links between Germany and Russia, alluding to guilt over crimes committed in the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and German appreciation for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s consent for a peaceful German reunification. On multiple occasions, he has described the annexation of Crimea as a reunification, attempting to draw a parallel with Germany’s 1990 reunification.
The German Shock
To Putin’s surprise, Germany has drastically shifted its policies toward Russia, including successfully detangling itself from Russian energy. Russia rushed to finalize the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the months before the invasion and deliberately emptied German gas storages owned by Russian state energy company Gazprom to increase pressure on Germany. However, a few days before the invasion, Germany irretrievably ended the Nord Stream 2 project and, after Russia halted all gas supplies, reverted from primarily Russian pipeline gas to mainly liquid natural gas to fill its storages.
Germany also advanced and supported major sanctions on Russia. Between November 2021 and November 2022, German exports to Russia fell by 1.29 billion euros (a 51.3 percent decrease) and imports from Russia fell by 2.36 billion euros (a 59.4 percent decrease). The once militarily restrained country committed to spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, as is the stated aim for members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and has provided significant military support to NATO’s eastern flank member states and Ukraine. Today, Germany is the second-biggest contributor of military aid to Ukraine in Europe, after the United Kingdom. Despite Putin’s complaints that eighty years after WWII, “[Russians] are again being threatened by German Leopard tanks,” Germany and its partners plan to deliver the first battalion of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine by April and older Leopard I tanks will follow.
Russia’s misjudgment of Germany, and Germany’s turnaround, has played a significant role in a war many assumed would end in a swift Ukrainian defeat. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende commitments have drawn criticism for hesitation, slow implementation, and deference to U.S. leadership. Nevertheless, Germany has squarely refuted Putin’s expectations. In fact, Russia’s war has triggered the greatest transformation in German foreign and security policy since the end of the Cold War.