During her official visit in the U.S. on February 9th, Chancellor Merkel and President Obama tried hard to create the impression of moving in lockstep to support Ukraine in its fight against the Russian-backed rebels in the Donbas. Merkel explained her resolute “no” to the question of arming Ukraine mainly with concerns for further escalation by Russia should the West decide to deliver military equipment to the Ukrainian government. President Obama’s “maybe” is likely the result of both old-school tactics to increase the level of deterrence against further Russian aggression, as well as an earnest debate between advisors and decision-makers holding different opinions on the matter in the White House.
German Public Opinion: No Surprises?
Although President Obama has no more campaigns to run and Chancellor Merkel will not stand for re-election until 2017, both leaders are obviously constrained by public opinion. Merkel is known to masterfully orchestrate her political leadership in accordance with the public mood. For her, supporting arms deliveries to the Ukrainian government would be nothing short of a political folly. In a recent poll released by Germany’s major public broadcasting station (ARD), 70 % of the respondents said they were concerned about an escalation of the conflict between Russia and the West. Not surprisingly, much less agreement exists on the question of how to best address the crisis: Support for EU sanctions on Russia increased from 54 % in December 2014 to 65 % in February 2015. A second poll released by the news station N24 in early February showed that an overwhelming majority of 75 % want Germany to generally oppose any arms deliveries to Ukraine. Only 12 % were in favor of Germany supporting the U.S. in arming Ukraine, if President Obama should decide to do so. Even fewer, however, believe that Germany itself should deliver weapons (9 %).
The debate on arming Ukraine obviously does not take place in a political vacuum. No one argues that providing the Ukrainian government with defensive weapons alone will bring an end to the fighting. The transatlantic alliance faces much larger and more complex political questions of the stabilization of Ukraine and the reassurance of Russia’s neighbors. Whether NATO should generally take on more responsibility in Ukraine is highly disputed with the German public. The ARD poll showed that 49 % of respondents were in favor, while 46 % were opposed. Interestingly, a clear majority of 69 % spoke out against any permanent NATO presence in the Eastern European member states.
U.S. Public Opinion: Divided we Stand
Rebutting the image of trigger-happy Americans eager to face Mr. Putin in a Cold War 2.0 game, a recent PEW poll shows that a slight majority of 53 % opposes sending arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government, while 41 % are in favor. That said, the U.S. public has steadily become more supportive of sending arms to the Ukrainian government: In April 2014, those opposing arms deliveries outweighed the supporters by roughly 2-to-1. The indecisiveness shown by the most recent poll corresponds not only with President Obama’s stance on the issue. It also largely reflects the fierce debates in Washington, which is held both between and within D.C.’s most prominent research and policy institutions. Much broader consensus between the German and U.S-American public exists with regard to support for additional economic and diplomatic sanctions: Similarly to Germany, 60 % of Americans are in favor of increasing sanctions on Russia, while 34 % are opposed.
The Next Debate Looming
As long as the Minsk II agreement struck under the auspices of Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande is still dangling on a string, any decision on whether to arm the Ukrainian government is for now postponed. Given the deep divisions characterizing public opinion, however, a continuous and earnest debate on a wider strategy to stabilize Ukraine is nevertheless in order. Meanwhile, the next debate is already looming in Germany: Earlier this week, the German Ministry of Defense confirmed that it had turned down the request made by NATO-ally Lithuania for 12 light wheeled tanks. Under such circumstances, no one should be surprised that the Baltic States prefer calling Washington rather than Berlin for reassurance.
This article was first published on the website of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s EU office.