The Scars of History in the Response to the Ukrainian Crisis

By Courtney Weigal

Russia has finally launched an invasion into Ukraine, bringing Europe to war once again. Most European nations have diplomatically sided with Ukraine, sending equipment to Ukrainian forces while severely sanctioning Russia. However, the responses of support have varied by country. 

At the start of this conflict, Germany had been noticeably silent, reserved about implementing sanctions on Russia due to its reliance on Russia for gas. American officials have warned the European Union about this vulnerability for years, and with war’s arrival on the European continent, the EU is now forced to face the consequences of its actions. One major project that faced significant American condemnation was the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipeline. NS2 is a pipeline expected to supply 10% of European gas from Russia. Germany froze its Nord Stream 2 plans a few days ago, announcing a new green energy plan, but it is already too late. The pipeline’s cancellation is less of a sign of solidarity, but rather a panicked reaction. 

The area that will be most affected by the energy crisis is Eastern Europe. Finland, the former Eastern Bloc, and the states of the former Soviet Union rely on Russia for almost 100% of their gas. The most vulnerable nations in this situation are the Baltics and Poland. These nations share a border with Ukraine and Russia, with fears amongst civilians that they will be targeted by Russia next. 93% of Latvia’s gas and 79% of Estonia’s gas comes from Russia, as well as almost half of Lithuania’s and Poland’s. Most of these countries also lack efficient public transportation and green energy options, making affordable gas a necessity. Hence the part of Europe most vulnerable to energy shortages is those nations that also border Russia. 

Despite all of this, these are also the countries that have been the most vocal in supporting Ukraine, sending military supplies both before and after the invasion. The Baltics sent anti-tank and aircraft missiles to Ukraine back in January and have professed their undying support for their former Soviet ally. Poland has prepared itself for millions of Ukrainian refugees along with providing a large supply of crucial military equipment to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Germany has been notoriously hesitant about supporting Ukraine, with its offer to supply helmets met with ridicule.

The difference between Eastern and Western Europe is crystal clear. The scars of the Iron Curtain are still visible, giving these four nations the motivation to fight to the bitter end. The sight of Russian troops brought back memories of repression, deportations, and executions under Russian rule, a life these nations refuse to return to. Lithuania lost a fourth of its population to the Soviets. Poland has centuries of tumultuous history of fighting for sovereignty against oppressive regimes from the East. Even if it means plunging their nation into an energy crisis, these citizens are willing to do whatever it takes to keep Ukraine out of Russia’s jaws. 

Germany’s fear of war has taken priority over the security of its Eastern allies, furthering the divide between Eastern and Western Europe. The nation’s hesitancy is also rooted in its history: fear of being compared to its World War Two past has made Germany very cautious about anything that could be perceived as escalation. The Schluss-Strich (line of shame) is a swirling debate in Germany around the question of how long Germans must bear the guilt of World War II. This hardline pacifism has spread to the rest of Western Europe through Germany’s leading role in the EU. This guilt has also caused a lack of assertion regarding the Soviet Union’s successor state, Russia. Germany still carries guilt for the millions of Russians killed during World War II, which led to Germany’s trade-based relationship with Russia. This guilt along with their desire to avoid conflict led to Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. As Germany tried to avoid being compared to its Nazi past, it became apathetic to the plight of its neighbors, favoring keeping the peace with Putin over the security of its allies. 

Having experienced Ukraine’s suffering, Poland and the Baltics are not afraid to bare their teeth when threatened with Russia, despite their vulnerability, hoping to keep Ukraine from suffering under Russia again. While Poland and the Baltics are emboldened by their history, Germany’s history prevents it from making crucial security decisions. While it is important to learn from history, history should not deter policymakers from taking necessary risks.

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