During a visit to Kyiv, where Ukrainian leaders worry about a possible full-scale Russian invasion, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock echoed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s position on Ukraine’s requests to buy arms.
“Our restrictive position to weapons supply is well-known and is rooted in history,” she said.
But that’s misleading.
Baerbock may represent the new ruling coalition that opposes arms sales to countries outside the EU and NATO, but as it stands Germany is ranked the fourth-largest global arms exporter, and the recipients of these arms are not limited to NATO allies or democratic governments.
Before leaving office last year, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel approved arms deals with Egypt, ruled by Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 military coup in 2013 and whose regime has been criticized for rights abuses and repression.
Germany has reportedly sold Egypt three naval frigates, as well as air defense systems.
According to the German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, arms deals signed by Merkel at the end of her term set records for revenue, totaling $5.6 billion for 2021.
Egypt is not the only authoritarian country to which Germany sold arms. Although it halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2018, it sold to other Gulf States, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Those countries, along with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have played a controversial role in the ongoing civil war in Yemen.
To be sure, the U.S. has also faced criticism for arms sales with countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE. In 2021, the Biden administration sought to stop providing “offensive” arms to Saudi Arabia, but cooperation continues. Unlike Germany, however, the U.S. has supplied lethal military aid to Ukraine, most notably the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile.
In addition, since the early days of the Russia-backed war in Ukraine's Donbas region, the U.S. provided defensive and non-lethal aid such as counter-battery radars used to locate enemy artillery, and night-vision devices. (Still, the U.S. reluctance to provide lethal aid early in the conflict has been criticized by Ukrainians and others.)
Going back further, Germany has also for years exported arms to Turkey, including Leopard 2 main battle tanks. Both countries are members of the Western NATO alliance, whose expansion Russia dubiously cites as the security threat instigating its troop buildup outside Ukraine.
Egypt, the UAE and Turkey have been accused of supporting the warring parties in Libya’s civil war, despite an international arms embargo.
In addition to sales, German arms manufacturers also make money from licensing agreements that allow foreign countries to manufacture German weapons. Despite record profits, these sales were largely carried out under the previous government, which was replaced in 2021 by a coalition of the SPD (Social Democrats), the Greens, and the Free Democrats.
Late last year, Baerbock announced that legislation was in the works to further limit arms sales to third countries, meaning non-European Union, non-NATO states. It remains to be seen how restrictive the new policy will be if passed. And while the new government voices opposition to the kind of arms deals the Merkel government made, the refusal to provide arms for Ukraine has been consistent since 2014.
The same day as Baerbock’s visit, the United Kingdom signaled its position by sending a Royal Air Force C17 cargo plane to Kyiv laden with light anti-tank weapons. The U.K. also announced it would be sending a small contingent of its special forces to help train Ukrainian military personnel. Canada is following suit.