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Germany to send anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine, despite worry of provoking conflict

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Germany has announced it will send anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine. The decision breaks with Berlin's traditional refusal to export heavy weapons to war zones. Chancellor Olaf Scholz faces harsh criticism for inaction and is under pressure to send more weapons. But as Esme Nicholson reports, there is still angst in Germany about provoking a wider conflict with Russia.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Speaking after talks about Ukraine with military officials from 40 countries at the Ramstein Air Base yesterday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made a point of acknowledging a last-minute pledge of support.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: I wanted to especially welcome a major decision by our German host - announced just today that Germany will send Ukraine some 50 Cheetah anti-aircraft systems.

NICHOLSON: Austin refused to speculate on what else Germany might provide but stressed that any further decisions should be made quickly.

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AUSTIN: But we don't have any time to waste, so we've got to move at the speed of war.

NICHOLSON: In Berlin, the promise of military support is viewed as a rushed bid to save face on the global stage. On domestic television last night, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht defaulted to Chancellor Scholz's more hesitant stance.

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CHRISTINE LAMBRECHT: (Through interpreter) Any potential decisions to deliver more heavy weapons cannot be rushed. We must take care that we do not become a party to the war.

NICHOLSON: But Scholz and co. are being forced to act. This week, the opposition proposed a parliamentary motion to approve the direct delivery of more weapons to Ukraine. Scholz's coalition has responded with a countermotion that still favors the so-called backfill option, in which Germany provides Ukraine with heavy weapons indirectly via Eastern European neighbors who pass on their old Soviet-era tanks in exchange for newer ones from Germany. Today, opposition leaders accepted this proposal, and parliament is due to vote on it tomorrow.

There is criticism of this roundabout policy, even from within Scholz's own government, most notably from the Greens. Anton Hofreiter is one of them.

ANTON HOFREITER: (Through interpreter) To suggest that the Ukrainian military isn't skilled enough to use modern weapons is, frankly, paternalistic nonsense considering the heroic fight it's put up against Russia so far.

NICHOLSON: Despite announcing a sea change in German security policy just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Scholz is under fire for failing to deliver the goods. The German chancellor said last week that he's wary of sparking a nuclear war and announced military stocks are too depleted to spare any weapons. Many reject these arguments.

Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook is a fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.

CATHRYN CLUVER ASHBROOK: He has gotten in public discourse - very dismissive of experts when it comes both to the discussion of a possible oil and gas embargo, but also when it comes to the idea of increased military aid. It's not a good look.

NICHOLSON: But when it comes to public opinion, not all agree. Sixty-eight-year-old Dagmar Hake from Berlin says she's impressed with Scholz's level-headedness, even though she didn't vote for him.

DAGMAR HAKE: (Through interpreter) Sure, we need to stop this war, but pouring oil on the fire by sending weapons is dangerous considering Russia's nuclear arsenal. We need to stop talking about victory and instead negotiate a cease-fire.

NICHOLSON: Ultimately though, industry often has the final say in Germany. While Scholz has caved to pressure from sectors heavily invested in Russia to dismiss prominent economists who say an immediate gas embargo is manageable, the arms industry is also driving policy by pushing the government for export permits.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCABONA, SOUL FOOD HORNS AND DESH'S "CYPRUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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