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Professor publishes Chicago Tribune op-ed on German reaction to Ukraine invasion

| Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Professor Ian Johnson, Notre Dame’s current P. J. Moran Family Assistant Professor of Military History, recently published an opinion article in the Chicago Tribune detailing Germany’s shift in foreign policy in response to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.

By studying the previous causes of war, Johnson believes history can help people understand how to maintain peace today. 

“I believe that it is part of the public duty of a historian to help contextualize the present through an understanding of the past,” Johnson said. He says that this mission is the reason why he became a professor. “That’s what [teachers] aspire to do in our classrooms — understand how we got here, to the world we live in.”

As an expert on Russian-German relations, Johnson sought to publish in The Chicago Tribune to inform the public about Germany’s recent shift to recommitment with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in light of the Russian invasion.

“Germany occupies a key place in the Ukraine crisis,” he said. Germany’s reliance on Russian imports, specifically oil and gas, is clear evidence of the country’s traditionally close economic ties to Russia, Johnson explained. But Germany also happens to be the largest economy in Europe, positioned as the dominant political and economic force within the EU.

With these tensions in mind, Germany has been a moderator between Moscow and the western world, he said. Historically, Germany neglected to respond to Russian actions like the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. “The crisis in Georgia played out very quickly,” Johnson explained. “Many in Europe were willing to concede that Russia had various historical and ethnic claims to Crimea.”

But this time is different, Johnson suggests. “The latest invasion of Ukraine is on a much larger scale, and threatens to bring conflict to the very borders of NATO and the EU,” he said. 

“The scale of the fighting is by far the largest Europe has witnessed in at least two decades,” he said. Johnson said Russian casualties are already approaching figures comparable to their ten-year conflict in Afghanistan. 

Further, Johnson adds “the brazenness with which Russia violated international law by invading Ukraine also made continued passivity by European states impossible.” Russia has also been accused of human rights violations in its attacks on Ukraine, including bombing a children’s hospital and a theater sheltering refugees.

Johnson said this may explain why Germany has decided to change its foreign policy stance. He points to the country’s drastic increase in military spending as a critical turning point. “NATO is pulling together, with key member states like Germany accepting the need to improve their own military capacities and participate more fully in the alliance,” he said.

Internally, Ukraine has felt tensions between disparate visions of their position in Europe, he said. “Ukraine joining NATO at this juncture would bring about a state of war between Russia and NATO, which no sensible person wants — a war between nuclear powers risks global catastrophe,” Johnson said.

He acknowledges that Germany’s military preparation may increase the already tense relationship between NATO and Russia. “An increase in tensions is not a good thing, certainly, but I think increased German military spending will probably improve the integrity of NATO,” he said. 

The consequences of Ukraine joining NATO now are clear, but what Germany’s role portends long-term remains to be seen, Johnson said.

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is a sophomore from Fort Worth, TX studying Political Science and English. She is currently serving as Interim Scene Editor for The Observer. She loves Sufjan Stevens, indie movies and peanut M&Ms.

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