Berlin Cable

Feb 02, 2022

Scholz’ Sharp Learning Curve

Berlin is getting a lot of flak for appearing to be the West’s weakest link when it comes to dealing with Russia. But coalition cohesion is better than expected, and Scholz is ready to give his foreign policy a more definite shape.

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he is welcomed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ahead of their meeting at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, January 25, 2022.
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January was not a good month for the new German government’s international reputation. As the Russian government pressed on with its fabricated crisis of Europe’s security order, demanding the United States’ and NATO’s acceptance of a sphere of influence or else the more than 100,000 troops amassed at the borders with Ukraine might come up with a “military-technical response” (Russian President Vladimir Putin), Berlin’s internal united front on Russia took a while to emerge (see last month’s BERLIN CABLE).

Still, from Washington to Vilnius, a number of observers questioned the new government’s reliability, with The New York Times putting its finger on it with the stark headline, “Where Is Germany in the Ukraine Standoff? Its Allies Wonder.” Commenting on Berlin’s reported foot-dragging on allowing Estonia to give Ukraine nine Soviet-made howitzers, which the German Bundeswehr had “inherited” after unification in 1990 and passed on, General (ret.) Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, tweeted: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way!”

Some may argue that Berlin is still doing none of the above, but that would be a misconception. Rather, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ government of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), after some initial SPD wobbles, have closed ranks by pushing two messages in particular: “all options are on the table” should Russia invade, including a halt to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the consequences for Moscow would be “severe.” Scholz has made sure this message has reached the Kremlin, too. Meanwhile, Berlin has worked closely with the US and its European allies to coordinate possible sanctions that really would hit Russia’s economy hard.

Thus, Berlin is standing squarely behind the transatlantic double-track strategy of “deterrence and dialogue” on all levels—but doing more on the dialogue front by resurrecting the Normandy format (of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany); after convening in Paris, the group at the level of advisers will meet in Berlin again next week—than on military deterrence especially. While France has offered to spearhead a NATO “Enhanced Forward Presence” in Romania as well as announcing maneuvers in the Mediterranean (reaching as far as the Black Sea), and the United Kingdom, which has trained 20,000 Ukrainian troops in the past, has been sending tank-breaking weapons, Germany so far has done little except promise delivery of the 5,000 helmets Kyiv had requested as well as a field hospital—much to the derision of the German government’s critics.

The Weapons Question

It is the refusal to send weapons to Ukraine that has played particularly badly internationally. Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin, Andriy Melnyk, and the mayor of Kyiv, boxing legend Vitali Klitschko who has celebrity status in Germany, have made it their mission to embarrass Berlin on this front while the German government has zigzagged defending the long-standing German principle of not sending “lethal weapons” to conflict zones. First Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spoke of “historical reasons”—insulting to Ukraine given that the country suffered horrific civilian losses during Nazi Germany’s 1941-45 war against the Soviet Union, even worse than Russia’s—then Scholz pointed out that this had been policy “for many years,” before new SPD leader Lars Klingbeil came up with the formula that Germany would compromise its moderator role in the Normandy format if it were to send weapons now.

Communicating Germany’s position better and more proactively would have avoided some of the blame that Germany received on that front where a chance of policy would have been difficult to bring about—given that the Greens in particular want a more restrictive arms export policy and that the sending of weapons to Ukraine has no popular support among Germans. The truth is also that Germany has little to offer Ukraine that would change an aggressor’s calculation. And Berlin did not want to endanger its channels to Moscow before the attempt to reactivate the Normandy format (which the Kremlin had abandoned) had run its course.

The chancellery, however, knows how weak the position looks, especially since the deterrence argument of helping a smaller country threatened by a powerful neighbor carries more weight than the traditional “hands off” approach, which in fact helps the aggressor. Should Russia invade, it may well cause Berlin to reconsider.

Small Steps, Big Steps

This would be a big step for a government in power for only a couple of weeks. In fact, it is showing considerable coherence, more than could have been expected given the left-leaning, pacifist wings of both the Greens and the SPD, in addition to part of the latter’s apparent eternal soft spot for Russia, which stubbornly ignores the true character of President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy.

It is also a departure from the Merkel years; while some compare Scholz disapprovingly to his predecessor Angela Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker who was Putin’s most important interlocutor in Europe, it was Merkel’s policies (with help from the SPD as her junior partner in several coalitions) that increased Germany’s dependence of Russian gas and failed to make Germany a more capable security actor. Given that Russia policy was helplessly contradictory and in flux by the end by the Merkel era, it’s no surprise that the new Scholz government needs some time to get organized.

However, the learning curve required in the face of Europe’s most dangerous security crisis in decades will continue to be steep. Scholz’ communication is likely to improve, and a tougher policy vis-à-vis Moscow is already taking shape. Should Putin opt to act by force, Germany’s energy relationship with Russia (it presently gets 55 percent of its gas from there) will change, possibly dramatically. Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck, a member of the Greens, announced last week that he would now “energetically pursue” the building of two liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals at Germany’s northern coast, already pointed in this direction.

Hello, Washington–and Toyko!

While French President Emmanuel Macron is doing the talking with Putin right now (two calls in four days and a personal meeting in the offing), Scholz will be visiting US President Joe Biden in the White House on February 7—an event that will provide ample opportunity to underline Germany’s commitment to the US-German relationship and NATO. (As a sign of the, at times, hysterical reporting on Berlin’s alleged misdeeds, DER SPIEGEL falsely claimed earlier that Scholz had snubbed Biden by rejecting an invitation to an early face-to-face meeting.) A phone call or even a meeting with Putin will surely follow at some point, but it is significant that Scholz chose this sequence of events.

At the same time, Scholz will have to manage the different European strands and camps that have emerged in the crisis with Russia—with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, down but not out at home over the “partygate” scandal, visiting Kyiv on Tuesday and threatening to build a “club of hardliners” with Poland and the Baltic states, thus re-immersing the UK in the “future of European security” debate, which Macron has been intent on leading. Meanwhile, the reelection of Italian President Sergio Mattarella over the weekend has given an extended lifeline to Mario Draghi’s government in Rome, and should Macron be reelected in April, a window will open for EU reform that may be Europe’s best chance to start addressing the underlying causes for its bit-part role in the crisis with Russia, which Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations aptly described last week.

“Olaf Scholz is no showman. It’s not part of his character to explain himself all the time,” says an SPD ally. “He wants to let his actions speak for themselves.” Those include the plan to visit Japan this spring; there are also supposed to be formal government consultations with Tokyo, and possibly New Delhi, democratic allies in the Indo-Pacific, before Scholz will be engaging with China. For those who want to find out where Germany is headed, it will pay to watch closely.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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