Berlin Cable

Jan 26, 2023

The Scholz Way

The German chancellor took his time before committing to sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. In doing so, he has maxed out the benefits for the war-torn country. But there are complicating side effects.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany January 25, 2023.
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During the last couple of days, it started to feel like a typical Olaf Scholz maneuver. It certainly appears so in retrospect.

The chorus of critics at home and abroad had become louder and louder: Would Germany send Leopard tanks to Ukraine? If not, why not? And would it block other countries doing so? The German chancellor stayed tight-lipped, only to confirm that no decision had been taken yet. Also, in his view, it was one that required acting in “strategic lockstep” with Germany’s closest allies. Last Friday’s Ramstein meeting, convened by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and assembling the 50 nations helping Ukraine militarily, came and went without an announcement on Leopard tanks.

This clearly drove some commentators to distraction. DIE ZEIT called the whole affair a “disaster” and asked whether “Scholzology” (akin to Kremlinology) would be needed to decipher the inscrutable chancellor and his thinking. The Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash on Twitter posted a definition of “Scholzing” which read: “communicating good intentions, only to use/find/invent any reason imaginable to delay these and and/or prevent them from happening.” Not to be outdone, Politico diagnosed a “tank trauma,” caused by Scholz’ Cold War upbringing and left-leaning tendencies in his younger days.

Waiting for Washington

It's now clear that Scholz knew what he wanted to do but had to wait for a decision to be made in Washington.

Once it became apparent on Tuesday evening that the United States had revised its earlier position and would now commit to providing M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine as well, things went quickly: Scholz announced the sending of a company (14) of Leopard 2 tanks, taken from Germany’s armed forces arsenal, as part of two Leopard 2 battalions of 40 tanks each, provided by European partners. Training Ukrainian soldiers would start immediately.

A few hours later in the White House, President Joe Biden confirmed that “the United States will be sending 31 Abram tanks to Ukraine, the equivalent of one Ukrainian battalion. Secretary Austin has recommended this step because it will enhance Ukraine’s capacity to defend its territory and achieve its strategic objectives.” Whether the second sentence is strictly true is open for debate. The US Department of Defense was certainly not keen and did not deem it necessary militarily.

Biden, however, went on to praise his “close friend” Olaf Scholz, thanking him “for his leadership and his steadfast commitment to our collective efforts to support Ukraine.” “Germany really stepped up,” Biden added. Scholz had been “a strong, strong voice for unity.”

A Complicated Win

Scholz’ achievement is indeed remarkable: Playing high risk with Germany’s closest and most important ally and banking on his good personal relations with Biden, he finally got the cover he and his team clearly felt they needed to take the step of sending a Western-made main battle tank used across NATO into Ukraine. Whichever scenario of Russian retaliation that spooked them, it was clearly nothing that could be discussed or “explained” in public.

The end effect is that Ukraine will get, by the end of March, 80 of the Leopards it had been requesting for so long. (The Abrams will take considerably longer as, in a weird move, they are supposed to be procured rather than being transferred directly from the US military.) At least in theory the deliveries will allow Ukraine’s armed forces to deploy them—together with armored fighting vehicles that France, Germany, and the US pledged in early January—in combined arms operations. At a minimum, the tanks will help Ukraine to fight back an expected Russian spring offensive.

More important still is likely the signal the decision sends: Against many skeptical noises from his military, Biden has committed the United States more deeply to Ukraine’s fate than previously. And Germany, doing the coordination and setting up the logistics for the Leopard tanks will now become more visibly in the role it has already played for some time: the most important European provider of military—but also economic and financial—support for Ukraine.

Scholz’ agreement with Biden is likely to be a package deal, the precise components of which are not known. That the German government appeared to link the Leopard to the Abrams decision caused transatlantic frictions and not entirly convincing stories about US-German clashes. New German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius’ first task was to deny that there had been a demand for a quid pro quo (“Junktim”).

There is also a European side effect: The EU’s predominant military power, France, which does not use the Leopard but the French-made Leclerc main battle tank, is being sidelined. It will take considerable skill from Chancellor Scholz, who has already offended Paris by launching an initiative for a pan-European missile defense system (based on Israeli and US systems) without first consulting Paris last year, to assure President Emmanuel Macron that all those pleas to beef up European defense capabilities are not empty phrases.

Scholz’ Leopard decision was only made possible by the United States’ likely last truly transatlantic president. Pushing the military component of Germany’s Zeitenwende forward and allocating the necessary financial means, it would be good if Scholz kept this in mind.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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