Berlin Cable

May 25, 2022

On the Sidelines

Amid dramatic shifts caused by Russia’s war of aggression, Germany is getting a lot of flak for dragging its feet and acting too slowly. The Scholz government is risking its leadership role in Europe.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meets with armed forces officials at the Bundeswehr Operations Command in Schwielowsee, Germany March 4, 2022.
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“We are disappointed with Germany.” Polish President Andrzej Duda’s complaint, in an interview with German Welt TV on the sidelines of this year’s meeting of the Davos World Economic Forum, sums up what many of Germany’s neighbors to the East feel these days. Poland has welcomed more than 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees with open arms and has provided its eastern neighbor, under brutal attack by Russian for over three months now, with lots of military hardware, including at least 240 Soviet-made T-72 tanks. Germany, Duda said on Tuesday, had promised to help Poland replace those with Leopard tanks. But Berlin had not kept its word.

There has been no official reply so far. But there’s no escaping of the fact that the list of Germany’s critics keeps growing longer by the day, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. The pattern was set under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose governments embraced energy dependency on Russia and treated warnings from its Eastern allies with often ill-disguised irritation. When Social Democrat (SPD) Olaf Scholz and his “traffic light” coalition of Greens and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) took over in early December, their attempts at getting to grips with Russia amassing troops at Ukraine’s borders and demanding a rewinding of post-Cold War history in Europe also gave rise to much unease.

Since then, Germany’s neighbors are no longer holding their tongue. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has repeatedly spoken of “a certain naivety” on Germany’s part when it came to dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Scholz’ reluctance to spell out in detail the consequences for Russia should it attack Ukraine led to more questions. “Where Is Germany in the Ukraine Standoff. Its Allies Wonder,” ran a typical headline in the New York Times before the start of the war.

And even after Berlin had declared a Zeitenwende (a historic turn) in its security policy, promising to deliver weapons to Ukraine and spend big on its armed forces, the questions keep coming in Europe, but also the Anglo-Saxon world. “What Will It Take for Germany to Stand Up to Russia?” asked the Los Angeles Times in April, before Scholz and his government U-turned on the question of heavy weapons deliveries which, however, Berlin has been slow in actually rustling up. Fifteen of 50 promised “Gepard” anti-aircraft tanks are supposed to reach Ukraine by mid-July.

Not Rising to the Occasion

It is true that the Scholz government has done a lot—and not all of it has been acknowledged in public, let alone publicized. One example is that the question of how to get gasoline to the front line in Ukraine is something the chancellery is concerning itself with. It is also true that blaming Germany has become something of a sport, or reflex, for international critics. Obstructionism on the part of others in Europe has been passed with less outrage. For weeks now a European Union embargo on Russian oil—intended as part of a sixth EU sanction package—has been blocked by Hungary, not Germany (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who used the war in Ukraine to suddenly declare a state of emergency in his country on May 24, does not even want to discuss the topic at the upcoming EU summit meeting). Countries like Greece and Malta, meanwhile, have blocked a port ban on ships that, while not Russian-owned (those have been sanctioned), operate to Russia’s benefit, delivering oil and other commodities.

However, even the German government’s defenders would not go as far as to describe Berlin’s performance as a shining example of energetic leadership in Europe. The reasons are manifold. There is the chancellor, whose rhetoric too rarely rises to the occasion. Following his bravura Zeitenwende speech on February 27 and his subsequent statement, in his address to mark the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II on May 8, that Germany had a historic duty to stand by Ukraine, he has been making his government’s case too intermittently. A visit to Kyiv to show support continues to be on hold until a later date.

There are also noticeable differences if you compare Scholz to, say, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has repeatedly declared that “Ukraine must win.” Scholz seems to prefer saying that “Russian must not win.” However, there’s no doubt that Germany, like its allies, wants Putin to stop the aggression immediately and withdraw its troops. There is also the determination not to get drawn into a wider war. In an interview with Deutsche Welle on May 24 Scholz indicated that his main hope was that economic pressure would ultimately lead to Putin changing tack.

A ”Slacker” Minister

Then there is Germany’s defense minister. Christine Lamprecht had no previous experience in foreign and security affairs, and it shows. Rather than concentrating on the fight against an aggressive Russia, she spends more time these days fighting off the media. The newsweekly DER SPIEGEL, in a damning profile, recently described her as the “slacker minister,” and stories about her taking family members on helicopter rides have prompted the opposition to demand her sacking.

Then there’s the left wing of the SPD, personified by its parliamentary leader Rolf Mützenich. Putin’s brutal war has destroyed overnight dearly-held convictions of 30 years standing such as the alleged non-existence of military solutions to international problems (the Russian president has been seeking them for years, though).

While supporting the introduction of a €100 billion special fund for Germany’s armed forces (Sondervermögen) and thus raising defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, at least for the next few years, Mützenich and others, also within the ranks of the Greens, are “troubled” by what some still describe as a “militarization” of German foreign policy and seek to dedicate at least a symbolic part of the moneys to civilian ends—which would be a fatal signal both to the Bundeswehr, which has suffered badly from underinvestment for decades, as well as Germany’s allies.

Franco-German Gaps

All this has meant the Germany is risking losing its leadership role in Europe at a crucial juncture. The impression is growing that the future of the continent’s security architecture is taking shape without much German input—that is being left to a reengaged United States, the Eastern Europeans, the non-EU member the United Kingdom, and France. Indeed, the Franco-German leadership also has little to show for itself of late. French President Emmanuel Macron and Scholz’ continued telephone conversations with Putin have brought no results. While Macron is concentrating on his new government led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and winning the parliamentary elections due in June, Paris and Berlin seem to be quite apart on a wide range of topics, from EU enlargement to fiscal rules.

With crucial EU and NATO summits coming up, Germany seems yet again mostly preoccupied with itself. At the same time, it seems oblivious to the extent, and the corrosive effect, of its allies becoming disillusioned with Europe’s biggest country. Germany is ramping up its defense and security, but far too slowly to put it at the center of dramatic changes. Once again, Berlin seems more comfortable on the sidelines.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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