Two German chancellors are struggling with each other inside Olaf Scholz. His country, its allies and Kremlin have to find out which one they’re dealing with.
When Scholz took office in December, the temperament he displayed was still the one he had advertised during the campaign. In style, he was a knock-off of his predecessor, Angela Merkel — managing more than leading, governing in tiny increments rather than big steps, papering over controversies instead of taking stances, communicating through obfuscation more than inspiration.
Following the attack of Ukraine by Russia, however, Scholz revealed another chancellor within him. This one was bold and capable of radical policy U-turns. Out went major tenets of German foreign and security policy.
Germany would stand with its allies in confronting and deterring Russia, refund and rebuild its derelict army for that purpose, and strive for independence from Russian coal, oil and gas. Breaking with German taboos, Scholz also promised to send weapons to Ukraine.
He called it a “watershed” or “sea change.” I called it a German Revolution.
Less than two months on, these two Scholzes are in internal but visible conflict. Yes, his government has sent money and equipment to Ukraine. But this has so far consisted of light weapons: armour, ammunition, anti-tank grenades and such.
According to Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, the weapons Kyiv asked for — howitzers and tanks like Germany’s Leopard and Marder models — are not forthcoming. Instead, Germany is considering giving tanks to Slovenia, so that country can send Ukraine its own — older — tanks.
(Update: Germany has now agreed to deliver anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine, the German Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday, a move that underscores a major shift in its approach to providing military help to Ukraine. The commitment to deliver the Gepard anti-aircraft systems was announced by defense minister Christine Lambrecht during a meeting of international defense officials at the Ramstein US Air Force base in Germany on Tuesday)
Scholz — again sounding rather like Merkel in her day — dives deep into the fine print and the bureaucratic weeds to explain the dilly-dally over Ukraine.
The only reason that matters, of course, is his fear of getting drawn into the conflict and facing Russia directly. But Germany is in exactly the same situation as all its other allies, from the US and the UK to Estonia and the rest. And those countries have been sending Ukraine the heavy and lethal equipment.
Unsurprisingly, both the Ukrainians and Germany’s Nato allies are once again livid. They’ve always had doubts about how reliable Germany is in a crisis. Scholz’s watershed moment in February made them optimistic. But now they see him yet again stepping on the brakes in any joint allied effort.
That extends to the West’s effort to boycott Russian energy in order to defund Moscow’s war machine. Germany, which has spent decades making itself dependent on Russia’s gas, is phasing out imports of its coal and trying to do the same with its oil.
But, in the unsavory company of Hungary, Scholz’s government is blocking a full embargo on gas. Owing to the hike in energy prices, Germany will actually pay more for Russian oil and gas this year than ever before — an estimated 32 billion euros ($34.9 billion), according to a study by Greenpeace. That’s more than half of Russia’s military budget.
Even Scholz’s governing partners are frustrated, and near open rebellion. The two junior parties — the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats — are so far doing nothing that would jeopardise the coalition. But their backbenchers are increasingly pointing fingers at Scholz and demanding a clearer line.
To make a point, two of the most outspoken even took a trip to Ukraine without consulting Scholz. One was Anton Hofreiter of the Greens, the other was Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann of the Free Democrats, who chairs the Bundestag’s defence committee.
Raising particular eyebrows in the chancellery, they took along Michael Roth, a foreign-policy expert who’s also a Social Democrat, and thus a member of Scholz’s own party.
It’s too early to write Scholz off. As a result of the Ukraine crisis, Germany really has entered a new era. But revolutions are hard. Germany’s voters and its entire political class must jettison old assumptions and draw new conclusions that can appear frightening, especially in a country still traumatised by another war, one it caused.
But that’s what leaders are for. Scholz had a good start in office. To avoid failing his coalition, country and continent, he must now vanquish his inner waffler and embrace the stalwart ally, the decider, the communicator.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”