BERLIN — A fierce debate over sending heavy weapons to Ukraine has created a fault line in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government, raising questions about his leadership and dampening expectations about his ability to help Europe through the continent’s most dramatic security crisis since the Second World War.
As Russia opens a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, calls have grown for Berlin to offer more heavy weapons to the Ukrainian government in kyiv. Members of Mr. Scholz’s coalition have publicly broken with him to demand that Germany do more.
“Europe expects Germany to play a central role,” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, head of the parliamentary defense committee and legislator for the Liberal Democratic Party, a coalition partner with the social- Mr. Scholz’s center-left Democrats and the Greens.
Mr. Scholz largely avoided explaining his position on heavy weapons and was losing the opportunity to frame the debate, she said, adding: “If you don’t tell the story yourself, others will.” . And that’s never good.
Just two months ago, Mr. Scholz was defining the conversation. After the invasion of Russia, he announced a massive rearmament of Germany and a defense aid program for Ukraine, breaking radically with decades of pacifist policy. He declared it a “Zeitenwende” – a historic turning point – for Germany. But on Ukraine, critics say, Mr Scholz needs to act faster, saying the financial aid he announced last week could not arrive as quickly as direct arms shipments.
For Mr Scholz, the act of balancing international and domestic politics also includes the expectation of many Europeans that he act as the continent’s leader – a role his predecessor Angela Merkel often fulfilled in times of crisis. Another perception is important to Mr. Scholz’s government – it is wary of giving Moscow the impression that Berlin is an active belligerent against Russia, at the risk of being drawn into a war that would harm not only Germany but to its NATO allies.
Germany has already sent missiles and artillery to Ukraine, but kyiv also wants heavy artillery, Leopard tanks and armored vehicles like the Mardar, considered among the best in the world. Ukrainian officials have made repeated public demands. With tensions rising between Berlin and kyiv, Ukraine has gone so far as to disinvite German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier from a visit to its capital in protest at its long-standing business ties with Moscow.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a Green, insisted that sending armored vehicles to Ukraine was not a red line for Germany. It was “not taboo, although it sometimes sounds that way in the German debate,” she told a news conference with her Baltic counterparts in Riga, Latvia.
Still, the perceived reluctance to meet Ukraine’s demands, particularly at a time when Germany has slowed a European plan to boycott Russian oil, frustrates Mr Scholz’s ruling partners. They argue that Germany is running out of time to help subdue Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
“The longer this war drags on and the closer Putin gets to victory, the greater the danger that more countries will be overrun and we will end up sliding into a de facto prolonged World War III,” said Anton Hofreiter, the head of the European Relations Committee in the Bundestag and a member of the Greens, said Wednesday morning on the ZDF public broadcaster.
Nils Schmid, the Social Democrats’ foreign policy spokesman in parliament, said Mr Scholz’ position had been unfairly distorted by his partners.
“There is now a public contest from the opposition but also within the government as to who is more pro-Ukraine,” he said. “What really matters are the measures taken by the government.”
He pointed out that Germany had given its necessary approval for the Czech Republic to send T-72 tanks, manufactured in the former East Germany, to Ukraine. This, he said, showed the Chancellor had “no objection” to heavy weapons.
But the feuds may have ramifications for Mr. Scholz’s leadership. In a poll of German voters released on Tuesday, 65% of those polled said they did not see him as a strong leader. The Wednesday Der Spiegel magazine wrote: “One has to wonder if the coalition is basically still behind him.”
Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier, dismissed the idea of a threatened coalition. But he saw a risk to the chancellor’s reputation as a leader for the continent.
For Europeans, that need is especially great, Jun said, as French President Emmanuel Macron steps away from the regional stage to fend off a high-profile electoral challenge at home.
“Scholz had to fill that void,” Mr Jun said. “And there’s some disappointment, I would say, that Scholz didn’t do that.”
On Tuesday, after discussing Ukraine with other Western leaders, Scholz raised expectations by saying he would deliver a speech.
But the only new announcement from him, said the Liberal Democrats’ Ms Strack-Zimmerman, was a plan to help Eastern European countries supply Ukraine with their own Soviet-era equipment. in larger quantities, promising to replace it with German-made equipment. . Even that, she said, was something that could have been started earlier: “We had been suggesting it for three weeks.”
Mr Scholz reiterated a plan announced last week to provide 1 billion euros in military aid, allowing Ukraine to buy the weapons it needs directly from the defense industry. Berlin asked German defense contractors to compile a list of what they could supply quickly and sent it to Ukraine, Scholz said. kyiv would also be allowed to buy from other allied countries, he added.
Mr Scholz said Germany, which for decades left its military under-equipped, could not afford to give Ukraine more of its own weapons while fulfilling its national defense and security obligations. NATO.
“We have to recognize that the possibilities we have are reaching their limits,” he said.
His stance on sending tanks and other heavy weapons to Ukraine remained vague, however, and he did not tell reporters afterwards whether Berlin would allow German defense contractors to sell such weapons to Ukraine. ‘Ukraine.
Pressed by a reporter if he would respond to requests for Leopard tanks from Ukraine, Mr. Scholz replied: “Looking at the world helps sometimes. In this case, it leads to the realization that those who are in a position comparable to Germany act in the same way as we do.
It was an untimely retort, given that a few hours earlier the Netherlands had announced that it would supply heavy weapons, including armored vehicles, to Ukraine.
“Scholz doesn’t care about public perceptions,” Mr. Schmid said. “He focuses on the action. And he doesn’t like to do things based on public debate.
In reaction to the debate, Mr. Scholz was taciturn, even sarcastic. His frustration was particularly evident after a delegation of members of the Bundestag visited Ukraine last week – a move his chancellery reportedly discouraged.
The delegation included Ms Strack-Zimmermann from the FDP, Mr Hofreiter from the Greens and Michael Roth from the SPD. All supported the demands for heavy weapons and called on the Chancellor to show stronger leadership.
Responding a few days later, in a TV interview, he said: “To boys and girls, I have to say: the fact that I’m not just doing what you want, it shows that I’m in the lead.