Less than a year ago it would have seemed barely imaginable that the German state would be supplying arms in a conflict. Yet now the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, finds himself under mounting international pressure to give an unconditional green light for German-made tanks to be sent to Ukraine – having tentatively signalled his readiness to do so, but only if the US agrees to do the same.
Even though Germany is often reluctant to spread the message itself, it is among Ukraine’s leading supporters in terms of defence aid and humanitarian and economic help. It has given refuge to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, a very underreported aspect of its support.
Its policy shift on Russian gas – from which German industry profited for so long, and which it has managed to wean itself off in double-quick time (even as it has opened a new brown coal opencast mine and extended the life of three nuclear power plants) is a reminder of how good at swift U-turns Germany can be.
Scholz has made clear he wants to protect Germany from accusations of going it alone. Since the start of the invasion, he has repeatedly expressed his insistence that Germany will only commit to an increase in military support if it is in conjunction with a decision from other countries to do the same. Ukraine has continuously stressed that the tanks are necessary to give its troops the mobile firepower they need to drive out Russian troops.
Scholz used an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday to insist that Germany would “continue, together with our partners” to deliver weapons in large quantities. He went on to cite at length the list of specific items Germany had already sent, including anti-aircraft systems, artillery guns and armoured personnel carriers, calling it part of a deep and extensive “sea change” in German foreign and security policy.
But he stopped short of responding to Ukraine’s request for Leopard 2 tanks, even as he was repeatedly pushed to do so.
Wolfgang Ischinger, a former head of the Munich Security Conference, warned Scholz that he was in danger of isolating Germany. “The whole world is waiting for Germany – with or without the USA – to give the green light,” he told the broadcaster DLF.
Observers of the Scholz government believe that even as its message over arms to Ukraine has more often than not appeared ambivalent, the fact that Germany has so far committed to the effort in a manner that would have seemed almost unthinkable before the invasion is a strong indication that it will soon say yes to the tanks.
It nevertheless remains morally trapped, on the one hand by the haunting fact that continues to horrify many Germans – that under the Nazis, it was fighting on Ukrainian soil against ancestors of the very people it now wants to protect – and on the other by the fact that it is as a direct result of that war that it has more of an obligation than any other country towards Ukraine.
Scholz’s struggle has been to communicate domestically, in particular, the necessity to protect Ukrainians, even as he fears that to upgrade to contributing fighter tanks could risk an escalation of the conflict, with Germany pinpointed as an aggressor.
Critics meanwhile are quick to point out that Germany’s defence industry has made billions from exporting lethal weapons to highly questionable regimes around the world. In this light, they argue, its hesitancy to provide a fledgling democracy on its doorstep with the means – in the form of its bestselling Leopard – to defend itself against Russian aggression is perverse.
An editorial in the Süddeutsche Zeitung said Scholz could be expected to deliver the tanks, explaining it was in his manner to put off making decisions until there was no other choice. It expressed sympathy for his hesitancy. “It is far from being cut and dried that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, will continue to take it on the chin that Nato states are increasingly involved in the war. Might he consider the use of atomic weapons in the case he feels he is at an impasse? No one can exclude this possibility,” it said.
But it said Scholz would have no other option than to deliver the tanks, owing to his promise to “support Kyiv until the war is over” and the “undeniable” fact that tanks would help Ukraine fend off attacks from Putin’s army.
“He will jump through the hoop – just too late for many who have been holding it up for him for months,” the paper wrote.
Ralf Stegner, of the Social Democrats, stuck up for Scholz during a Bundestag debate on the future of weapons to Ukraine on Thursday. What others called “hesitation” was “in truth intelligent leadership”, he said, while one member of the conservative CDU said history was in danger of remembering the current German government as being most efficient as “a brake block”.