How Olaf Scholz became Germany’s antihero, blocking the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine

23 April, 07:28 PM
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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (Photo:John MacDougall/Pool via REUTERS)

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (Photo:John MacDougall/Pool via REUTERS)

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's vague stance on the supply of heavy weapons from Germany to Ukraine has already earned him a political reputation: even within Germany, the chancellor has been criticized by supporters, opponents, and the press, and of course, by increasing pressure from Ukrainian diplomats.

"Discussions about Germany's contribution to the Ukrainian army have recently gained momentum, as even representatives of the coalition parties (which formed Scholz's government) are increasingly expressing their dissatisfaction with the chancellor's course,” the German news magazine Spiegel summed up in its April 21 article, which also looked into the new risks of a de facto vote of no confidence in Scholz.

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“At the same time, given Russia's new offensive, Ukraine's needs seem to be becoming more urgent.”

NV looks back on the claims against Scholz in German political and social circles, how this may affect his career and the future of German arms supplies to Ukraine.

What is wrong with arms supplies from Germany to Ukraine? Didn't Germany promise EUR 2 billion aid package?

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a "landmark" change in Germany's position on arms exports and defense spending on Feb. 27. Prior to that, Germany flatly refused to supply weapons to the Ukrainian side.

"But critics in Europe and at home say the Social Democrat chancellor has failed to follow up on his grand announcements with the firm steps required to send a message to the Kremlin and to reassure NATO allies that Germany has departed from its policy of rapprochement (with Russia)," the British newspaper The Guardian reported on April 14, a month and a half after Scholz's first promises to help Ukraine.

This impression of Germany's position is supported by a number of facts, most notably the contradictory position of the German government and its head.

In the first month of the invasion (as of the end of March), Germany provided Ukraine with arms and defense goods worth EUR 186 million. Among them were grenade launchers, anti-aircraft missiles, as well machine guns and ammunition, but there were no heavy weapons: no tanks and armored vehicles, no helicopters and fighter jets, no artillery. At the same time, Ukraine announced its readiness to purchase 100 Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled artillery units in Germany (equipped with a 155-mm cannon). It was assumed that in the event of such a purchase, the Bundeswehr would later replace this equipment for itself with new armored howitzers. Similarly, Ukraine expected to purchase German-made Marder infantry fighting vehicles directly from their manufacturer, the German company Rheinmetall.

However, the Scholz government has been cool to such ideas, voicing in recent weeks a number of reasons that allegedly hinder the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine:

• in the case of deliveries of a batch of Panzerhaubitze 2000 to Ukraine, the German Ministry of Defense will be able to fill this gap only in 2024;

• the German army itself needs Marder armored vehicles both on NATO's eastern flank and for training and military drills, as well as for the Alliance's Rapid Reaction Force – the German tabloid Bild reported this motivation for the de facto refusal;

• arms supplies to Ukraine should not jeopardize Germany's commitment to NATO in other regions, such as the Baltic States, Scholz said;

•   Germany should not supply heavy weapons to Ukraine until NATO allies decide on it ("the Federal Government works in close coordination with our international partners. Germany should not take action alone," said Rolf Mützenich, chairman of the SPD parliamentary group, Scholz's party, in the German Bundestag. "We provide such military support in the same way and so that no one is in a hurry, including Germany," said Scholz himself);

• Germany's restraint is designed to prevent "greater evil" ("In everything we do, we are very careful not to take any ill-considered steps that could make Germany a target for Russia," German Economy Minister and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said in early April, suggesting that Ukraine found German foot-dragging difficult to understand. "But there is no morally sound position in politics. But there are always thoughts of preventing greater evil.");

• arms deliveries to Ukraine have reached the limits of the Bundeswehr's resources (according to German Defense Minister Christian Lambrecht); Germany no longer has weapons that it can "deliver quickly and without delay right now." (This statement was made by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on April 20, who said that Berlin was instead ready to train the Ukrainian military to work with new types of weapons provided by other countries and to service newly-obtained equipment).

In addition, it was reported that Scholz personally delayed a final decision to provide Ukraine with Marder armored vehicles, which are equipped with anti-tank missiles, although that move was supported by several other top officials, U.S.-based political newspaper Politico reported, citing four people familiar with the deliberations.

On April 15, the international news agency Reuters reported that "German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wants to spend an additional EUR 2 billion ($2.16 billion) on new military equipment, mostly to help Ukraine." However, it soon became clear that in practice this decision was quite different: Ukraine would be allocated only EUR 1 billion, and the provision of weapons involved a complex scheme.

As Scholz explained, "we asked the German military industry to announce what it can deliver in the near future," and Kyiv was given the right to choose from this list.

"We are providing the funds needed for the purchase," the chancellor said on April 19 after a meeting with NATO leaders, though he avoided mentioning heavy weapons in his speech.

The Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, quickly pointed out that the list provided (Ukraine received it a few weeks ago) had not included heavy weapons.

His words were actually confirmed by Bild in its April 20 article, ”Chancellor's Tank Bluff."

Bild journalists acquainted themselves with Kyiv’s list of requests, and its German "answer" – a list of weapons Germany is ready to provide Ukraine for procurement. Bild claims that "at the insistence of Scholz's office," the maximum possible list for Ukraine had been halved: from 48 to 24 pages. From the list of available weapons that Kyiv had asked for, "all the heavy weapons that German industry was ready to sell to Ukraine have disappeared."

"Melnyk's accusations that the alleged EUR 1 billion allocated by the federal government for military support cannot be spent at all seem to be true. The total cost of all 'consolidated' German weapons for Ukraine is only EUR 307 million," Bild reported.

Earlier, Ukraine requested Leopard tanks, Marder, Puma, GTK Boxer, and TPz 1 Fuchs armored vehicles from Germany, as well as multiple rocket launcher systems, anti-ship missiles, and Milan and Spike anti-tank systems. According to Bild, almost all of these weapons requested by Ukraine were on the list of possible supplies from German industry, including Leopard 2 tanks.

So far, Germany has only agreed to a compromise option: Slovenia will hand over several T-72 tanks to Ukraine, and Germany will provide Slovenia with more modern equipment, including Marder and Fuchs armored vehicles. Germany is also ready to teach the Ukrainian military to handle the German model of Panzerhaubitze 2000 – the Netherlands may provide Ukraine with this weapon.

"Ukraine does not need money to win, but weapons": Scholz criticized by colleagues, opposition, and the German press

With many other NATO countries (from the Czech Republic to the United States) already agreeing to supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine, this refusenik position of Scholz's government has caused a wave of surprise and condemnation even among his coalition allies, which include the Green Party and the Free Democracts.

On April 18, the head of the Bundestag's defense committee, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (deputy chairman of the Free Democratic Party), criticized Scholz and said she expected more clarity from him on the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine.

"I just don't think we have time to discuss this," said Strack-Zimmermann, who recently visited the Ukrainian western city of Lviv as part of a delegation of German parliamentarians. She reminded that Ukraine does not need money to win, but weapons.

"I would like the chancellor to make it clear once again that there is money. And, on the other hand, Germany is ready to supply heavy weapons," she said.

Anton Hofreiter, a leading Green politicians, expressed this position in an interview with the Deutsche Welle newspaper: "We must finally start supplying Ukraine with what it needs, namely heavy weapons," Hofreiter said directly.

"I can only guess why the chancellor is putting pressure on the brakes. I see no reasonable reason for this. But the German chancellor's actions harm not only Ukraine, but also Germany's image in Europe and around the world, and very seriously. So I can only call on the Chancellor: stop finally putting the brakes on and give the green light."

Even German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Green Party) has recently spoken out in support of heavy arms supplies to Ukraine.

"We are taking care of this together with our European partners,” she said before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on April 11.

"Ukraine needs more military equipment, especially heavy weapons. Now is not the time for excuses, now is the time for creativity and pragmatism.”

Scholz has even more sharply criticized by the largest political force in the parliamentary opposition, the Christian Democratic Union, which had previously formed Angela Merkel's government for 16 years. Its leader, Friedrich Merz, told the FAZ newspaper in an interview on April 16 that he agreed with Baerbock's position and that delays in supplies were "no longer excusable," although his political forces blame Berlin's long-standing attempts to find an agreement with Moscow.

"By his behavior, he (Scholz) threatens the cohesion of the entire (European) community of states towards Russia," Merz said.

"We want to know what is being supplied and, above all, why the German government does not want to supply what is available."

Separately, Merz criticized Scholz's repeated statements that, for security reasons, Berlin would not say exactly what weapons were being provided to Ukraine. The CDU leader said that Ukraine and the German public have a right to know what is being handed over to Kyiv, even if specific dates for the transfer of weapons and the place of production have not been announced. Instead, there is a "steady stream of speculation, allegations, rumors and demands," the CDU chairman said.

Merz reminded that Russia is capable of waging war for a long time, so Russian dictator Vladimir Putin must be stopped and pushed back now.

"We must assume that this war will last longer and that the Ukrainian army must be fully capable of regaining the conquered territory," the CDU leader said.

Supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine is generally supported even by the German public. A poll published in mid-April by the sociological company Infratest dimap found that 55% of Germans prefer to export heavy weapons to Ukraine rather than Russia's energy embargo, which could hit Germany's economy (by 37%). Obvious dissatisfaction with the idea of arms exports was recorded only among supporters of the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party.

Meanwhile, Scholz's vague excuses and his reluctance to talk about heavy weapons for Ukraine have outraged even German journalists.

On April 20, Germany's public broadcaster ARD released a sharp column called "Scholz confused instead of answering." Its author complains that in most cases, the chancellor's answers to journalists' questions about the supply of weapons to Ukraine sound like a "smokescreen" and abound in vague and complex sentences. The journalist cites an example when, at a recent press conference after a 15-minute statement by Scholz, a reporter was forced to ask, "Is this how Germany supplies heavy weapons, or not?"

The author of a recent column published on ARD website pointed out that Scholz is able to speak simply and clearly – when he wants to, and that was seen during last year's election campaign. However, now the "Scholz method”, when commenting on Ukraine, has surpassed his predecessor Angela Merkel’s most restrained statements of Merkel, the journalist concludes.

Citing Scholz's words, he highlighted the features of this "method":

• cascades of additional sentences instead of clear messages;

• avoidance of direct answers;

• a simulation of clarity when there is no clarity in the answer;

• an indulgent attitude toward journalists who ask questions.

And on Twitter, a selection of Scholz's contradictory statements over the past two months, each time contradicting the actions of other Western countries, whose support for Ukraine has proved stronger, has gathered more than 12,000 retweets.

Can Scholz really face a no confidence vote?

As the German weekly Spiegel reported on April 21, Merz now faces a "fundamental question": should members of the Bundestag from the CDU/CSU bloc submit to the German parliament an initiative to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine? The Bundestag will hold a plenary session next week, and the leader of the CDU faction in the Bundestag, Johann Wadephul, has already stated that his party is ready to take such a step "if Scholz continues to oppose the supply of heavy weapons."

This could be a "signal to overthrow the chancellor," explains Spiegel, saying that after the beginning of the Russian invasion in February, the CDU promised to support Scholz's course to help Ukraine and "not to cling to trifles."

However, that situation is now changing – especially "given Scholz's criticism from his own ranks (from coalition members).” This means that the CDU's initiative to support Ukraine with heavy weaponry may even win a majority in the Bundestag, Spiegel said. Bild also describes possible procedural nuances in the German parliament, stating that one way or another Scholz may face a vote of no confidence in the government. In turn, this threatens Germany with a "significant state crisis – and in the midst of the largest foreign policy crisis in decades," Spiegel reported.

Ukraine's position in the Scholz scandal and supplies from Germany

Meanwhile, Ukrainian diplomats and officials in Kyiv have been urging Germany to give a green light to the supply or sale of heavy weapons to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk said Scholz's position was "very disappointing" for Kyiv. He called on the German government to "play with open cards on this very important issue, instead of giving us the go-around.”

"It remains unclear whether the Bundeswehr can to supply anything to Ukraine," Melnyk said, adding that the German army has more than 400 Marder infantry fighting vehicles, of which only about a hundred are used only for training and military drills, and therefore, they could be transferred to Ukraine immediately.

"The supply of self-propelled howitzers (Panzerhaubitze 2000) could also be crucial,” Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany stated, noting that Germany has about 120 long-range artillery weapons. In Melnyk’s opinion "every next delay (of weapons) will cost many lives."

On April 19, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also criticized Germany for not helping Ukraine.

"Germany can do much more,” Kuleba began.

“We expect the German government to make a decision that allows the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine.”

The Foreign Minister urged Germany and France to follow the example of the United States, which has already announced several aid packages to Ukraine, including heavy artillery, helicopters, drones, armored vehicles, and other weapons.

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