BERLIN – Olaf Scholz really, really does not want to send Ukraine battle tanks. That is the essence of Germany’s policy on arms exports, once you prune back the limp excuses. One of the more recent ones was for Berlin to insist that it would only send its Leopard 2 tanks, or approve their export by European partners such as Poland, if the US sent tanks of its own.
A new excuse dropped earlier today (20 January) at the summit of Kyiv’s allies at the American air force base in Ramstein, in western Germany. Boris Pistorius, Scholz’s new defence minister, told reporters that no decision had been made on sending the Leopards but that the government would begin cataloguing its stocks of them. Tempting though it is to be drawn into the conundrum of why it took the German government 11 months of full-scale war in Europe to begin this exercise, the simple reality is that Berlin is consciously and deliberately stalling.
When Christine Lambrecht resigned as defence minister this week there were sighs of relief in many European capitals (and Washington). Clearly not up to – or even particularly committed to – the role, she had become an embarrassment. Yet as I wrote in my New Statesman column this week, to attribute Berlin’s foot-dragging over arms exports to Kyiv purely to one poor cabinet appointment was always going to beget disappointment. German reluctance to help Ukraine make further advances in reclaiming its territory from Russia was always about more than that.
Scholz is not stupid. Nor is Pistorius. Nor, for that matter, was Lambrecht. The German chancellor genuinely believes that support for Ukraine beyond the bare diplomatic minimum would be a dangerous provocation to Russia. Those around him fret less about how Ukraine can defeat Vladimir Putin’s attack than about how to restore and stabilise relations with Moscow after peace talks. Such instincts are deeply rooted. They draw on everything from the deep, romantic German affinity with Russia to a misremembered account of the chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, or eastern policy, in the 1970s (which in fact combined diplomatic détente towards the Soviet bloc with a steely commitment to West Germany’s defence capabilities). A profound German fear of nuclear weapons, likewise rooted in the country’s Cold War past, also haunts the chancellery. (For more on this subject, watch out for the New Statesman’s interview with one of Ukraine’s top defence officials Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the national security and defence council, which will be published next week. Danilov discusses, among other things, the roots of German fear of Russia.)
Yet Germany’s approach is misguided on multiple fronts. For one thing, it entirely overlooks the possibility – nay, probability – that constraining Ukraine’s advances might bring its own dangers, that Western “restraint” too can lead to escalation, that an emboldened Putin would likely prove even more reckless than a humbled Putin.
Even on Berlin’s narrow definition of its own interests, it is a dead end. The rest of Europe is starting to steer around Germany. On Wednesday evening Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, said in a radio interview that he could send the tanks without German approval. “Consent is of secondary importance here, we will either obtain this consent quickly, or we will do what is needed ourselves.” Sympathy for this point of view exists in much of eastern and northern Europe and is bound to grow if, as now seems likely, Scholz’s government continues to dither. But the pattern – of going around a Germany that simply seems unable to keep pace with events – is a broader one. On 19 January Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, signed a major treaty in Barcelona, a clear sign that Paris is losing patience with its relatively fruitless alliance with Berlin and is trying to work around it.
This reality has not yet sunk in here in the German capital, where the notion that the rest of Europe might need to move at a pace faster than the lumbering Teutonic giant crosses influential minds all too rarely. This is a city where issuing sonorous proclamations of “responsibility” and the “lessons of history” is often assumed to be the same thing as actually acting on them. Germany’s intransigence is a betrayal of both and is reshaping the geometry of European power and cooperation. Far from being Europe’s leader, it is becoming the great roadblock at the heart of the continent.