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9 June 2022

“Merkel’s policy of not arming Ukraine failed”: top CDU official on Germany and Russia

Jürgen Hardt, the foreign affairs spokesperson for Germany’s main opposition party, also blames Olaf Scholz for not being hard enough.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Vladimir Putin should not be offered a “face-saving solution” to the war in Ukraine, a leading figure in Germany’s opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has said. Criticising Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Jürgen Hardt, the CDU’s foreign affairs spokesperson, told the New Statesman that Germany should be going further on weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

In April, Germany reversed its long-standing policy, begun under the former CDU chancellor Angela Merkel, of not sending heavy weapons to Ukraine. “This year,” said Hardt, “we saw that [Germany’s] strategy of de-escalating the conflict by not arming the Ukrainian armed forces failed.”

But the Scholz government has come under increasing criticism for what observers see as an unwillingness to fully commit to Kyiv’s cause. Hardt criticised Scholz for his refusal to state that Ukraine should prevail against Russia, which he blamed on the pacifist faction within the governing Social Democrats (SPD). “I would appreciate if the chancellor would say that [Ukraine] has no reason not to win the war.” The chancellor was not politically strong enough to counter the “pacifists” and people with “romantic feelings about Russia” within his party, Hardt said.

“I think Olaf Scholz has to make sure that he clearly supports Ukraine, even if some of his colleagues in the Social Democratic party would like a smoother approach [towards Moscow]… it is not our obligation to find a face-saving solution for Putin,” Hardt added.

Scholz recently claimed that “nobody supplies [weapons] on a similar scale as Germany does”, an assertion met with much bafflement by critics of the chancellor, who point to the far more significant arms deliveries from other big countries such as the US and UK.

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“We are challenging the government because we think that more can be done in the field of military equipment. We think the German government was too reluctant and too slow to take the decisions it now has taken,” Hardt said. The Panzerhaubitze 2000 (PzH 2000), a German-made howitzer, could be sent to Ukraine in greater numbers, he added. Ukraine has received seven PzH 2000s from Germany, though the country has around 100 in stock.

One of the reasons Scholz has expressed a reluctance to supply weapons to Kyiv has been a fear that the German army would be under-equipped if it sent materiel to Ukraine. If this worry is well founded, responsibility for it lies primarily with the CDU, which led Germany’s governments from 2005 to 2021. Under the CDU-led government, Berlin was long criticised by allies for persistent underinvestment in its armed forces.

[See also: Shadows of the First World War loom over Germany’s ambiguous response to Russia]

Hardt blames the SPD, which was the junior partner in most of the CDU’s governing coalitions, for this. “We tried to push through a programme for rearmament of the Bundeswehr [armed forces] amounting to 2 per cent of GDP – as Nato mandates – but this was unfortunately not possible with the Social Democrats in the last parliamentary session.” The CDU had almost 100 MPs more in the 2017-21 Bundestag than the SPD (out of 709).

“The main mistake we made was that we were not able to readjust the procurement process for the equipment of the armed forces, so that we would be able to decide faster and earlier to rearm,” Hardt explained. The Bundestag recently approved a historic rise in military spending in response to the Russian invasion, a move Scholz characterised as a Zeitenwende, a turning point in history.

The CDU was wrong not to diversify Germany’s energy supply away from Russian energy while it led the country, Hardt admitted, though he claimed that it would have been politically impossible. “There was no political support in Germany for the diversification of gas supply because it was clear that this might be more costly [for German consumers],” Hardt said. He added that the SPD “were totally against [liquefied natural gas, LNG] because they appreciated having this Russian gas”, while the Green party, which was not part of the last German government, opposed imports of LNG from the US on environmental grounds.

Merkel’s decision to shutter Germany’s nuclear power plants, taken in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, was framed by Hardt in similar terms. “From today’s point of view, it was wrong. But up to February of this year, 80 per cent of the German population supported leaving nuclear, [a figure] which was constant over decades.” It would have been politically difficult to keep nuclear power as part of Germany’s energy mix before Russia invaded Ukraine, he said.

Germany gets about half of its imports of natural gas from Russia, the primary reason why Berlin has signalled opposition to an EU embargo. Hardt claimed that an embargo “will not stop Russia’s war against Ukraine because the money that Russia, or Putin, earns now by selling gas is not used for the actual running of the war”.

In the narrowest sense, the receipts of Gazprom – the Russian state-owned energy company – from energy exports are not used for the day-to-day war effort. However, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, recently said that the EU has paid Russia €35bn for energy since the war broke out, compared with €1bn in aid to Ukraine. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a think tank, concluded in a recent report that: “The inflow of cash worth hundreds of millions of euros per day [to Moscow] has supported the rouble exchange rate and weakened the effect of the sanctions.”

Claiming that the behaviour of authoritarian countries could be moderated though trade was Germany’s policy under Merkel. Hardt said that the same attitude would work with China, another authoritarian world power. Beijing “has an interest in not harming trade relations with Europe, North America and Japan”, he said.

When I asked Hardt why the same policy that failed to turn Russia into a good-faith member of the international community should be expected to succeed with China, he pointed to higher volumes of trade with the People’s Republic. “We don’t only import low-quality products from China but also high technology,” unlike with Russia, where crude oil and natural gas accounted for 59 per cent of exports to Germany in 2021.

It would be bad for European consumers if trade with China was reduced, Hardt argued. “Decoupling in trade would result in lower welfare, fewer benefits and less effectiveness, which is why it would need to be conducted in a deliberate and well-organised manner. Every reduction of trade with China due to security issues or moral issues might result in more ineffective and more costly processes in Europe. This trade-off needs to be taken into account.”

Unlike imports of energy, which are difficult to replace, Hardt said that substitutes could easily be found for many supplies from Chinese companies, if necessary – in practice, a green light for Germany to continue trading freely with China. “There are economic spheres where we can become independent from China very fast if we want to, because it’s only in practice a question of cost,” he said.

Even as Germany grapples with the consequences of a decades-long interdependence with one authoritarian country, one of its ruling parties has yet to fully learn the lessons when dealing with another.

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