Germany still a ‘teenager’ on leading foreign security policy, says Scholz’s top aide

Wolfgang Schmidt asks for patience from allies urging his country to head efforts to support Ukraine

Russia-Ukraine war: latest updates

Germany is still a “teenager” when it comes to foreign security policy, its chancellor Olaf Scholz’s chief of staff has said, asking for patience from western allies urging Europe’s largest economy to take a more proactive leadership in its support of Ukraine.

“We are getting into a situation that Americans have known for decades: people want us to lead,” said Wolfgang Schmidt, a longstanding ally of Scholz who also serves as the political point of contact for the country’s intelligence agencies.

“We are in the teenager years in that role,” he said, responding to criticism that Berlin has been slow to live up to the Zeitenwende or “epochal turn” on military and foreign policy Scholz had declared in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We are not yet an adult when it comes to foreign security policy. In teenager years you have a lot of hormones, there’s a lot of overshooting and shouting, you are not very sure of yourself and don’t know where your place is.”

Schmidt, who has rarely appeared in public since being appointed minister of special affairs last December, was speaking on a panel with the US historian Anne Applebaum that was chaired by the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, at a summit of progressive politicians and thinktanks in Berlin on Thursday.

The Social Democrat, who has been Scholz’s right-hand man through his tenure as mayor of Hamburg, German finance minister and now chancellor, denied that his government was failing to pull its weight in military terms.

“Germany is now the third largest supplier of military equipment to Ukraine, after the US and the UK,” Schmidt said at the Berlin Progressive Governance Summit. “I am not willing to accept that people are singling out and blaming Germany. That is a collective decision neither the French, the Brits, the Canadians nor the Americans are doing. No one is delivering their modern battle tanks to Ukraine.”

Schmidt said some of his government’s critics were suffering from what he called the “V2 syndrome”, after the long-range ballistic missile the Nazis employed in the final year of the second world war.

“Everybody wants to have this war end the sooner the better, so everybody is looking for the magic wand that makes that happen,” he said. “Sometimes I am tempted to call it the ‘V2 syndrome’, that we think there is this wonder weapon that will make things go away. But it won’t. There is no magic wand that will end the war.”

While Berlin understood that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was asking for any military support his country could get in its defence against Russian forces, Schmidt said there were red lines that not just Germany but the US and other Nato states would not overstep, such as a no-fly zone or supplying rocket launcher ammunition that could reach Russian territories.

“There’s a 99% alignment with what Zelenskiy wants and Nato members want,” said Schmidt. “But there’s one [per cent] difference. From Zelenskiy’s point of view, it makes perfect sense to have Nato involved directly. From our perspective, it looks a little bit different.”

In an address shown before the debate, Scholz had accused Vladimir Putin of waging “a crusade against our way of life”, in a shift of rhetoric days after heavy Russian missile strikes hit major Ukrainian cities.

“They consider their war against Ukraine to be part of a larger crusade,” Scholz said in the video address. “A crusade against liberal democracy, a crusade against the rules-based international order, a crusade against freedom and progress, a crusade against our way of life.”

Scholz’s language was uncharacteristically strong for a politician who has in the past highlighted the risk of firing up the conflict to Germany’s east through careless bellicose rhetoric.

His speech reverses an analogy made by Putin in 2011 when he accused the west’s resolution to militarily intervene in the first Libyan civil war of resembling “medieval calls for crusades”. Those remarks were heavily criticised at the time, including from the then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, who said such comments could “lead to a clash of civilisations”.

Scholz’s remarks come two days after Germany delivered the first of four long-promised Iris-T air defence systems to Ukraine on Tuesday, which Ukrainian government officials hailed as ringing in “a new era of air defence”.

In his address, Scholz appealed for liberal democracies in the west to show a united front against Russian aggression rather than “indulge in what Sigmund Freud once called ‘the narcissism of small differences’”.

Those comments could cause frustration among Germany’s neighbours, as European leaders have in recent days accused Berlin of undermining solidarity by introducing a cap on gas prices at home while opposing an EU-wide price cap scheme.

“The richest country, the most powerful EU country is trying to use this crisis to gain a competitive advantage for their businesses on the single market,” the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said. “This is not fair, this is not how the single market should work.”


Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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