Germany’s government is defiant, maintaining that its lockstep approach to weapons deliveries is the best way to support Ukraine, and the only way it can do so while keeping its domestic public on side. Allies of Chancellor Olaf Scholz accuse his critics of being “dedicated” to making him a scapegoat.
The German leader faced mounting criticism last week from international and domestic partners over the protracted decision to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks, which are made in Germany and required authorisation by Berlin for re-export from other countries.
A deadlock on the tanks question was broken only last Wednesday, when Washington announced it would also send 31 of its own Abrams tanks to Ukraine, meeting a condition Berlin had reportedly insisted on for releasing the Leopard 2.
This “lockstep” logic, seemingly followed to avoid Germany being singled out as an aggressor in the eyes of the Kremlin, has been criticised since it appears to question the security guarantee provided by article 5 of Nato’s founding charter.
Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech in February last year had raised expectations in other European capitals that Berlin would, in future, take a bolder initiative on military questions.
But the view in German government circles is that close coordination remains necessary to shore up fluctuating domestic support for Europe’s largest economy arming Ukraine.
“The government would risk losing public support if we were to follow the example of people criticising the chancellor from the sidelines,” one government official said. “We want to be able to support Ukraine until the very end. And that means we need to keep the people on board.”
Opinion polls have shown the German public evenly divided over whether its government should send battle tanks to support Ukraine or not, with signs of a shift to a marginally supportive position only over the past two weeks.
A poll by public broadcaster ZDF published on Friday had 54% of those surveyed saying it was right to deliver Leopard 2 tanks and 38% critical of the step. In the states of the formerly socialist east, however, the figures were roughly reversed.
Party allies of the Social Democrat Scholz draw parallels to the former SPD chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who in 1979 pushed for the Nato double-track decision that saw the US committing to a heightened military presence in Europe.
By keeping a cool head and ignoring his hysterical detractors, they argue that Scholz’s methodical negotiating has produced a net positive for Kyiv. “The outcome is probably better than what any of those who wanted to see tanks going to Ukraine would have expected,” an official said.
Criticism of Scholz’s procrastination has come from within his Green and liberal party junior coalition partners but also from allies in the EU such as Poland, whose harrying of Berlin some German commentators have dismissed as being motivated by elections coming up this autumn.
Last week, Germany dispatched the first two of three Patriot air defence units that are to be set up near Poland’s border with Ukraine to prevent stray missile strikes, an offer that Warsaw initially rejected but then accepted after a public outcry.
“There is a lot of dedication to using Germany as a scapegoat,” the official said. “There are others shaping the narrative, having maybe not much understanding of what we are doing, or not necessarily being very friendly towards us or having our best interests at heart.”
But even those in Germany who welcome the Leopard 2 deliveries have bemoaned the chancellor’s communication strategy, which has frequently left the public trying to guess his logic until decisions are announced.
Scholz’s opacity has also created speculation as to his motives and allowed conspiracy theories to flourish, such as the idea that Vladimir Putin directly threatened the German chancellor with a nuclear attack in one of their phone calls. Scholz’s officials deny this.
In the first months after Russia’s invasion, officials now say, Berlin kept some of its weapons deliveries confidential because it had intelligence of Moscow’s plans to attack or sabotage delivery routes. The government made a list of delivered hardware public last July. Germany has become the world’s third-largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine.
Nonetheless, keeping his own stance in negotiations with international partners as private as possible has remained a guiding principle for Scholz. Ruling out solutions too early shrinks the room for compromise, the view goes.
In the chancellor’s offices opposite the Reichstag in central Berlin, an old saying (mis)attributed to Bismarck is again making the rounds: “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”
“If there was live reporting on every step of the way it would endanger the process of sausage-making, because sometimes it’s not very pleasant and might turn people away or undermine trust in the institutions of democracy itself,” one German government insider said. “I sometimes feel people could focus a little more on the quality of the sausage.”