As endorsements go, this one was strained enough to be devastating. It came near the end of last week’s press conference by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, just after top brass from 50 countries had met at a US airbase in Germany to coordinate their military support to Ukraine. Austin was asked whether Germany was still a reliable ally.
He instead detoured to another topic, and another. But the question hung in the air too thickly. Nudging himself, Austin eventually said as diplomatically as he could: “They are a reliable ally. They’ve been that way for a very, very long time. And I truly believe that they’ll continue to be a reliable ally.”
Just one day earlier, it has emerged, Austin had been in the Berlin office of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in a long and tense confrontation with Scholz’s chief of staff, Wolfgang Schmidt. That standoff followed a phone call to Germany from US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, in which he purportedly read the Germans “the riot act.”
Behind closed doors, therefore, the Americans are somewhere between frustrated, perplexed and livid — and very much wondering whether the Germans are reliable allies. Moreover, they’re hardly the only ones. The Poles, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians and others are even angrier. The Ukrainians are aghast.
What’s got them so irate is the stubborn refusal by Scholz to make a decision on supplying Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks. These are made in Germany and used by the armies of more than a dozen Western countries. In total, there are more than 2,000 to go around.
Ukraine has been pleading for Leopards since last spring, and allies have been urging Germany to say yes since the summer. The Ukrainians must be able not only to defend themselves against Russian missile attacks, say, but also to maneuver against and around the invasion army, and to retake territories the Russians have occupied. For that, they’ll require armored fighting vehicles, which the Americans, French and Germans are now sending. But they’ll also need the big beasts, the so-called “main battle tanks.”
So Germany could supply some of its own Leopards. Or it could grant re-export licenses to other countries eager to send their tanks, such as Poland, which this week formally made the request. Scholz could even build a consortium of allied nations. That would also show the leadership that Americans and Europeans have long been demanding from Germany — and that Scholz during his campaign in 2021 promised.
But there’s been none of that. In his idiosyncratic combination of stubbornness and coyness, Scholz has said neither yes nor no, nor taken any initiative to break the logjam. Nor has he explained his thinking, instead reciting ad nauseam the same hackneyed tropes.
One is that Germany must never act unilaterally but can only help Ukraine in coordination with allies. This has become a joke, since those very allies keep begging Germany to act. In reality, Scholz has been using this bromide to justify Germany forever being a follower instead of a leader — and specifically, to rationalize hiding behind the Americans.
What made Austin and Sullivan especially mad, for example, is that Scholz in effect tried to set them conditions, tying delivery of Leopards to simultaneous shipments of American M1 Abrams tanks. Maybe the US should indeed send a few — the Brits, too, are giving the Ukrainians some of their Challenger 2s. But the Abrams is harder to operate than the Leopard and runs on jet fuel. And, unlike the Leopard, it’s not already in use throughout Europe. In any case, there’s absolutely no reason why Leopards can only be sent if Abrams are too — even Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, has conceded that.
Another cliche Scholz and his minions have been recycling is that Scholz is only being “prudent.” Does that imply that the other allies are imprudent? More likely, it suggests that Scholz is in the throes of German angst. He appears more afraid than other leaders of Russian President Vladimir Putin escalating to chemical, biological or even nuclear warfare, and he doesn’t want to be the one giving the provocation.
While such escalation can’t be ruled out, it has become unlikely — in part because all the powers that matter, from China to the US, have made clear to Putin that Russian nukes would not be tolerated and would result in his assured demise. In any case, the way to deter a bully like Putin is to show strength, not fear. And it’s unclear why the Germans should worry more about this remote scenario than, say, the Ukrainians, who’d be Putin’s target.
With his dithering, Scholz has therefore done exactly what he pledged to avoid: He has gone it alone, leaving Germany increasingly isolated in the Western alliance. In fact, he’s even isolated himself and his party, the Social Democrats, within the German government. Agnes-Marie Strack-Zimmermann, a leading parliamentarian of the Free Democrats, the junior partners in the coalition, said last week that “history is watching us and Germany has unfortunately failed.” Annalena Baerbock, Scholz’s foreign minister and a member of the Greens, hinted that she wouldn’t stand in the way of Poland sending German-made Leopards.
I still believe that Scholz will eventually “free the Leopards,” as protesters outside his office chanted last week. Even then, however, he’ll once again have appeared so reluctant as to garble the signal that the Ukrainians need to hear — that the united West has their back until they prevail.
In style and approach, Scholz has long emulated his predecessor, Angela Merkel. This isn’t serving him well. Merkel’s Russia policy now looks like appeasement. And the way she made decisions has been mocked as “merkeling” — muddling through without committing. Now scholzing has become a verb too. It means “communicating good intentions, only to use/find/invent any reason imaginable to delay these and/or prevent them.”
If Scholz continues to scholz, he will fail as chancellor. Meanwhile, the question stands: Is Germany a reliable ally? What Lloyd Austin wanted to say but couldn’t is that the answer remains to be seen.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
So We’re In a Polycrisis. Is That Even a Thing?: Andreas Kluth
Is Germany Letting Ukraine Down? It’s Not That Simple: Hal Brands
If Turkey Blocks Sweden and Finland, Will NATO Boot Turkey?: James Stavridis
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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