By Sarah Marsh and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) – “Scholzology” – the art of understanding German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decisions – is in vogue as critics at home and abroad question his reluctance to supply the German-made battle tanks Ukraine wants to repulse Russian forces.
His hesitation reflects a caution driven in part by Germany’s military aggression in the last century and concern about the possible consequences of ramping up shipments of armour to Ukraine.
Still, many Germans feel Scholz is not doing a very good job of explaining his thinking.
“This isn’t sustainable,” said Marcel Dirsus of Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy. “Voters have a right to know where their chancellor stands on an issue as important as this and the country’s reputation is melting down.”
Germany is already the second-biggest donor of military hardware to Ukraine after the United States, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, ahead of other European powers such as France and the United Kingdom.
The German-made Leopard 2 is widely seen as the best choice to equip Ukraine with a large Western tank force and give it an edge in possible upcoming offensives.
Several European countries have indicated they would like to send Kyiv some of their own Leopards.
But for that, they need approval from the German government, which has so far sent mixed messages over whether it would do so.
Poland on Tuesday said it had submitted a formal request asking Germany to allow the re-export of some of its Leopards to Ukraine, and a German government official said Berlin would handle the request with urgency.
Any final decisions lie with Scholz, whose ruling Social Democrats (SPD) have traditionally been sceptical of military involvements and favoured engagement with Russia.
Scholz has so far neither said he would give the green light nor if he would send tanks from Germany. Instead he insisted on the need to act in close coordination with allies, especially Washington.
Government aides have given a plethora of reasons for the hesitancy – not all of which stand up to scrutiny, analysts say.
A main reason given is that Russia could see the deliveries of tanks as tantamount to Germany becoming a party to conflict. This could lead to an escalation, the thinking goes.
The Kremlin would be less inclined to retaliate if another nuclear power such as the United States also sent tanks. Thus Germany should only send tanks in lockstep with Washington, the chancellery’s argument goes.
Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said this was a “strange perception”.
“Sometimes I have a bit of an impression that Scholz has lost sight of the fact that Germany is actually part of the NATO alliance,” he said.
An attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on all and would trigger a joint response.
Also on Tuesday, two U.S. officials told Reuters that Washington appeared to dropping its opposition to sending M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine – a move that could encourage Germany to follow.
WEIGHT OF HISTORY?
Another reason for caution cited by aides is the fear of sensitive Western technology ending up in Russian hands. But Russia likely already has a good understanding of the capabilities of the older Leopard 2s due to espionage and tanks Turkey lost in Syria, the ECFR’s Rafael Loss said.
The consultancy Eurointelligence questioned if he wanted to leave open the possibility of a reset of German-Russian relations after the war, given Germany industry’s previous heavy reliance on cheap Russian energy.
Germany’s new defence minister Boris Pistorius denied last Friday that Berlin was unilaterally blocking the delivery of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, saying allied consensus was needed and they were weighing all the pros and cons.
History is also a main reason analysts give for Scholz’s generally cautious leadership in military matters.
Germany has shied away from getting involved in conflict since World War Two although it carried out its first overseas combat mission since then in 1999 when it joined NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. It then deployed the second largest military contingent in Afghanistan after the United States.
Berlin, and especially the SPD, has been hesitant about providing weapons to be used against Russian troops, given the millions of Soviet soldiers and citizens who died fighting the Nazis – a history often alluded to by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Already, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Germany to overcome taboos such as exporting arms to war zones. Huge public debate was unleashed every time the government crossed a new red line, for example by exporting heavy weapons.
Polls suggest only a third to 46% of Germans favour supplying tanks.
SPD sources and analysts say Scholz could get into problems with the more pacifist, leftist faction of his party if he moves too quickly – even if this causes frustration with coalition partners.
“There is a necessity for him to demonstrate that he has tried everything, saying: ‘I’ve tried dialogue but unfortunately we now have to provide this weapons system’,” said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in German studies at King’s College London.
Either way, German government aides also say there is not as much consensus on the issue as portrayed in the media.
French President Emmanuel Macron echoed some of Berlin’s concerns on Sunday, saying allies had to make a decision on tanks jointly, ensuring it did not escalate the conflict or weaken Europe’s own defence capabilities.
Some governments are hitting on Berlin for domestic political gains – especially Poland, where the ruling nationalists are seeking to shore up votes before an election this year, German government aides say.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Andreas Rinke; Additional Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Angus MacSwan)