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Germany defiant that ‘lockstep’ with US on weapons is the best for Ukraine | Olaf Scholz

The German government is defiant, arguing that a phased approach to arms transfers is the best way to support Ukraine and the only way it can do so while preserving its domestic public. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s allies accuse his critics of being “dedicated” to making him a scapegoat.

Last week, the German leader faced mounting criticism from international and domestic partners over a drawn-out decision to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks, which are made in Germany and require Berlin’s permission to re-export from other countries.

The impasse over tanks was only broken last Wednesday, when Washington announced that it would also send 31 of its own Abrams tanks to Ukraine, fulfilling a condition reportedly insisted on by Berlin for the release of the Leopard 2.

This step-by-step logic, apparently followed to avoid singling out Germany as an aggressor in the eyes of the Kremlin, has been criticized because it appears to call into question the security guarantees provided by Article 5 of NATO’s founding charter.

Scholz turning point last February’s speech sparked hopes in other European capitals that Berlin would take a bolder military initiative in the future.

But the view in German government circles is that close coordination is still needed to shore up wavering domestic support for Europe’s largest economy arming Ukraine.

“The government risks losing public support if we follow the example of people who criticize the chancellor from the outside,” said one government official. “We want to be able to support Ukraine until the very end. And that means we need to keep people on board.”

Opinion polls have shown that the German public is evenly divided on whether its government should send battle tanks to support Ukraine or not, with signs of a transition to marginal support only in the last two weeks.

A ZDF public broadcaster poll released on Friday found that 54% of those polled said the delivery of the Leopard 2 tanks was correct, while 38% were critical of the move. However, in the states of the former socialist East, the figures were approximately the opposite.

A rally demanding the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine
Ukrainians rally in Brussels demanding the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine. The protest took place last week during a meeting of EU foreign ministers. Photo: Olivier Joslet/EPA

Party allies of the Social Democrat Scholz draw parallels with the former SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who in 1979 pushed for a NATO two-pronged decision, under which the United States pledged to increase its military presence in Europe.

Keeping a cool head and ignoring his hysterical detractors, they argue that Scholz’s methodical negotiations brought Kyiv a net benefit. “The result is probably better than anyone who wanted tanks to go to Ukraine expected,” the official said.

Criticism of Scholz’s procrastination came from his Greens and junior coalition partners in the Liberal Party, as well as EU allies such as Poland, whose pursuit of Berlin some German commentators have dismissed as a motive for this fall’s elections.

Last week, Germany sent the first two of three Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems to be deployed near the Polish-Ukrainian border to prevent accidental missile strikes. Warsaw initially rejected the proposal, but then accepted it after a public outcry.

“There is a great desire to use Germany as a scapegoat,” the official said. “There are others who are storytellers who may not have a very good understanding of what we are doing, or may not necessarily be very friendly to us or genuinely care about our best interests.”

But even those in Germany who welcome Leopard 2 deliveries lamented the chancellor’s communications strategy, which often left the public trying to guess his logic until solutions were announced.

Scholz’s opacity has also fueled 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 telephone conversations. Scholz’s representatives deny this.

In the months following the Russian invasion, officials now say Berlin kept part of its arms shipments secret because it had intelligence about Moscow’s plans to attack or sabotage the delivery routes. In July last year, the government released a list of the supplied equipment. Germany has become the world’s third largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine.

However, keeping his position in negotiations with international partners as confidential as possible remains Scholz’s guiding principle. It is believed that eliminating solutions too early narrows the space for compromise.

In the chancellor’s offices across from the Reichstag in central Berlin, the old adage (incorrectly) attributed to Bismarck is circulating again: “If you like laws and sausages, never watch them being made.”

“If every step were broadcast live, it would jeopardize the sausage-making process, because sometimes it’s not very pleasant and could alienate people or undermine confidence in the institutions of democracy itself,” said one German government insider. “Sometimes I feel like people could focus a little more on the quality of the sausage.”

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