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BERLIN — Olaf Scholz has taken recently to giving history lessons. Unfortunately for him, they’re the wrong ones.
“I’m not Kaiser Wilhelm!” Scholz, referring to German Emperor Wilhelm II, has repeatedly declared behind closed doors in recent weeks, triggering a flurry of head scratching and Wikipedia searches.
A grandson of Queen Victoria, Wilhelm is best remembered outside Germany for his elaborate whiskers, pointy headgear and — by the British upper class — for wearing the wrong yachting shoes at Cowes.
In Germany, however, he’s the man whose bumbling foreign policy, in particular an alliance with Austria-Hungary, triggered World War I and by extension the disastrous rise of Hitler. For Germans, Wilhelm is less caricature than cautionary tale.
At a time when Germany’s Western allies have been increasingly baffled by its tortured explanations for not sending more potent military aid to Ukraine, Scholz’s fixation on Wilhelm helps explain why the chancellor, as Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, puts it, has left his country “in the lurch.”
By invoking Wilhelm, Scholz is not just signaling to Germans that he won’t stumble into a wider conflict — he is also implying that he’s saving them from nuclear annihilation.
“There must be no nuclear war,” Scholz told Der Spiegel in April. “The consequences of a mistake would be dramatic.”
Not surprisingly, the specter of a nuclear holocaust has proved to be an effective tactic in muddying the waters. Even as a majority of Germans (58 percent) voice support for sending heavy weaponry to Ukraine, half also believe Scholz, who has been ambivalent on the issue, has managed the crisis well. And while there is no shortage of German peace initiatives and even pro-Russian demonstrations, Germans have yet to take to the streets to support sending tanks to Ukraine.
The German parliament passed a resolution in April to deliver heavy weaponry to Ukraine, but Scholz has yet to send anything but promises and mixed signals. The defense ministry says it will deliver 15 anti-aircraft tanks by the end of July and another 15 by the end of August. Trouble is, the Germans have very little ammunition for the tanks, known as Gepards, which the Bundeswehr phased out more than a decade ago.
The irony is that Ukraine didn’t even ask for Gepards, which are of limited use in its current struggle to push Russia out of the country. What it did ask to buy from Germany are so-called Marder infantry fighting vehicles, tanks used to shuttle troops on the battlefield.
Ukraine made a request to acquire the decommissioned tanks, which requires government approval, with Rheinmetall, the German defense contractor, on March 24, according to documentation seen by POLITICO.
On April 14, Rheinmetall offered to sell Ukraine up to 100 refurbished Marders and 1.5 million rounds of ammunition for €153 million, according to the documents. It said the first batch could be ready “within a few weeks.”
Six weeks later, as the Russians push ever further into Ukraine’s Donbas region, Berlin has yet to green-light the sale.
Instead, Scholz announced a tank swap deal with Greece on Tuesday under which Marder tanks get sent to Athens, while the Greek military in return sends its very old Soviet-era BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine. There’s no indication that Kyiv would get any of the more modern Marder vehicles any time soon.
Meanwhile, Scholz, who last week toured troublespots in Mali and other parts of Africa, won’t set foot in Ukraine. He also steadfastly refuses to say he wants Ukraine to “win” the war, saying only that it should “survive” and that “Russia must not win.”
That follows confusion last month over Scholz’s Twitter summary of a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he said he demanded an immediate cease-fire without insisting that Russia leave Ukraine first. Last weekend, Scholz sowed even more doubt about Germany’s resolve when he shared his musings over whether war could resolve conflict.
“Can violence be fought with violence?” he tweeted. “Can peace be achieved without weapons?”
His rhetorical gymnastics have led some observers to conclude he may really fear a Ukrainian victory.
“The chancellor does not want Ukraine to win the war,” Roderich Kiesewetter, a prominent conservative MP and retired German army colonel, said last week.
Asked by POLITICO if he shared that assessment, Ukraine’s Melnyk said he no longer knew what to think.
“I don’t want to believe that he doesn’t want us to win but we don’t really know,” he said.
The conventional wisdom in Berlin holds that Scholz doesn’t want to “provoke” Putin, with whom he continues to hold regular telephone conversations. The only question is, provoke him to do what exactly?
What seems to be lost on most Germans is that they’re exposed to Putin’s wrath whether they send their old tanks to Kyiv or not for one simple reason: Germany’s NATO allies are sending everything it won’t. Poland alone has sent hundreds of battle tanks.
A deputy German defense minister created a stir last week by justifying Berlin’s heavy weapons embargo with the specious claim that NATO had agreed not to send Western-made battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine. The assertion was quickly dispelled.
Like Kaiser Wilhelm before him, Scholz appears to be trying to shield Germans from less pleasant realities.
Chief among them is that Putin’s real nuclear option when it comes to Germany isn’t a missile strike, but to switch off access to the cheap natural gas that fuels its economic engine.
For all the talk in Germany about building more windmills and constructing floating liquefied natural gas terminals (an undertaking that will take years), losing Russian gas, which is considerably cheaper and easier to distribute than all other alternatives, would ravage the foundations of Germany’s industrial base. Natural gas accounts for a quarter of Germany’s energy mix. Of that, industry consumes the lion’s share, with chemical-makers alone accounting for more than 15 percent of gas consumption.
Many of Germany’s biggest employers, such as gas giant BASF, which consumes as much electricity at its main plant as all of Denmark, cannot continue operating without gas. And without the solvents, glues and plastics that BASF produces, much of the rest of German industry, from pharmaceuticals to cars, would be thrown into disarray.
Germany championed an EU embargo of Russian oil, which the Council approved this week, not because it believes it will hurt Russia, but because it knows it won’t. Russia will sell the oil elsewhere, likely for less, but the financial fallout for Moscow will be limited.
The recent surge in oil prices has already provided Putin with a windfall, making crude significantly more lucrative to Russia than natural gas.
The beauty of the EU’s Russian oil ban for Germany is that it is a highly symbolic move that will make it easier for Berlin to continue to resist what it most fears: a natural gas embargo.
Both Putin and Scholz know that for the foreseeable future, Germany will be more dependent on Russia than vice-versa.
Against that backdrop, Scholz’s stance toward Ukraine makes complete sense.
He doesn’t like what’s happening in Ukraine any more than other European leaders, but he can live with it. Just like Scholz and his Social Democrats, Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats could live with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas, the downing of MH-17 in 2014, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in 2020, etc, etc.
Instead of just admitting that he’s acting in what he believes to be Germany’s best interests, Scholz, a former finance minister, responds to criticism of Germany’s approach to Ukraine like a bean counter.
There’s no question that Germany has made a significant contribution to Ukraine, both in terms of financial and humanitarian aid. Yet there’s also no question that as Europe’s richest country and preeminent political force, it should be doing much more to help Kyiv defend itself. That’s particularly true considering that Germany’s soft approach to Putin over the years contributed to the current crisis by signaling that he would face few consequences by moving on Ukraine.
Scholz’s approach is not only damaging to Ukraine, it also is undermining Germany’s already tenuous standing within the NATO alliance.
That’s why the German chancellor would do well to focus less on the troubled record of Kaiser Wilhelm and more on the legacy of World War II.
In the summer of 1941, German troops swept across the Eurasian steppe, carving a deep scar of destruction in Ukraine that turned Europe’s breadbasket into what historian Timothy Snyder memorably dubbed “bloodlands.”
As Ukraine bleeds anew, Scholz’s Germany stands to be remembered for doing exactly what it has pledged in the decades since its “liberation” from the Nazis it wouldn’t: nothing.