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Pressure mounts on Germany’s Scholz to send tanks to Ukraine

The warning shots are getting closer and louder.

In a heated parliamentary session on Thursday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz received stark signals from his coalition partners that they expect him to ramp up weapons supplies to Ukraine at what is becoming an increasingly critical inflection point of the war.

While his government coalition bought him a little more time in the Bundestag debate and temporarily fended off a critical parliamentary motion expressing a lack of faith in his military support for Ukraine, it is now looking more and more likely Scholz will have to respond to the calls for Europe’s biggest economy to pull its weight when it comes to arming Kyiv more decisively.

Witheringly, opposition lawmaker Florian Hahn from the center-right Christian Social Union fumed that Germany was only “number 18 in the world” when comparing its military aid for Ukraine relative to the economic output. Hahn noted that Estonia was far ahead of Germany in supplying arms instead of keeping them for national defense, “even though they have a direct border with the Russian Federation.”

The center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) opposition block had requested a vote on a Bundestag motion that urges the government to “immediately” allow the export of German battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine. That would have been tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in Scholz’s Ukraine strategy, since the chancellor has repeatedly ruled out such deliveries as long as other Western allies don’t deliver similar heavy gear.

The opposition’s maneuver was particularly dangerous for Scholz and his Social Democratic Party (SPD) because leading politicians from his coalition partners, the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), have also demanded the delivery of German Leopard battle tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles.

Timing is now of the essence. Ukraine is appealing for more weapons as it launches bold counter-offensives against the Russian invaders in the east and south of the country, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is vowing to throw hundreds of thousands of new soldiers into the conflict and is holding fake referendums in occupied territories to incorporate them into Russia.

A vote on weapons deliveries in the Bundestag would have risked revealing fatal cracks in the government unity and could even have led to a defeat of Scholz in parliament.

Following a heated 50-minute debate, however, the majority of SPD, Greens and FDP lawmakers voted to send the opposition’s motion to the foreign affairs and economic affairs committees for further discussion. That effectively delays a plenary vote on the text for a few weeks.

Still, the government now also faces the risk of renewed pressure next week as the opposition “could request a plenary vote” on another tanks-for-Ukraine motion that the CDU/CSU initially put forward in June but which was also delayed at the time by delegating it to committee level, the CDU’s Roderich Kiesewetter told POLITICO.

The SPD’s foreign policy spokesperson Nils Schmid argued that Thursday’s delay of the vote was justified because the opposition was merely orchestrating a political attack, hoping to weaken the government’s unity.

Scholz, who was not present at the debate, had said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday that Germany would support Ukraine “with all its might: financially, economically, with humanitarian aid and also with weapons.”

Pressure from coalition partners

The most striking part of Thursday’s debate was the intensity of criticism from within the ranks of Scholz’s own coalition. Senior lawmakers from the Greens and FDP expressed clear disapproval of the chancellor’s position and stressed that they want Germany to send more heavy arms.

“As Free Democrats, we believe that in the current military situation, in which Ukraine is reclaiming its territory, piece by piece, we must supply at least the Fuchs armored transport vehicle and the Marder infantry fighting vehicle — and if the situation requires it, the Leopard main battle tank as well,” said the FDP’s Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Bundestag’s defense committee.

Crucially, Strack-Zimmermann cited the “Zeitenwende” — a historic shift in German foreign and security policy that Scholz announced in February in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — to argue that Scholz shouldn’t justify his reluctance to send tanks by arguing that other allies like the U.S. weren’t sending modern tanks to Ukraine either.

“Zeitenwende doesn’t just mean doing more for the German armed forces, it also means taking leadership and not waiting for our partners to take uncomfortable decisions from us,” she said.

The Greens’ co-leader Omid Nouripour delivered a broadside against concerns among Social Democrats that the delivery of tanks to Ukraine could trigger an “irrational” escalation by Putin — a fear that was most recently expressed by the SPD’s Secretary General Kevin Kühnert.

“There are arguments that I cannot follow,” Nouripour told the Bundestag. “That our weapons would lead to an escalation presupposes that the Russian side needs excuses for escalation. That is grotesque. Of course they don’t need excuses, the aggression is there,” Nouripour said in reference to Putin’s announcement on Wednesday to mobilize up to 300,000 reservists.

Spent cartridges at a former position of Russian troops in the Kharkiv area, Ukraine, September 22, 2022 | Oleksandr Ratushniak/EPA-EFE

Moving up from No. 18

Germany has so far sent 30 Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, 10 Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers and three Mars multiple rocket launchers, as well as various lighter weapons, to Ukraine, according to a government list.

Following growing pressure at home and from allies, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht announced last week that Berlin would also send 50 “Dingo” armored vehicles and two more Mars rocket launchers — contradicting her own arguments from a few days earlier that Germany could not spare any further weapons in support of Ukraine.

Still, despite these increases, Johann Wadephul, deputy chair of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, argued that Germany had a historical and moral obligation to step up its support for Ukraine.

“If, in the light of mass graves in Bucha and Izium, we are serious in saying: ‘Never again! Germany must ensure that something never happens again’ — then we have to go a decisive step further here,” he said.

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