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Olaf Scholz gets lost in communication over war in Ukraine

BERLIN — Olaf Scholz promised Germans direct, no-nonsense politics. Yet befuddlement and obfuscation have often reigned since the chancellor started selling his approach to the war in Ukraine. 

In recent months, Scholz has left many scratching their heads with various policy pronouncements, justifications and defenses. Even as the chancellor has helmed a historic military shift for Germany, he has still found himself mired in criticism — often over how he is pitching that epochal change. 

Sometimes, the issue is simply Scholz’s enigmatic sentences — the chancellor long ago earned the nickname “Scholzomat” for his mechanic, austere speaking style. 

Other times, he has been caught over-promising or changing his story. At various points, the chancellor has offered misleading claims about Germany’s aid to Ukraine, given multiple accounts of why he hasn’t visited Kyiv yet and shifted the timelines for important weapons deliveries. 

Most recently, Scholz raised eyebrows with the bold — and untrue — claim that “no one” had supplied Ukraine “on a similar scale as Germany does.”

“You have to be careful that such communication doesn’t come across as strange,” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the German parliament’s defense committee and a member of the Free Democrats (FDP), which governs in a coalition with Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. 

People with knowledge of Scholz’s thinking say the chancellor is merely trying to avoid escalatory rhetoric. They note the chancellor is aware his communication style doesn’t always produce applause, but that he’s willing to withstand the criticism if it means keeping things more even-keeled. Scholz himself has told journalists he does not want to repeat the mistakes of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor who aided Europe’s descent into World War I.

But the result has been that Scholz’s government — despite being a major donor for Ukraine, injecting vast sums into its own military and soon supplying Ukraine with state-of-the-art German howitzers — is getting slammed at home and internationally. The opprobrium seems to have even had a spillover effect at the polls, with Scholz’s SPD recently falling behind the Greens in a national poll for the first time in months. 

“By making unclear statements, Olaf Scholz leaves himself room for maneuver internally, but externally he leaves the impression of a vague policy and weak leadership,” said Frank Brettschneider, a communications expert at Hohenheim University. 

Mixed-up messaging

Scholz’s recent remarks about Germany’s financial generosity sounded especially awkward as they came during a visit to Lithuania. 

Like that of its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania’s military aid to Ukraine dwarfs Germany’s when measured against each country’s economic output. 

“If you put Germany’s military support to Ukraine in relation to our economic importance, then what has been done so far is rather moderate,” Strack-Zimmermann noted. 

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the German parliament’s defense committee, warns Olaf Scholz of the risk of sounding strange | John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images

The criticism has frustrated Scholz — in Lithuania, he claimed there was an “accumulation of not-quite-correct claims” concerning German military support for Ukraine.

But the Lithuania trip was far from the first time Scholz had generated frustration with his comments about Germany’s aid to Ukraine.

A week before the visit, Scholz gave a combative speech in the Bundestag, announcing Germany would soon deliver a high-tech air defense system to Ukraine. However, the chancellor’s words caused a swift backlash after it surfaced that Kyiv wouldn’t receive the missile system within “weeks,” as Scholz first suggested, but only by October or November. 

Rewind further to April, and there are more incidents where Scholz failed to get his message across. During a press conference on April 19, for instance, the chancellor announced new support for Ukraine, including artillery aid, in such a cryptic way that even years-long Berlin correspondents left wondering what he had meant to say.

In a radio interview after the press conference, the chancellor came across as exasperated when confronted about the tank deliveries, grumbling that he was impressed “how many people manage to Google once and quickly become a weapons expert.”

Keeping up with the Greens

Scholz’s style of communication is notably different from that of other high-profile members of his government who have found more effective ways to connect with the public.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, both from the Greens, have drawn particular attention for displaying empathy and grappling publicly with the decisions they face as Russia’s war grinds on. 

They’ve discussed the need to boost non-Russian natural gas sources, and how it jives with their roots in a party founded on eliminating fossil fuel dependency. And they’ve been out ahead of Scholz pushing to send tanks to Ukraine, talking about how they got there from the Green party’s pacifist origins. 

“Baerbock works with clear messages,” said Brettschneider, the communications expert, and Habeck “hits a nerve.” 

Habeck, Brettschneider added, “articulates doubts, describes problems in action, predicaments in which politics is stuck. This comes across as credible and is well received. Above all, however, it hits reality and people feel that quite well.”

The difference has had a tangible political effect: Scholz’s Social Democrats got shellacked in two key state elections last month, while the Greens triumphed in both. One of the elections was even dubbed a “mini federal election” because of the state’s size and the chancellor’s personal involvement. 

Scholz’s Social Democrats, however, dispute that there is a clear link between the election results and the chancellor’s performance.

Still, an Insa poll last week put the Greens ahead of the Social Democrats on a national level for the first time since last year’s general election. The poll also ranked Habeck and Baerbock as the most popular German politicians, with Scholz coming in fourth.

Scholz, of course, is in the sometimes unenviable position of being the final decision maker, meaning he faces more scrutiny and must navigate the ideological camps within his party and coalition. The chancellor is also inevitably held up for comparison to his predecessor, Angela Merkel, who spent 16 years ruling Germany. Even when Merkel faced blowback for accommodating Russia, she was still seen as a reassuring, calming presence for Europe. 

Question of interpretation

Scholz’s critics say the chancellor is often the most evasive when he’s simply trying to avoid making a decision. 

They point to his vacillation over why Germany couldn’t send its Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine. Initially, Scholz said it would be too difficult to train Ukrainian troops on the vehicles, before backtracking on that claim. Later, he vowed to send German tanks to NATO partners like the Czech Republic and Greece, which would, in turn, send their older Soviet-era armored vehicles to Ukraine.

Yet, critics say the tank swap is complicated and will take too long to execute, arguing it is another excuse for Scholz to not directly send battle tanks to Ukraine.

A similar pattern has played out with the chancellor’s refusal to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. At first, Scholz said he could not go since German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had been declared unwelcome there. Yet after Steinmeier and Zelenskyy patched things up, Scholz came up with a new reason to hold back: He would not participate in “a quick in-and-out with a photo op,” only a trip to discuss “very concrete things.”

The rationale was mocked domestically. Even the German left-wing newspaper Taz, far from an enemy to the Social Democratic chancellor, ran a front-page splashed with Scholz’s myriad photo ops. “Finally an explanation for why the chancellor won’t go to Kyiv,” it wrote sarcastically.

Seemingly realizing that a continued refusal to visit Kyiv might not be politically sustainable, Scholz is reportedly planning a joint trip with French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi this month.

The attitude about Scholz is a world away from last year’s general election when the Social Democratic candidate rose to the top by saying little and avoiding the gaffes that felled his main competitors. He even successfully portrayed himself as Merkel’s natural successor. 

Back then, the Social Democrats were also trailing the Greens in the polls, before surging in the weeks before the vote. That fact has reinforced the feeling in Scholz’s camp that it shouldn’t worry too much about the recent SPD polling dip. 

The FDP’s Strack-Zimmermann nonetheless urged Scholz to “improve communication, both to the people in Germany and to international partners.” 

The chancellor, she argued, should “put all options on the table and provide a clear line” on how Germany will boost support for Ukraine. 

“While we are trying to interpret the chancellor’s words,” she noted pointedly, “many people are dying every day just a few thousand kilometers from here.”

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