Europe Is on the Brink of War, and Germany Is Nowhere to Be Seen

BERLIN — Last week, Ukrainian legislators held up the flags of countries providing military and diplomatic assistance to Ukraine as it faces the threat of a Russian invasion. The flags of the United States, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Poland and Turkey all jostled for space. One, however, was conspicuous by its absence: the black, red and gold of Germany.

It was a fitting rebuke. Over the past few weeks, as Europe has seemingly approached the brink of war, Germany has been the odd man out. While the United States, Britain and Poland delivered weapons to Ukraine, the German government stoutly refused to do the same — and even seemed to block a transfer of weapons previously sold to Estonia. Across the continent, criticism has been fierce.

For Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who on Monday met with President Biden in Washington, it’s been a trial by fire. In office since December and at the head of a new coalition government, he has struggled to gain control of a situation that threatens to torpedo his authority. It’s a stark contrast to the way Angela Merkel stepped up after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Through active and energetic diplomacy, Ms. Merkel was able to bring about a cease-fire and something approaching a settlement. Under similar pressure, her successor has gone missing.

But the problem goes beyond Mr. Scholz to Germany itself. The crisis in Ukraine puts to the sword many of Germany’s central assumptions about its role in the world. Wedded to the past and conflicted in the present, Germany — at least when it comes to foreign policy — looks stuck. But now is not the time to be indecisive. It needs to assert itself as a power broker and unify Europe’s response to Russian aggression.

The first difficulty, of course, is historical. Determined not to repeat the horrors of the past, the country is extremely wary about military engagement. That caution extends to weapons, which are generally not sold to conflict zones or when they could become instruments of human rights violations. In practice, economic interests often overrule principles: Saudi Arabia and Egypt receive German weaponry. Yet with Russia, the issue is particularly fraught. Never again, goes the catechism, shall German weapons be used to kill Russian citizens.

These historical arguments are not particularly useful in the 21st century. But Germany just can’t get over them: Pacifism and history are deeply ingrained in our public debate and particularly in the political culture of two of the three parties currently governing the country, the Greens and the Social Democrats.

For Mr. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party, relations with Russia are an especially emotional and contested issue. The party prides itself on its change-through-rapprochement approach during the Cold War, and many members defend the notion that Germany’s role is to be a buffer between the United States and Russia rather than to clearly side with the West. It’s a narrative rooted in nostalgia and idealism, but it has a cynical side: The party’s defense for Nord Stream 2, the controversial pipeline built to deliver more Russian gas to Europe, often clads straightforward economic interests in the gown of historical dignity.

For the Green Party, the second largest in Germany’s so-called Traffic Light coalition, the situation is no less sensitive. Founded out of the peace and ecological movements in 1980, it opposed the deployment of American nuclear weapons to Germany and rearmament generally. The party’s position has since evolved, but Russia’s threat to Ukraine has caught the Greens at a difficult moment. After a slightly disappointing election result in September, tensions within the party — over cabinet positions, internal reforms and political priorities — are high. It is, in short, a bad moment to take an ax to a central pillar of party identity.

Then there’s the coalition itself, formed two months ago and keen to show it can provide stable rule. With domestic problems mounting — rising prices, pandemic restrictions and ambitious decarbonization plans threaten the country’s uneasy equilibrium — the government may have decided not to risk its unity over a foreign policy issue. Its caution, after all, is in step with national opinion at large: A recent survey showed that 59 percent of Germans oppose delivering weapons to Ukraine, while only 20 percent approve.

Taken together, it amounts to a difficult brief for Mr. Scholz. And it’s clear that, so far, he’s struggled to meet the moment. Criticism abroad — Latvia’s defense minister called Germany’s reluctance to arm Ukraine “immoral” and “hypocritical” — has been more sharply expressed but no more pointed than at home, where Mr. Scholz has been derided as almost invisible. (On Twitter, #WoIstScholz — “Where is Scholz?” — became something between a lament and a joke.) His personal approval ratings have sunk 17 percentage points, according to a recent poll, and his party’s standing has also taken a hit. After Ms. Merkel’s long tenure, Mr. Scholz is discovering just how hard the job can be. It’s not just Germany he’s struggling to lead; it’s Europe, too.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany is discovering how hard the job can be.Credit…Jesco Denzel/Via Reuters

Yet Mr. Scholz maintains that the country is taking the right path. In a television interview last week, he stressed that Germany has invested $2 billion in Ukraine in recent years. Building a country’s resilience, a senior government official told me, means helping it to defend itself. The chancellery appears to deem weapon deliveries to Ukraine purely symbolic — a costly exercise politically, with little actual impact. And officials were quick to underline Germany’s leading presence in NATO’s deployment, since 2017, of troops to Poland and the Baltic States. On Monday, the country announced it would send 350 more soldiers to defend NATO’s eastern flank.

Is this just the usual German delusion? Is the country just making excuses for pursuing business as usual? Yes and no. Germany is certainly reluctant to leave its comfort zone, as its hesitancy — nowhere better captured than in its offer to send Ukraine helmets rather than missiles — clearly betrays. But some things have changed.

For one thing, some Social Democrats appear willing to leave behind the idea of a special relationship with Russia. “We don’t want a special role for Germany,” Michael Roth, a Social Democrat who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee, told me. This is a significant development and means that Nord Stream 2 is, for the first time, genuinely on the line. As Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister (and a co-leader of the Green Party), made clear to her Russian counterpart in January: Germany is prepared to act, even if “such measures hurt us economically.”

In the context of the past, it’s a bold statement. But these nuances are not as easy to grasp as boots on the ground. On Monday, Mr. Scholz, addressing Mr. Biden by his first name, sought to bolster the trans-Atlantic alliance. “We are absolutely united,” he said. There’s no reason, really, to doubt it. But it may still take some convincing.

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