Opinion

Germany’s Chancellor Promised to Deter Putin. Then He Did Nothing.

BERLIN — In a time of war, every day counts.

When Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Germany seemed to grasp that straight away. Within days, Parliament agreed on sanctions against Russia and promised the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of a “Zeitenwende,” a watershed marking the period before and after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. It was necessary, he said in a passionate address, to set limits to “warmongers like Putin.” Gone was the taboo about supplying weapons to war zones, so too the country’s characteristic caution. In a blink of an eye, Germany appeared to have changed forever.

More than 100 days later, things look rather different. Russia’s war, though shrinking in scale, remains enduringly brutal: Hospitals have been targeted, women raped, atrocities committed. Yet Germany’s heavy weapons, promised months ago, remain undelivered. Russian gas and oil, far from banned, is being phased out over years. And German attempts to steer the European Union to a united response, while partly successful, have struggled to strike at Russia’s war machine. The promise of action has faded into months of vacillation and delay.

Much of the responsibility lies with Mr. Scholz. Rather than boldly leading his country in a moral and strategic effort to deter Mr. Putin’s murderous militarism, the chancellor, despite his strong talk at the beginning of the war, has chosen effectively to do nothing. His indecisiveness is more than a political failure. It amounts to a dangerous weakening of the resolve of those who oppose Russia’s war, clearing the way for more brutality and violence.

Germany has provided Ukraine with some support, to be sure. But it has fallen far short of initial expectations and Mr. Scholz’s inaction has been covered by a smoke screen of confusing words. The government’s explanation for holding back the weapons — including tanks, howitzers and antiaircraft systems — was that Germany needed them. The government also suggested the tanks would take too much training for the Ukrainians to use, before reversing the claim. Instead of clarifying the matter, Mr. Scholz has chosen to publicly worry about military escalation that could lead to nuclear war.

It’s a concern all allies of Ukraine share, of course. But only Germany seems to have been transfixed by it. Yet the reason for the government’s reluctance to furnish Ukraine with the support it needs is perhaps less high-minded, and closer to home. Mr. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party, at the head of the ruling coalition, has a long history of conciliatory relations with Russia. As the weeks wore on, it became clear it was this historic entanglement — and the habits it set — that underpinned Mr. Scholz’s hesitancy.

Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats who was until recently on the payroll of Rosneft, a Russian oil company, exemplifies the entanglement. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many older Social Democratic lawmakers, reared in a peace movement that sought a route out of Cold War hostilities, tend to go easy on Russia. The younger generation, which caviled at the prospect of canceling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia and was generally reluctant to punish Moscow, is not much more cleareyed.

It’s unfortunate that when Russia is waging war against Ukraine, the German chancellor belongs to the political party that has the most complicated relationship with Russia. The two other parties in the coalition, the Free Democrats and the Greens, have no such problems. In the case of the Green Party, that’s particularly noteworthy. Rooted like the Social Democrats in the pacifist antiwar movement, the Greens have learned, not least through the devastating war in the former Yugoslavia, that peace cannot always be acquired through peaceful means. Its uncompromising stance on Russia, approved by the majority of Green voters, is the result of hard-won wisdom.

It’s what the public seems to want, too. The party’s leaders, Anna Baerbock and Robert Habeck, have been especially vocal in favor of sanctions and the provision of weapons, and are, according to a recent survey, the country’s most popular politicians. Despite anxiety about nuclear conflict and fears for the health of the economy, many Germans seem to support a clear rejection of Mr. Putin’s actions. Even as the financial toll of the war affects people’s everyday lives, Germans appear to want moral guidance from their leaders and are prepared to make sacrifices in the name of what is right. Yet Mr. Scholz, constrained by his party and his instincts, has little to offer them.

That may cost him. In two recent state elections, the Social Democrats shed votes. The major beneficiary has been the Christian Democratic Union, now the main opposition after 16 years in government and leading in the polls. Its new leader, keen to press home the advantage, even visited President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. A savvy public relations move, the visit cemented the sense that Mr. Scholz — who will visit Kyiv for the first time only later this month — is not doing enough.

That’s causing damage for more than Mr. Scholz. Allies, including Mr. Zelensky himself, are beginning to question Germany’s commitment to international law and the free world. You can see their point. By doing so little, Mr. Scholz allows Mr. Putin to maintain the autocratic illusion of winning the war. The government’s policy of delay was ostensibly made in the name of peace. In practice, it’s led only to more war and more destruction in Ukraine.

There is some hope of change. The promise in early June to supply Ukraine with an air-defense system and tracking radar, though at an unspecified date, was a step in the right direction. But it’s all taking far too long. Every day, the Russian military makes gains in Ukraine’s east; loss and fatigue, at last, seem to be afflicting the Ukrainian forces.

The longer Germany, the most powerful and influential country on the continent, hesitates, the more devastation Mr. Putin can unleash. There should be no more time for delay.

Jagoda Marinić (@jagodamarinic) is an essayist, novelist and the author, most recently, of “Made in Germany.”

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