Germany’s new chancellor hesitates in the face of Russia’s threats

But Olaf Scholz is starting to firm up

A CAMERA STOOD next to the table, broadcasting the proceedings live. But if Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, the head of the German navy, did not know he was speaking on the record, it did not take long for him to find out. He told the audience at a think-tank in Delhi that Vladimir Putin not only wanted respect, but also “probably also deserves” it. He added that the West should seek to recruit Russia as an ally against China, something that he, as “a very radical Roman Catholic”, would welcome.

One viral video clip and a very public brouhaha later, Mr Schönbach was gone. The pace of his departure showed that Germany’s government will not tolerate such comments when an unprovoked Russian attack on Ukraine is looming. Yet to many foreign observers the admiral was merely voicing soft-on-Russia sentiments that are widespread among German decision-makers. Ukraine’s foreign minister said Germany’s refusal to send his country weapons was “encouraging Vladimir Putin”. The wife of a former Ukrainian president proposed a boycott of German cars. Germany’s allies in NATO have been more circumspect, but many have hinted at frustration. The foreign press has been brutal.

There is much to grouch about. Germany’s refusal to countenance arming Ukraine betrays a misunderstanding of the concept of deterrence. Despite its allies’ urging, it has so far refused to scrap Nord Stream 2, a completed but not-yet-commissioned undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany which provides Russia with an export route that bypasses Ukraine, and thus deprives the latter of leverage and income. The Social Democrats (SPD), who lead Germany’s coalition government, are particularly guilty in this telling. Critics spy a party stuffed with Putinversteher (Putin sympathisers) wallowing in nostalgia for the days of cold-war Ostpolitik, when SPD-led West German governments opened up to the east. Many German politicians retain the idea that European security requires Russian consent. Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, has said as much.

Yet for all that, there is little evidence that Germany has gone soft where it matters. The government is in full agreement with the European consensus, that any further Russian military aggression against Ukraine will carry “massive consequences”, in the words of an EU summit communique last month. Transatlantic diplomacy has uncovered differences over what sanctions to impose if Russia presses ahead, but that is to be expected when Western countries’ exposure to the Russian economy varies. And after sharp prodding from America, Germany has finally shifted on NS2. Answering a question about the pipeline last week Mr Scholz said “all this will have to be discussed” should Russia invade. His Green coalition partners have been clearer still. Few imagine that the pipeline will begin operating if Russia invades.

The bigger problem is political. The three parties in Germany’s new “traffic-light” coalition are visibly split on Russia, and Mr Putin’s aggression has ensured that their differences have been tested earlier than they may have hoped. Coalition spats require leadership. But Mr Scholz, a taciturn type who can be obscure and abstract when he does speak, has allowed a degree of cacophony. He has also made no attempt to prepare German voters for trials that may lie ahead should Russia escalate, from skyrocketing energy prices to an influx of refugees. “It may have made the right decisions, but this government has a terrible communications problem,” says Stefan Meister, a Russia-watcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

That extends to the international scene. A comparison with Angela Merkel, Mr Scholz’s predecessor, is telling. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 Mrs Merkel marshalled the EU’s 28 member states, including Kremlin sympathisers like Hungary and Cyprus, to impose sanctions. Together with France, Germany established the “Normandy format” with Russia and Ukraine, placing Europe at the negotiating table. It has also co-ordinated closely with America whenever Russian forces probed Ukrainian defences since then.

Today Mr Scholz, the leader of the EU’s biggest and richest country, looks like one European leader among many; the Normandy format is moribund and the transatlantic relationship looks testy. “The shift from Merkel to Scholz really matters,” says John Lough, author of “Germany’s Russia Problem”. “It’s not that Germany has impeded consensus decision-making in NATO. It’s just that it is not carrying as much water as many of us would like.”

Mrs Merkel also seemed to enjoy Mr Putin’s respect, even as she came to despise his lies. She discussed Ukraine and eastern European security with Russia’s president half a dozen times in her last months in office. In his seven weeks Mr Scholz has done so just once, despite the urgent circumstances. Mr Putin now prefers to talk to America over Europeans’ heads. Nor has the chancellor offered any serious response to Germany’s growing chorus of critics, especially in eastern Europe. An inconsistent, equivocal Germany undermines Europe’s credibility and plays plumb into the Kremlin’s hands, says Mr Meister. Mrs Merkel learned that Russian menaces were more easily faced down if Germany led Europe’s response. It is a lesson her successor may not be able to avoid, but in which he has so far shown little interest.

Related post