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(Bloomberg) — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is getting left behind by the international effort to help Ukraine stand up to Russia and has no obvious way back into the fold.
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The 63-year-old Social Democrat has resisted directly supplying tanks and other heavy weapons to Ukraine and opposed an embargo of Russian oil and gas. His policies have him in a tight corner and risk holding back Germany’s allies just as Russia embarks on a new offensive in eastern Ukraine.
After bringing Germany’s defense policy more in line with its partners in the early stages of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Scholz has failed to keep pace with the changing dynamics. Evidence of war crimes by Russian troops and Ukraine’s tenacious defense have led to calls for more aggressive action, especially by fellow NATO members in the Baltics.
“Now is not the time for sitting on the fence or showing a mere token support to Ukraine,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters on Wednesday at a news conference in Riga, standing next to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
He also called on Germany to “do the right thing” and back a proposal to sanction Russian oil imports in the next package of European Union measures.
“We understand that it is a very difficult political and economic decision that has to be explained to the people in Germany,” Landsbergis said. “But I think that in this case, probably it’s unavoidable.”
Donald Tusk, the former president of the European Council, was more blunt.
“The Germans must firmly support Ukraine today if we are to believe that they have drawn conclusions from their own history,” he said on Twitter.
After a video call with Group of Seven counterparts on Tuesday, Scholz had an opportunity to counter mounting criticism. Instead, he obfuscated. He said Germany didn’t have equipment to send Ukraine, questioned the ability of Kyiv’s military to operate modern weapons systems and insisted Berlin wouldn’t become directly involved in the war.
While Scholz did offer to pay for certain orders from German defense suppliers, there was a catch: modern heavy weapons such as Leopard and Marder tanks weren’t on offer, according to Ukraine’s envoy in Berlin.
“The weapons that we need aren’t on this list,” Ambassador Andrij Melnyk told public broadcaster ZDF after Scholz’s press conference. “We believe that the Germany military would still be able to supply us with weapons that are required right now.”
Melnyk met with senior officials from Scholz’s party on Wednesday to make his case for heavy weapons and smooth over a flap triggered by the envoy’s criticism of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier over close relations to Putin when he was foreign minister. After the meeting, he told RTL television that the two sides were “still moving too slowly” toward one another.
In late February, Scholz shocked critics by trashing Germany’s long tradition of not sending weapons to conflict zones and decided to deliver hundreds of anti-tank and anti-air missiles to Ukraine. In a historic policy shift, he also announced a 100 billion-euro ($108 billion) fund to bolster Germany’s military capabilities after years of neglect.
He’s now offering to provide ammunition and train Ukraine forces on a self-propelled, rapid-fire artillery system, according to a senior government official. But the equipment will be supplied via the Netherlands.
Scholz’s current stance has been criticized by members from his ruling alliance. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a senior lawmaker from the Free Democrats, said the chancellor’s plans for weapons deliveries on Tuesday fell short.
“You have to fight for freedom and human rights, and there wasn’t enough concrete information on that,” she said on Twitter. “We’re still too far behind.”
Anton Hofreiter, a veteran lawmaker from the Greens, echoed those comments in an interview with Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper, warning that a third world war could break out if Ukraine doesn’t stop Putin.
‘Boys and Girls’
Questions have also been raised about Germany’s resistance to energy sanctions. A national effort to optimize supplies and reduce demand could offset Russian gas supplies as soon as this winter, according to a report by Berlin-based thinktank DIW.
While Scholz — who succeeded Angela Merkel in December — can’t immediately undo years of underspending on defense or recreate Germany’s energy system in a few months, he could be more forceful in his response. Instead, he’s been dismissive, referring to critics as “boys and girls.”
In a commentary on Wednesday, Bild newspaper accused Scholz of failing to making a series of mistakes in Ukraine, including failing to protect Germany’s national interests by stopping Putin and insufficiently distancing himself from his former boss Gerhard Schroeder and other Social Democrats with ties to Russia.
Still, Scholz’s cautious approach has received backing from his cabinet. Finance Minister Christian Lindner — also the head of the FDP — told Bloomberg TV Wednesday that Germany was “open” to deliver further weapons but only “under the condition” that Germany’s defense responsibilities aren’t affected and the country doesn’t become an actor in the war.
Economy Minister Robert Habeck — a former co-leader of the Greens — supported Scholz’s plans to replace Soviet-model weapons sent from Eastern European partners with modern equipment.
“The federal government is acting and will ensure that the quality and quantity of direct and indirect arms deliveries continue to increase rapidly,” he said in an interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper.
But pressure is growing and is unlikely to let up. The opposition CDU is calling for parliamentary debate on Germany’s Ukraine policy, and Scholz has left himself with little wiggle room.
“We’re half-hearted,” said Johann Wadepfuhl, deputy parliamentary leader for the conservative party. “We’re not completely on the side of the Ukrainians, and this is a serious geopolitical mistake for which Olaf Scholz is responsible.”
(Updates with comments from Poland’s Tusk and Green lawmaker)
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