BERLIN — Fierce debate over sending heavy weapons to Ukraine has struck a fault line through Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government in Germany, raising questions about his leadership and dampening expectations of his ability to help steer Europe through the continent’s most dramatic security crisis since World War II.
With Russia opening a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, calls have grown for Berlin to offer more heavy weaponry to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. Members of Scholz’s coalition have publicly broken ranks with him to demand Germany do more.
“Europe expects Germany to play a central role,” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the head of the parliamentary defense committee and a lawmaker from the liberal Free Democratic Party, a coalition partner with Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats and the Greens.
Scholz has largely evaded explaining his stance on heavy weapons, she said, and was losing the opportunity to define the debate. “If you don’t do the storytelling yourself, others will. And that’s never good.”
Just two months ago, Scholz was defining the conversation. Following Russia’s invasion, he announced a massive rearmament of Germany and a defense aid package for Ukraine in a dramatic break with decades of pacifist policy. He declared it a “Zeitenwende” — a historical turning point — for Germany. But on Ukraine, his critics argue, Scholz needs to move more swiftly, saying the financial aid he announced last week could not come as fast as direct deliveries of weapons.
For Scholz, the act of balancing international and domestic politics also includes the expectation of many Europeans that he act as a leader of the Continent — a role his predecessor Angela Merkel often filled at moments of crisis. And his government is wary of giving Moscow the impression that Berlin is an active belligerent against Russia, at risk of being drawn into a war that would not just hurt Germany but its NATO allies.
Germany has already sent missiles and artillery to Ukraine, but Kyiv also wants heavy artillery, Leopard tanks and armored vehicles such as the Marder, considered among the best in the world. Ukrainian officials have made repeated public demands. With tensions between Berlin and Kyiv rising, Ukraine went as far as disinviting Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, from a visit to its capital in protest over his long-standing business ties to Moscow.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a Green, insisted that sending armored vehicles to Ukraine wasn’t a red line for Germany. It was “not taboo, even if it sometimes sounds that way in the German debate,” she said during a news conference with her Baltic counterparts in Riga, Latvia.
Still, the perceived reluctance to fulfill Ukraine’s demands, particularly at the same time Germany has slowed a European plan to boycott Russian oil, is frustrating Scholz’s governing partners. They argue that Germany is running out of time to help rein in President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
“The longer this war drags on, and the closer Putin gets to a victory, the greater the danger that more countries will be invaded and that we then end up sliding into an extended, de facto third world war,” said Anton Hofreiter, the head of the European relations committee in the Bundestag and a member of the Greens, on the public broadcaster ZDF on Wednesday morning.
Nils Schmid, a foreign policy spokesperson for the Social Democrats in Parliament, said Scholz’s position has been unfairly skewered by his partners.
“There is now a public contest from the opposition but also within the government about who is most supportive of Ukraine,” he said. “What really counts is the action taken by the government.”
He pointed out that Germany’s approval had been necessary for the Czech Republic to send T-72 tanks, made in former East Germany, to Ukraine. It showed the chancellor had “no objection” to heavy weapons, he said.
But the bickering may have ramifications for Scholz’s leadership. In a poll of German voters released Tuesday, 65% of respondents said they did not see Scholz as a strong leader. The magazine Der Spiegel on Wednesday wrote: “One has to ask whether the coalition is fundamentally still behind him.”
Uwe Jun, a political scientist at Trier University, dismissed the idea of a coalition under threat. But he did see a risk for the chancellor’s reputation as a leader for the continent.
For Europeans, that need is especially great, Jun said, because President Emmanuel Macron of France is receding from the regional stage to fend off a ring-wing electoral challenge at home.
“Scholz was expected to fill this vacuum,” Jun said. “And there is a certain disappointment, I would say, that Scholz hasn’t done that.”
On Tuesday, after discussing Ukraine with other Western leaders, Scholz stirred up expectations by saying he would give a speech.
But the only new announcement from him, Strack-Zimmerman said, was a plan to help Eastern European countries provide their own Soviet-era equipment to Ukraine in larger amounts by promising to replace them with German-made material. Even that, she said, was something that could have been started earlier: “We had been suggesting that for three weeks.”
Scholz reiterated a plan announced last week to provide 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) in military aid, allowing Ukraine to buy the weapons it needs directly from the defense industry. Berlin asked German defense contractors to draw up a list of what they could supply quickly, and sent it to Ukraine, Scholz said. Kyiv would also be allowed to buy from other allied countries, he added.
Scholz said that Germany, which for decades left its military underequipped, could not afford to give Ukraine more of its own arms and still meet its national and NATO defense obligations.
“We have to recognize the possibilities we have are reaching their limits,” he said.
His stance on sending tanks and other heavy weapons to Ukraine, however, remained vague, and he would not clarify to journalists afterward whether Berlin would allow German defense contractors to sell such arms to Ukraine.
Pressed by a reporter whether he would respond to Ukraine’s demands for Leopard tanks, Scholz replied: “Looking at the world sometimes helps. In this case, it leads to the realization that those who are in a comparable position to Germany are acting in the same way as we are.”
It was an ill-timed retort, given that hours earlier the Netherlands had announced it would be providing heavy weapons, including armored vehicles, to Ukraine.
“Scholz doesn’t care about public perceptions,” Schmid said. “He concentrates on action. And he dislikes doing things based on public debate.”
In response to the debate, Scholz has seemed taciturn, even sarcastic. His frustration was particularly evident after a delegation of Bundestag members visited Ukraine last week — a move his chancellery reportedly discouraged.
The delegation included Strack-Zimmermann, Hofreiter, and Michael Roth from the Social Democrats. All of them backed demands for heavy weaponry, and called on the chancellor to show stronger leadership.
Replying a few days later, in a television interview, he said: “To the boys and girls, I have to say: The fact I don’t just do what you want, that shows that I’m leading.”