Olaf Scholz is under intense pressure from Western allies and his own government to back up his public support for Ukraine with concrete action.
The Chancellor’s foot-dragging on sending Kyiv heavy weapons and doing more to curb Germany’s substantial dependence on Russian energy is also alienating the German public. Dr Rainer Zitelmann sheds light on Scholz’s big foreign policy dilemma.
Why is the German coalition split over sending weapons to Ukraine?
Scholz’s party, the SPD, has traditionally pursued a pro-Russian policy. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD), who is, after all, on Putin’s payroll, has established a network of supporters within his party. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier cultivated friendly relations with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. The Greens, however, have tended to be skeptical of Russia, as have sections of the pro-business FDP. This, of course, has created considerable tension within the coalition. In particular, the Green politician Anton Hofreiter and the FDP’s defense expert Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann have publicly criticised Scholz and advocated the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine.
Can you explain the disconnect between the posturing by Scholz on Ukraine and his vetoing of heavy weapons deliveries?
Scholz gave a high-profile speech at the end of Feburary in which he announced a “turning point” on defence after decades of squeamishness. At the time, most people believed that German politics was set for a radical policy shift – I was sceptical in this regard even then. But Scholz performed this about-face under pressure, not out of personal conviction. He was under pressure because Germany was becoming increasingly isolated within the Western alliance. And because the FDP and the Greens were in favour of delivering arms, while the SPD opposed any such move. Every day, SPD politicians are scrambling to justify themselves, declaring that their historic policy on Russia was, on the whole, correct.
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What does the German public make of it?
All across Germany, solidarity with Ukraine is strong. This runs through all political camps. Only supporters of the right-wing AfD and the far-left party Die Linke are opposed to sending arms to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia. Both parties, like many within the SPD, have traditionally pursued pro-Russian policies.
How secure is Scholz?
I don’t think Germany’s governing coalition will collapse over this issue. The FDP on the one hand and the SPD and Greens on the other aren’t really natural partners anyway. In terms of economic policy, for example, they each have opposing positions. The CDU is still too weak after its massive election defeat last year. The CDU’s new leader, Friedrich Merz, is doing well enough and has a solid policy platform, but there are still a lot of Merkel supporters in the CDU. At the moment, I simply don’t think there is a realistic alternative to the current coalition.
Dr Rainer Zitelmann is a German historian and sociologist. His latest book Hitler’s National Socialism is out now.