The tragedy of Scholz's failure over Leopards for Ukraine
Contradictory, inconsistent, historically insensitive, morally problematic, disingenuous and counter-productive (but otherwise, just fine...)
History of the Present (week ending 21 January 2023)
The tragedy of Scholz's failure over Leopards for Ukraine
As a long-time admirer of democratic Germany, I have been deeply depressed and dismayed this week by Chancellor Olaf Scholz's refusal to allow German Leopard 2 tanks to be sent to Ukraine. Here are just a few ways in which Scholz's policy is weak, contradictory, inconsistent, historically insensitive, morally problematic, disingenuous and counter-productive... (but apart from that, absolutely fine...)
[Forgive slightly bitty short paragraph-by-paragraph style, which results from this being written also to be a Twitter thread on @fromTGA. Comes of still doing the splits between the two platforms…. ]
Ukraine needs modern battle tanks so as to achieve the combined arms counter-offensives essential to recovering more of its Russian-occupied territory, before Putin's 200,000+ already mobilised Russian reserves get on the ground to defend more effectively the territory Russia has stolen. Time is therefore of the essence.
German foot-dragging could mean that Russia ends up hanging onto more of that territory, and therefore being able to claim a partial victory in any resulting de facto if not de jure peace settlement. There is good reason to believe that that some German policymakers – as always, giving strategic priority to the long-term relationship with Russia – privately reckon that this would be a an outcome we should settle for. That is the truth that dares not speak its name.
If so, they are profoundly mistaken. It would reinforce Putin's power and demonstrate to all other dictators, including Xi Jinping as he eyes Taiwan, that you can simply seize other people's territory by brutal armed aggression. This is precisely what Germany, as a leading advocate of rules-based international order, has spent decades opposing.
Of course one has to be mindful of the danger of escalation. But the way Scholz and some other Social Democrats talk about the danger of nuclear use recalls the 1980s rhetoric of their younger years, when the threat of all-out nuclear war trumped everything else, in the name of Frieden – a very specific ideological version of 'peace'. East Europeans had to shut up and keep their heads down in the name of Frieden. ('Frieden may not be everything, but without Frieden, everything is nothing', Egon Bahr.)
Whether or not this is a genuine fear of nuclear war on their part, it is not a realistic assessment of the risk. If Putin used a tactical nuclear weapon, it would kill Ukrainians, not Germans. German Angst also contrasts painfully with Ukrainian courage.
Scholz's constantly emphasises the need for 'European sovereignty'. But when it comes to weapons support for Ukraine, his position is 'we won't do anything unless the Americans do it'. Some contradiction surely.
German government officials tell you privately 'but you see, the Americans aren't sending tanks!'. But when you talk to the Americans, they say 'we're not stopping them!'.
The argument that Germany won't send Leopards unless the US sends Abrams tanks is disingenuous. The hugely complicated, jet fuel-propelled, lumbering moloch US-speciality Abrams are extremely ill suited to Ukraine's needs. The more than 2000 Leopard 2s in the armouries of 13 European armies are ideally suited.
The new German defence minister said after the Ramstein meeting that they needed to review their stocks of Leopard 2 tanks, to see how many might be ready and potentially available for Ukraine. After 11 months of full-scale war in Ukraine, it seemed beyond careless not to have done this already…
Just two days later it turned out he was either ill-informed or disingenuous, since Der Spiegel has seen a secret Bundeswehr document prepared already in +early summer 2022+ which identified 19 Leopard 2 tanks in their armoury that would be suitable for use by Ukraine.
In practice, even more suitable might be some currently being refurbished by Germany's formidable defence industry. Altogether, there is a painful contrast between the speed, organisational skill and determination of Germany's adaptation of the energy front and the endless, often implausible excuses and bureaucratic foot-dragging on arms supply.
On 'historically insensitive and morally problematic', see my recent commentary, already sent on this Substack:
I rest my case.
Some friends say one should not place too much emphasis on the arguments from history. I can only say that, as someone who has long admired Germany's exemplary facing up to and trying to learn lessons from its double difficult past (Nazi and Stasi), it feels important to me. As, I can safely say, it does to quite a few other Europeans, not least in Central and Eastern Europe.
Hans Kundnani suggests that Scholz is in line with German public opinion. Maybe so - but the duty of a German Chancellor in a critical moment for Europe is to lead, not to follow. As Adenauer led for West Germany's integration in the West, Brandt for Ostpolitik, Schmidt for the deployment of cruise missiles, Kohl for German unification and European monetary union...
A lot of this has to do with managing a divided Social Democratic Party, with a strong anti-military and pro-Russian wing. The Greens and Free Democrats have both been much better on this issue, as have the opposition Christian Democrats.
The German government keeps pointing out that it is one of the largest military supporters of Ukraine, as well as giving a very substantial financial and humanitarian contribution. This is absolutely true. Germany has moved a huge distance from its position before 24 February 2022. That should be acknowledged.
So why cancel out all the international credit you should be getting for all of that, by foot-dragging on this? Especially, since you're going to move in the end. The entire German record since February last year, on almost every category of weaponry has been 'we're not going to send that; we're not going to send that (eg Gepards, Marders); we're not going to send that' until finally 'oh yes we are!' and then 'why do you criticise us? Look, we've sent that!'. I will take a bet it will be the same with the Leopards.
Even from a narrow PR point of view for Scholz personally, I wonder if the Chancellery realises just how damaging this is. He is now the subject of derisory memes circulating on the internet. I re-tweeted the one at the top of this post, sent me by a friend in Kyiv, and I've seldom seen something re-tweeted so often and enthusiastically.
Come on Germany, you're better than this.
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