Saturday, April 1

The Observer view on Germany’s response to the war in Ukraine | editorial observer

Days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Olaf Scholz delivered a bombshell of his own. Addressing an extraordinary session of the Bundestag, Germany’s chancellor declared his government would increase defense spending by €100bn (£84bn), suspend the prized Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and reverse a long-standing ban on transferring arms to conflict zones in order to help Ukraine.

The shock announcements, termed a “revolution”, were seen as evidence that Germany, and especially Scholz’s centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD), was definitively turning away from its postwar pacifist tradition. The fact Scholz also pledged to meet Nato’s 2% of GDP defense spending obligation was cited as further proof of a historic shift in Berlin’s thinking about its role in the world.

The resulting satisfaction, bordering on smug self-congratulation, evident in Washington, London and Warsaw, was compounded by the ensuing German debate about how to deal with Russia. Leading figures on the left and right granted the post-Soviet policy of reconciling moscowrooted in the SPD’s famed cold war era Ostpolitikhad been fundamentally misconceived.

As millions in Ukraine flee merciless bombardment, and incontrovertible evidence emerges of war crimes by Vladimir Putin’s troops, this changed belief that Russia cannot be treated as a normal country with which it is possible to do business as usual is now widely accepted. Yet at the same time, Scholz’s revolutionary fervor seems to be wanting.

Germany’s refusal to quickly sanction Russian oil and gas exports, on which its industries and households remain heavily dependent, has provoked fierce criticism from western partners, not least Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The influential American commentator Paul Krugman harshly accused Germany of acting as “Putin’s enabler” and being “complicit in mass murder”.

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Claims by Scholz and industry chiefs that an energy embargo would hurt Europe more than Russia and push Germany into recession are hotly disputed. Critics cite studies that suggest the negative impact would be manageable and short-lived. Yet in a report last week, the Bundesbank warned an embargo could shrink Germany’s economy by 2% and cause 5% to fail in output.

Scholz is also under fire abroad, and within his own coalition, for allegedly backsliding on heavy weapons supplies to Ukraine. bild newspaper reported last week that a list of 15 types of German-made armaments to be offered to Kyiv, including Leopard battle tanks, was reduced to three by the chancellery before being submitted to Ukraine. Zelenskiy’s subsequent pleas were ignored, bild said.

Egged on by some UK average, Boris Johnson is among those pressing Germany to do more. Ugly forces are at work, too. Recent attacks also partly reflect visceral anti-German, anti-EU sentiment on the right, borne of old resentments and rivalry. Donald Trump, notoriously hostile to Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, often indulged in such Berlin-bashing.

Yet it’s fair to say Germany’s policy of Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) lies in tatters in the wake of the invasion. There’s no doubt the 30-year, post-1991 period, when Germany thrived on cheap energy while its diplomats made nice with Putin, is over. It’s certain, too, that Germany has suffered a rude geopolitical awakening. Berlin can no longer duck its wider leadership responsibilities, especially for European security.

Pressed on these issues last week, Scholz said his biggest worry was nuclear war with Russia. “I am doing everything I can to prevent an escalation that would lead to a third world war,” he said. This is eminently sensitive. But it’s possible to be too cautious and self-interested – and Scholz is far from getting the balance right.

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