Germany’s chancellor is under growing pressure to authorise the delivery of heavy weaponry to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s looming eastern offensive, with Olaf Scholz’s coalition partners accusing him of failing to live up to his promises.
The centre-left leader had surprised even close partners in his three-party coalition when on 27 February he announced an “epochal change” in Germany’s foreign policy to boost defence spending and relax its restrictive stance on exporting weapons to conflict zones.
Six weeks on, prominent politicians from allied parties urged the Social Democrat to follow up words with actions after Germany was accused of stalling on delivering heavy weaponry to Ukraine and blocking a wholesale ban on Russian oil and gas.
Scholz has to “not just purse his lips but start to whistle”, said the Free Democratic party’s Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, who chairs the Bundestag’s defence committee.
With a view to the apparent failure of economic sanctions in stopping Vladimir Putin’s military campaign, she said there had to be a renewed focus on hard power.
“There is only one answer that Russia understands: to continue to try to end the war through talks – but with one hand visibly on the holster,” said Strack-Zimmermann. “That means that Germany has to also supply Ukraine with heavy weapons to help it defend itself, as long as they can be handled by the Ukrainian army.”
Her appeal was echoed by Anton Hofreiter, a leading figure on the left of the German green party: “The problem lies in the chancellory,” Hofreiter told the broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “We have to finally start supply Ukraine with what it needs, and that’s heavy weapons.”
He continued: “I can only speculate why the chancellor is stepping on the brakes like this. I can see no logical reason for it. But with his actions, the chancellor is not only damaging the situation in Ukraine, but he is also massively damaging Germany’s reputation in Europe and the world.”
Hofreiter and Strack-Zimmermann, along with Michael Roth of the SPD, travelled to Ukraine earlier in the week.
By the end of March, Germany had supplied Ukraine with €186m (£154m) worth of military supplies, including rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft rockets, machine guns and ammunition, but not heavy weapons such as tanks, helicopters or fighter planes.
Over the weekend, Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin, Andrij Melnyk, expressed a wish for Germany to aid his country against an expected major Russian offensive by delivering Leopard battle tanks, Marder infantry fighting vehicles, Cobra weapons location radars and the armoured howitzer Panzerhaubitze 2000.
“With them we can not only try to stop the expected huge Russian offensive in the east, but also to reconquer the occupied territories in the south,” Melnyk told the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
According to Welt am Sonntag newspaper, the Ukrainian government has made Germany an offer for 100 Panzerhaubitze 2000s that it is hoping to buy straight from the German armed forces and which the latter would then replace with newly built armoured howitzers.
The gap this would create in Germany’s military arsenal cannot not be filled before 2024. Because of this, Scholz’s government is reportedly lukewarm about the deal. The chancellor has said any arms deliveries to Ukraine must not put at risk Germany’s Nato commitments in other regions, such as the Baltic states.
Scholz’s party also say Germany should not deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine until Nato allies reach a joint decision to do so. So far, only the Czech Republic has confirmed that it has sent T-72 tanks and BVP-1 infantry fighting vehicles.
“The federal government is closely coordinating with our international partners,” said Rolf Mützenich, chair of the SPD’s parliamentary group. “Germany must not go alone.”
But Scholz’s critics say he is deliberately allowing bureaucratic hurdles to slow down a decision on weapons exports in an effort to pacify those within his party who are still holding out for a diplomatic settlement with the Kremlin.
“Of course there are members of the SPD’s parliamentary group who are still in shock because their idea of Russia has brutally collapsed,” said Strack-Zimmermann. “I think the chancellor is still paying too much respect to their sensitivities.”
A survey by the polling firm Infratest dimap released on Thursday showed a majority of German respondents favoured heavy weapons exports over an energy embargo that could hit Germany’s economy. Fifty-five per cent of those questioned were in favour, with only 37% opposed. A clear opposition to arms exports was recorded only among supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.