Scholz’s Hot Refusal to send Military Support to Ukraine Divides NATO

  • In a controversial move, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz refused to send military support to Ukraine.
  • Although contentious, Scholz hopes to maintain Germany’s role as a subtle mediator between Russia and Ukraine.
  • As a result, Scholz is struggling to balance a number of contradictory considerations, both domestic and international.
Chancellor Scholz Receives Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz / Andreas Gore- Getty Images

Why is Olaf Scholz’s heat level Hot?

Answer: Although unpopular with Germany’s allies, Scholz’ decision to withhold military support to Ukraine is favoured by much of the German public, his coalition government, and rooted in historical precedent. 

As Russia continues to amass troops on the Ukrainian border looking to pick up where they left off with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 NATO and its allies are scrambling to send military support to Ukraine. The US, in particular, has sought a coordinated western approach announcing last week that 170 tonnes of its own “lethal aid” had arrived in Ukraine. However, even as the military support offered to Ukraine has soared in light of the estimated 100,000 Russian troops stationed at the border, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has categorically refused to send weapons to the threatened country. In fact, to further affirm its commitment to de-escalation by way of diplomacy, it even blocked Estonia’s attempts to send German-origin weapons to Ukraine. The Chancellor went as far as to urge his European and American allies to carefully consider sanctions against Russia in response to any aggression, citing that it is “prudence” that “dictates choosing measures that will have the greatest effect on those who violate the jointly agreed principles.”

Scholz and Germany’s steadfast commitment to a soft power approach has brought about pressure both explicitly from Ukraine and more subtly from its NATO allies. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced Germany’s response and argued that such an approach virtually encourages Putin to launch an attack. Despite international disapprobation, Scholz’ policy on the issue is very much in line with both public opinion and party considerations. While ammunition delivery is widely accepted as a tool of deterrence, in German circles they are viewed as contributors to further escalation. Domestic public opinion aside, there is also consensus within the government, epitomised by Germany’s Minister of Defence Christine Lambrecht who asserted that “weapons deliveries would not be helpful at the moment – that is the consensus in the federal government.” 

Instead, Germany has opted to send medical apparatus to Ukraine, including a field hospital and necessary training co-financed by Germany that will be delivered next month. This plays to the dissonance that is prevalent in Germany, where despite acknowledgement that there will be bloodshed, there is a refusal to deliver weapons. In lieu of this, Scholz has settled for an approach that conforms to Germany’s contemporary role as mediator between Russia, NATO and Ukraine. This is epitomised by the decision not to evacuate embassy staff in Kyiv, Ukraine despite the United States already doing so. The commitment to avoiding escalation in this situation is evident. A further hesitation by Scholz to concretely commit to any sanctions in the event of an invasion indicates that the Chancellor does not wish to undermine Germany’s broader role as the diplomat between Russia and NATO; a feat that weapons delivery would almost certainly accomplish. 

Hence, while undoubtedly controversial on the face of it, such policy aligns with party politics and the German public, who are cognizant of the history that is precursory to the conflict. Moreover, it allows Scholz and Germany to fulfil its inclination to de-escalation and perform in its long-standing role as mediator; controversial is not synonymous with futile. 

Who is changing Olaf Scholz’s temperature? 

Answer: Scholz is driven by the legacy of Ostopolitik, his inclination to replicate Angela Merkel – one of the foundations of his election campaign – and the constraints of his coalition government.

As Russia edges closer to the brink of invading Ukraine, much of the world questions the effectiveness of German diplomacy. However, Scholz’ inclination towards greater dialogue with Putin should come of no surprise. This is in large part due to the fact that his Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD, centre-left on the political spectrum) membership originated around the time of Cold War rapprochement pursued by Willy Brandt. What is widely known as Ostopolitik was a policy aimed at fostering reconciliation with the USSR. It was this diplomatic approach that enabled the eventual reunification of East and West Germany; a historical symbol of reconciliation. The harmonisation of interests between the two countries was so potent that bilateral relations continued to develop despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. This ultimately paved the way for a long-standing relationship that persists to this day, despite a history of tensions that split Germany into two. In this policy’s continuation, Scholz has advocated for a new “European Ostpolitik” that “takes Russia’s interests into account.” 

Hence, despite worrying indications that Russia is preparing an invasion, there are talks of Scholz seeking a “qualified reset” in ties with Putin. He has also found an ally in French President Macron, who has himself welcomed diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Scholz also has a history of a strict adherence to party lines, epitomised by his unwavering support for former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at a time when the SPD was reforming the economy and cutting welfare; earning him the nickname of “Scholzomat.” This serves to further explain Scholz’ continuity of Ostpolitik. 

Moreover, Scholz’ extraordinary turnaround in the elections can largely be attributed to his calculation that the German public sought a leader akin to Angela Merkel. Although often uncharismatic in his expression, Scholz embodied the calm of Merkel and was subsequently nicknamed “the Merkel” by social media. As other candidates in the race made decisive political mistakes, Scholz quickly emerged as a successor to Merkel owing to his stability and pragmatism. Consequently, aspects of his campaign were predicated on the protraction of Merkel’s policies who was often open to dialogue despite often being critical of Russia. Scholz’ support for the Nordstream 2 pipeline despite its controversy exemplifies his desire to follow in Merkel’s footsteps. 

Scholz’s foreign policy is also strongly influenced by his coalition allies, notably the Greens, who promote a staunch pacifist stance in international affairs. These political partners have been eager to push their ideals during the Ukrainian crisis, led by Foreign Minister Baerbock. This would explain why Scholz has been careful to criticise Moscow, while failing to specify the consequences in store in the event of an invasion.

Scholz’s approach to the crisis, therefore, is very much motivated by not just the historical dimension to the issue, but also his political inclinations. His proclivity towards diplomacy as a means to reduce tensions vis-à-vis Russia stems from the origins of his political career with the SPD, along with the Green Party’s influence in the government coalition. Moreover, Merkel’s similarly diplomatic approach to Moscow despite its violation of various international norms and standards, including in Georgia and Crimea, predisposed Scholz to follow suit in the name of continuity. After all, it was the former Chancellor that Scholz set out to emulate. 

What is driving Olaf Scholz?

AnsweScholz is driven by a history of constructive reconciliation with Russia, in tandem with Germany’s clean energy interests and the short-term reliance on Russian gas that has engendered.

During the Cold War, as tensions between the USSR and West Germany flared, it was diplomacy between the two that marked a watershed moment in the history of German-Russian relations. It set a precedent for de-escalation, most notably given its capacity to overcome the history that antedated rapprochement. Moreover, Germany has, in the past, mediated successfully in the Ukraine Crisis. In 2014 and 2015, Germany played a significant role in the negotiation of the Minsk II ceasefire that temporarily brought a halt to the hostilities. It played a similar role in the 2019 Sea of Azov Dispute where the German government successfully avoided a considerable escalation in tensions between Ukraine and Russia. 

At the same time, Scholz seeks to maintain reasonable terms with all parties involved – its NATO allies and, in particular, its Russian trade partner. After all, the German-Russian relationship is underpinned not only on Ostpolitik, but also the mutual dependence deal that subsequently ensued in the 1970s, when Germany exchanged natural gas from the USSR for its pipes and steel. Since then, German exports to Russia have risen exponentially, while Russia has become a major supplier of energy. The role of mediator in the crisis is favourable to Scholz because it enables him to maintain a workable relationship with all parties involved, notably Russia. 

German public opinion is also congruent with the view the weapons delivery to Russia is nothing but disastrous. In fact, trends within the country suggest a growing support for the Kremlin with a 2018 Pew survey concluding that 69% of Germans want to cooperate more closely with Russia. Furthermore, a majority of Germans oppose stronger sanctions against Russia with a poll in March finding that 55% of Germans have either “a lot” or “some” sympathy for the notion that Crimea should be a part of Russia’s sphere of influence. These numbers imply that Germans are eager to play a middle role between Russia, the US and NATO. Thus, Scholz understands his public opinion and seeks to govern in their stead.

Finally energy, whether Scholz admits it or not, is a key factor that explains the caution with which the Chancellor has approached Russia and his hestiance to commit to any concrete measures, especially with respect to the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline. Indeed, any moves against its biggest energy supplier would be a costly endeavour for the Germans. This is especially true in light of Scholz’s clean energy agenda, as he attempts to phase out the use of coal by 2030 and switch off its remaining nuclear power plants this year. Therefore, Germany’s reliance on gas in the decade will increase, while a stable source of renewable energy is established. Although Scholz and German officials believe that Russia would not risk harming its reputation as a reliable supplier of gas, any serious escalation by Berlin could risk putting that theory to the test. 

Such concerns are not baseless as Russia has in the past weaponised energy, notably limiting gas supply to Europe in 2014 to politically pressure Ukraine. Moreover, American intelligence suspects Putin will turn off the gas supply to Europe when confronted with sanctions. Hence, Scholz finds himself pitted between its primary energy supplier and its NATO allies. The circumstances force the Chancellor’s hand, in the sense that he is now faced with the task of convincing allies to avoid any significant escalation to preserve what appears to be a fragile state of energy security. This conundrum has left him exposed to blowback from his partners, as well as limiting his ability to de-escalate the situation. Staying on cordial terms with Russia, therefore, is not only a big part of Germany’s energy security and Scholz’ clean energy goal, but is also a key factor in terms of voter appeasement, as a further price hike in the middle of winter will likely hurt him with voters. 

The German Chancellor has an arduous road in front of him, having to juggle public opinion, displeasure from Germany’s NATO allies, the energy crisis and, the ever present threat of Russian aggression. His adherence to Germany’s weapons export policy has already irked Ukraine and other NATO allies, underscoring the inherent contradiction within his dilemma. Ultimately, as he tries to navigate these challenges, it is likely he will lose out on at least one front.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: With Germany diverging from the NATO’s preferred approach, Russia may find the time is ripe to advance its geopolitical ambitions. Whether or not there will be an invasion, it is certain that with time will come heightened tensions. 

Despite the warranted German preference for diplomacy, the approach diverges considerably from its Western allies. Earlier in the week, President Biden acknowledged that a response to Russia could be complicated by “differences” within the NATO alliance. Meanwhile, Macron and France have sought to use the Ukrainian crisis to advance its own ambitions with French presidential elections slated for April of this year. Putin recognises that in the absence of a coordinated approach by Europe’s main powers, it is likely that the EU will struggle to consolidate its own strategy with respect to Ukraine. 

Scholz, in particular, has offered diplomacy but is yet to concede to any of Putin’s demands. Moreover, he finds his hands tied with respect to policy as he contends with a number of conflicting interests. Scholz already finds himself struggling to strike a balance, falling under increasing pressure from the EU to support a military training mission in Ukraine, and receiving considerable backlash because of the decision to send a mere 5,000 protective helmets to the region. Based on the behaviour of Germany’s allies, there seems to be little faith in the Chancellor’s ability to de-escalate tensions by way of diplomacy, as military support to Ukraine has continued to increase.

This major chasm in the Western approach to Ukraine might compel Russia to take risks it would otherwise have hesitated to take. With Olaf Scholz and the West rigid on Russian demands, the ball is now in Moscow’s court. It is unknown whether Putin genuinely wishes to follow through on his threats, but Germany’s insistence on de-escalation leads the way for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. Although Scholz’ position is widely debated at the moment, it could prove to be highly successful in the medium-long term in diffusing tensions, while simultaneously defending Germany’s interests. 

Ahaan Rai

R&A Alumno