German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arriving in Niger on May 23: "We are doing what we can."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arriving in Niger on May 23: "We are doing what we can."

Foto: Michael Kappeler / dpa

Olaf Scholz and Ukraine Why Has Germany Been So Slow to Deliver Weapons?

Half of all Germans – not to mention numerous allied nations – believe the German chancellor could be doing more to help Ukraine. Why has Olaf Scholz's government been so hesitant?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is exasperating. For months, the narrative has been that he would prefer not to deliver any weapons at all to Ukraine, and certainly not any heavy weaponry. The chancellor, according to the scuttlebutt, has had to be forced into every single concession and then he delays the deliveries. On Wednesday, Scholz had to listen in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, as opposition leader Friedrich Merz of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) lambasted him as a miserable friend to Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion. Scholz, Merz said, may even be pursuing a "hidden agenda."

DER SPIEGEL 23/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 23/2022 (June 4th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Then, it was Scholz’s turn to speak. Normally, the center-left Social Democrat (SPD) uses the opportunity to read out some prepackaged statement until his audience nods off to sleep. This week, though, he was feisty.

"We are providing comprehensive assistance," the chancellor called out, his voice quaking and a steely look on his face. "That could also be acknowledged." He then went on to list off everything his government had already delivered – a relatively long list, but one primarily made up of light weaponry. He also listed off the heavy weapons that are to follow: 30 Gepard anti-aircraft vehicles, to be sent at some point this summer. Seven Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers, also to be sent this summer. Those deliveries had already been announced. But Scholz then promised the delivery of a modern anti-aircraft system called IRIS-T SLM, likely to be sent at some point this autumn. Kyiv is also to receive four MARS II multiple-launch rocket systems from the stocks of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military.

"We are doing what we can."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz

"We are doing what we can," Scholz said. And then, for all those who may not have gotten the message, he added: "Doing what must be done is precisely the path this government is following."

After his speech, Scholz – as he so often does – looked quite pleased with himself. Sitting on the government bench, he exuded a sense of certainty that he had successfully managed to refute all accusations pertaining to weapons deliveries that have been leveled at him in recent weeks. But is the chancellor’s self-satisfaction really rooted in reality?

Thus far, not a single heavy weapon has been delivered directly to Ukraine by Germany. And even if all of the systems that have now been promised do ultimately make their way to the country, the extensive amount of time that Berlin has taken to finally send significant help cannot be recuperated. Every single weapon that reached Ukraine earlier could have turned the tide of war in favor of Kyiv.

Scholz and his government are clearly playing for time. Initially, they didn’t believe that the Ukrainians had a chance against Russia and sent the bare minimum necessary for plausible deniability, starting with 5,000 helmets. Later, it was a mixture of incompetence and a lack of will – and a desire to hide behind its allies. Not to mention the refusal to take international leadership.

It seems likely that Scholz would never have delivered any weapons at all without massive pressure from abroad and from within his own governing coalition. The chancellor has had to be pressured into taking every single step. Just two days before Scholz announced the planned delivery of the anti-aircraft systems, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Italian daily La Repubblica: "There are countries from which we are awaiting deliveries, and other countries for which we have grown tired of waiting. Germany belongs to the second group." Within the upper echelons of Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), such comments are considered the height of impudence.

Since Olaf Scholz proclaimed a "watershed " three days after Russia launched its invasion, he has performed a number of twists and turns himself. And recently, military assistance for Ukraine from Germany has even been sharply reduced. As the weekly paper Welt am Sonntag reported, not even light weaponry has been delivered in any significant amounts recently. Between March 30 and May 26, the paper reported, only two deliveries from Germany arrived, and they were made up of smaller arms like anti-tank mines. According to a survey performed by Civey, half of all Germans don’t believe that Scholz is doing everything in his power to rapidly provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs.

And this despite the fact that Kyiv needs all the help it can get. Russia is on the advance in eastern Ukraine, with military experts beginning to wonder how long the Ukrainian military can continue standing up to the onslaught. The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, fears that Ukrainian resistance could even be broken in the next four to five weeks. In a number of classified briefings in recent days, BND analysts have noted that while the Russians are moving much more slowly than they did at the beginning of the war, they are able to conquer small bits of territory each day. The BND thinks it possible that Putin’s troops could bring all of the Donbas under their control by August. Which means that it makes a huge difference whether German weapons are delivered next week or at some point in August.

A Long-Standing Taboo

"Scholz is once again trying to substitute actual deliveries with announcements," says Johann Wadephul, a defense expert for the opposition CDU. "Instead of quickly delivering infantry fighting vehicles, he has announced the intention to deliver a complex system at an indeterminate point in the future. But Ukraine needs practical assistance now." Thorsten Frei, another leading conservative in parliament, adds that action is decisive, not announcements. "The German government is acting sluggishly on this issue, without any momentum and energy, lethargic." He says he can’t deny "the impression of a certain callousness exhibited by the chancellor."

Such talk, of course, is to be expected from the opposition. But if you look back at the 100 days that have passed since the beginning of the war, it becomes clear that the Scholz administration’s passiveness has been a pattern.

The first act in the German drama surrounding weapons deliveries to Ukraine took the stage immediately after Russia launched its invasion. Despite ample advance warning, Berlin was paralyzed. It took two days before the government began to reconsider the long-standing taboo against delivering weapons to warzones.

And the impulse to do so came from abroad, which has also become a pattern. On the day after the war began, a Friday, Dutch Defense Minister Karin Hildur Ollengren called her German counterpart Christine Lambrecht and informed her that the Netherlands intended to deliver 400 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. Because those weapons had been produced in Germany, she needed permission from Berlin to do so. It was a call that immediately upped the pressure on Berlin to take action as well.

Leaders in the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry quickly arrived at the conclusion that giving permission to the Netherlands was unavoidable. But it also meant that Germany had to do something. Scholz spent that Saturday meeting with his closest advisers, a day during which the idea for a 100-billion-euro cash injection for the German military took shape. But Scholz also decided to reverse his position on arms exports. The Defense Ministry was ordered to prepare suitable weapons for transport, and military leaders arranged for several hundred anti-tank rocket launchers and Stinger surface-to-air missiles to be trucked across the border into Poland.

But those hectic days immediately following the Russian invasion would also determine the course that has been interpreted by the rest of the world as timidity. Instead of preparing possible future weapons deliveries, the government apparently relied heavily on an analysis performed by the BND, which held that Ukraine would fall to Russia within days. On the strength of that analysis, the Chancellery concluded that further weapons deliveries made no sense.

Even as the government was drawing that conclusion, however, Berlin was being inundated with all kinds of offers from the arms industry to send weapons. On the Monday after Scholz’s "watershed" speech, the Defense Ministry assembled a group of executives from Germany’s most important arms manufacturers. The mission imparted to them from Vice-Admiral Carsten Stawitzki, head of arms procurement for the German military, was clear: The industry was to immediately report what weapons they could deliver or what Bundeswehr stocks they could quickly replenish following deliveries to the Ukrainian military.

The offers came quickly and in significant numbers, filling up long Excel spreadsheets. Rheinmetall alone offered dozens of products, including heavy weaponry. Marder infantry fighting vehicles, for example, which the German military was slowly phasing out. Rheinmetall had placed dozens of the vehicles in storage, but the German government decided to delay all decisions pertaining to armored vehicles.

Berlin was also offered Gepard armored air-defense vehicles at the time, which had likewise been decommissioned by the Bundeswehr. Producer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann reported that some of them could be quickly overhauled and sent to Ukraine. But the company initially heard nothing in response from the German government. "There was a clear line that we would only be delivering light weapons and no armored vehicles," says one high-ranking official about this period. "That’s why we didn’t immediately process the offers."

The result was the waste of valuable time. "All we would have needed to begin the overhauls was a discrete signal," says one defense industry executive. Instead, he says, officials in most of the ministries involved talked the issue to death.

The result is that still today, there are only about 20 entries in a classified list tucked into a red folder that is available for lawmakers to examine in a special room in the Reichstag, Germany’s federal parliament building. The list includes 500 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 900 anti-tank rocket launchers and 3,000 anti-tank rockets, the delivery of which was agreed to in the days immediately following the invasion. The list also includes 2,000 Strela anti-aircraft missiles from old East German stockpiles, 100 MG3 machine guns, 16 million rounds of ammunition, 2,600 directional anti-tank mines, 3,00 anti-tank mines, explosives and 100,000 grenades.

The government still continues to keep this modest list secret – out of embarrassment, one is tempted to say. Lawmakers from the three parties that make up Germany’s governing coalition – Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) – are also unclear as to how they should explain Berlin’s course if they don’t even know the details.

"Not Even I Have an Overview"

SPD parliamentarian Kaweh Mansoori, for example, wanted to learn what weapons had been delivered. His team asked the parliamentary office responsible for classified information when Mansoori could come by. The response: Unfortunately, not at all. The information, his office was told, is reserved for only those lawmakers who are members of the Economic Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committees of the German Bundestag. Mansoori is a member of the Legal Affairs Committee. "The fact that in such a situation, not all Bundestag representatives can receive insight into what has been delivered to Ukraine – that’s unacceptable," he says. "I am unable to answer questions from German citizens with a clear conscience if not even I have an overview of the deliveries."

Sievierodonetsk during heavy fighting on May 30

Sievierodonetsk during heavy fighting on May 30

Foto: ARIS MESSINIS / AFP

But if it’s politically expedient, the government is more than happy to ignore its own security concerns. In late April, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin forwarded his European counterparts an impromptu invitation for a meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, hoping to accelerate the speed of weapons deliveries. The invitation set off yet another hectic round of meetings in Berlin as German leaders tried to figure out what else they could send.

Events in Berlin on the day before that meeting perfectly illustrate the government’s complete lack of a strategy when it comes to this war. In the morning, there seemed to be clarity. At a closed-door meeting of security experts from the coalition parties, Defense Minister Lambrecht insisted that Germany would stick to its position that the delivery of heavy weapons would increase the risk of an escalation with Russia. As such, she said, the government was united it its refusal to send armored vehicles and tanks to Ukraine.

But just a few hours later, Lambrecht received new marching orders from the Chancellery. Now, Scholz suddenly supported the sending of Gepard air-defense vehicles. But that same day, military leaders warned that they possessed only very few rounds for the Gepard and that it could take quite some time before they could actually be delivered.

A further decision on arms deliveries was just as chaotic. In April, the Netherlands again contacted Berlin to ask if they could send Ukraine a couple of their German-built Panzerhaubitze 2000s to Ukraine. The discussion proceeded as it had in February, when the focus was on the 400 anti-tank rockets. Because Berlin again didn’t want to take a backseat to the Netherlands, the decision was made to send at least seven German howitzers as well.

"Prudence these days involves protecting as many innocent lives as possible from the Russian aggressor."

Markus Faber (FDP)

Olaf Scholz has never satisfactorily explained his aversion to sending armored vehicles to Ukraine. In mid-May, he at least hinted at his reasoning in a meeting with the Defense Committee in parliament. Germany, he said during the roughly one-hour meeting, will continue its arms deliveries "for as long as it is necessary to support Ukraine in its defensive battle." When it comes to arms deliveries, he said, there are no "eternal principles." Germany continues to coordinate closely with its partners, he said, and to calculate "the risks and the military efficiency" of deliveries – adding that battle tanks remained a no-go. Still, he said, there were no "absolute principles," which is why he preferred to remain vague in his public comments.

The tank embargo has never been discussed at the NATO level, much less decided upon, say people close to the German government, but unofficially, there is complete agreement on the issue between Washington, London and Paris. Furthermore, say sources, Germany could never be the first country to deliver tanks for historical reasons.

At the same time, sources close to the government say there is concern that Ukraine could become overconfident if it experiences a string of battlefield victories and rolls into Russian territory – which would mean that German tanks would once again be inside Russia. It is a concern that highlights a certain distrust in Berlin of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And that, too, is a reason why the defense industry in Germany has not been authorized to deliver battle tanks.

In Berlin, the joint line that has been established with alliance partners has been interpreted to mean that there is no need yet to prepare armored vehicles for delivery. Which means that if Washington does ultimately decide to send armored vehicles one day, it would still take an additional several months before the German Marders could be overhauled. And responsibility for making such preparations, Berlin believes, lies with the defense companies and not with Berlin.

The German government is, however, participating in swap deals, according to which Germany would backfill armaments sent by allied nations to Ukraine. The first such deal involved old East German military equipment possessed by Estonia – "rusty GDR howitzers," as the Chancellery deprecatingly referred to them. Later, other EU countries followed suit, such as the Czech Republic’s decision to send old Soviet materiel to Ukraine. In return, Berlin is endeavoring to backfill their partners’ arsenals with half-way modern weaponry. Another example is Slovakia’s delivery to Ukraine several weeks ago of Russian-built S300 anti-aircraft systems. Germany and other NATO member states then deployed Patriot missile defense systems to Slovakia.

The system, though, doesn’t always run smoothly. Poland, for example, gave Ukraine most of its old Russian tanks, with Warsaw relying on Germany’s pledge to restock Poland’s tank fleet. But the Poles had been hoping that they would receive the newest models of the Leopard tank – a desire that proved unfulfillable. Even Germany’s Bundeswehr has only a few dozen of them.

Ready in the Autumn?

At the beginning of this week, the debate within the German government again gained momentum. And once again, the impulse didn’t come from the Chancellery. In the secret video conference of Ukraine supporters held the week before last, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had announced that Washington would soon be delivering medium-range rocket systems to Ukraine, saying the country would otherwise lose its ability to stand up to the advancing Russians. Austin encouraged others to join the effort. Then, last weekend, Washington and the UK government contacted Berlin to ask what Germany had come up with.

Once again, the chancellor was forced to take a position, and again, there was a hectic round of meetings in Berlin. Ultimately, the Scholz administration decided to add four MARS II multiple rocket launcher systems from the Bundeswehr to the U.S. pledge. And suddenly, secrecy was no longer quite as important as it had been. On Wednesday, the news of the MARS II deliveries was leaked to the press. At the same time, Germany’s Federal Security Council authorized the delivery of ultra-modern IRIS-T SLM anti-aircraft systems built by Diehl Defence. It is unclear, though, whether they will have much relevance. Even optimists in the Scholz administration admit that they will likely only be ready for delivery in autumn. Or later.

Even if the new announcements from Berlin managed to finally generate a bit of positive press coverage, there are again plenty of indications that the Germans sat on the fence for quite some time. Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk says that the Ukrainians have been in talks with the Chancellery over the direct delivery of the IRIS-T for three months. Melnyk says that German Economy Minister Robert Habeck was particularly energetic in pushing for a deal between the German arms manufacturer and Ukraine. Other ministries, though, the ambassador said, were more reserved.

Only last Monday, three days before Scholz’s speech, was a deal reached, and Melnyk was discretely notified that the IRIS-T delivery would be given the green light. Insiders say that the export application from Diehl had been sent to the Federal Security Council at the beginning of May. At around that same time, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov sent a letter to his German counterpart Lambrecht urging the rapid delivery of the system.

"Germany has lost affinity in Ukraine."

Marieluise Beck of the Green Party

The letter, dated May 1, also included a number of other wishes. Reznikov urgently requested the "accelerated delivery of weapons and military equipment." On his list were Leopard 1A5 battle tanks and Leopard 2A7s along with 105 mm and 120 mm ammunition. "Armored fighting vehicles," he wrote, currently "are vital to strengthen the capabilities of the Ukraine military." Delivery, though, is nowhere in sight.

Why the chancellor only acts late and under immense pressure – if he acts at all – is a riddle to many. Even among his coalition partners, his course is being watched with a mixture of skepticism and consternation, particularly within the FDP and the Greens. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmerman, who focuses on defense policy for the FDP, has long been critical, arguing that Germany isn’t doing enough.

Fellow party member Markus Faber agrees. Until recently, Faber was defense policy spokesman for his party’s group in parliament, until he had to step down after he criticized Scholz in public. "The chancellor’s hesitancy is frequently described in Germany as prudence," he says. "But prudence these days involves protecting as many innocent lives as possible from the Russian aggressor. Germany can and must provide more help. For example, 100 Fuchs armored personnel carriers, 100 Marder infantry fighting vehicles, 100 Leopard 1 battle tanks or 200 trucks could be quickly made available." Only the approval of export applications stands in the way, he says.

In the Economics Ministry of Robert Habeck, frustration has long been building with how few weapons exports have been approved. Habeck and his team are prepared to deliver tanks from Bundeswehr stockpiles, since they would be available more quickly than the vehicles that the defense industry would have to overhaul. Both the Greens and the FDP are prepared to accept the temporary weakening of the German military that would result from such a move. "Our geopolitical interests are currently being defended in Ukraine," says a high-ranking official from Habeck’s ministry.

Green Party parliamentarians hold a similar view. "We have to continue to act and increase and accelerate our support each and every day," says Agnieszka Brugger, a defense policy specialist. "Especially because of the scorched-earth Russian strategy in the Donbas, the rapid delivery of additional, and heavy weaponry is necessary." Her party ally Marieluise Beck says that when she traveled to Odessa, she was asked by people there if Berlin maybe didn’t even want Ukraine to win. "Germany has lost affinity in Ukraine," Beck says. "The Chancellery’s take-it-slow attitude ultimately translates into lives lost in Ukraine."

Questions About Scholz's Leadership

Green Party leadership takes a similar view, but isn’t as open about it. In a certain sense, the Greens deal with the chancellor is in a manner reminiscent of how the chancellor deals with Vladimir Putin – avoid direct criticism in the hopes that he doesn’t completely shut himself off. "The problem is in the Chancellery," said Anton Hofreiter, chair of the European Union Affairs Committee in the German parliament, not long ago. Since then, though, he has softened his tone. "The chancellor has publicly defended the delivery of weapons. Now, it is time to act.”

In London, says former UK Minister of State for Europe David Lidington, there are growing doubts about Germany’s reliability as a security partner. And in a New York Times piece about Scholz, the U.S. daily wrote that there are "questions about his leadership and … ability to help steer Europe through the continent’s most dramatic security crisis since World War II."

The government in Berlin believes that the criticism is completely overwrought. Why hasn’t Germany’s multibillion-euro financial contribution received more recognition? France, say some in the government, is doing less for Ukraine, but is hardly being criticized at all, nor has the country been consumed by a domestic debate on the issue. The Ukrainian ambassador in Paris, say others, is far more reserved than his counterpart in Berlin, who is constantly issuing new demands – and fresh insults – to the German government.

But it is Melnyk, of all people, who has surprisingly thrown his support behind Scholz in recent days. "That is a good decision, a good start," he said this week about the planned deliveries of the air-defense systems. "If things keep going like that and more, heavy weaponry follows, then at some point, we really can say: Well done, Germany!"

Will Melnyk really end up saying such a thing? The experience thus far with the German chancellor would suggest not.

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