HAMBURG, Germany — After months of indecision, hand-wringing and uncertainty, Germany last week committed to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. The delay was a measure of the decision’s significance. For a country long wary of active military involvement in conflicts, the release of its most advanced war machine for battle with Russian troops is momentous. A taboo has been shed.
The decision has revealed something of an enigma. Who is the man leading Germany during the fiercest conflict in Europe since World War II: a strategic genius or a fainthearted dawdler? Over a year into his tenure, Chancellor Olaf Scholz remains hard to decipher. On the one hand, his agreement with the United States will bring Ukraine more military power than expected. On the other hand, it took him half a year of ever-mounting pressure from allies, coalition partners and large parts of the German press to move on the issue, robbing Ukraine of time it doesn’t have.
So there’s something for both interpretations. Yet decoding Mr. Scholz is crucial, not so much for understanding his first year in office as for navigating the months that lie ahead. Because the decisive question for Mr. Scholz — as well as for NATO as a whole — is not whether to send battle tanks to Ukraine. Rather, it’s the question of what the West should do once Ukraine starts using those tanks, especially in a potential advance toward Crimea. For all the importance of the past week, that test is still to come.
So far, the chancellor has been notably timid: He tends to look on until, well, push comes to Scholz. He intervened in a fight about extending nuclear power only after his Green and Liberal ministers had spent months scratching each other’s political eyes out. It took him an entire year to accept that his original appointment as defense minister was clearly ill suited for the job. Rather than sack her for a series of blunders, he waited until she resigned.
Mr. Scholz’s tendency to wait until the last minute to act — a kind of strategic bystanderism — has been most damaging when it comes to Ukraine. In the months it took him to forge his tank deal, thousands of Ukrainians died from Russian bombs, rockets and artillery. Potentially even more Ukrainians and Russians are going to die in the months that it will now take to make the tanks, both American and German, operational.
These deaths, of course, are not Mr. Scholz’s fault. But a quicker, bolder decision on tanks could have alleviated the situation, allowing the Ukrainians to make decisive breakthroughs and shift the battlefield dynamics in their favor. Instead, as the British historian Timothy Garton Ash has warned, the conflict is in danger of becoming an “escalating stalemate,” with both sides dug in for World War I-style trench warfare.
Securing the United States’ support, in the form of 31 M1 Abrams tanks, is generally seen as a success. But there’s a drawback here, too. By insisting that the United States take an equal risk in opposing Vladimir Putin with battle tanks, Mr. Scholz has shown a lack of faith in a core principle of NATO itself. Article 5, after all, states that an attack on one member will be considered as an attack on all members. Forcing the issue, said Roderich Kiesewetter, a foreign policy expert in the opposition Christian Democratic Party, “undermines the credibility of the alliance.”
Mr. Scholz proudly calls it “responsible” to have gained an extra layer of reassurance. He reportedly sees his move in the tradition of one of his predecessors as chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt, also a Social Democrat, pressed the Americans to station medium-range Pershing II missiles in Germany in the 1980s. He wanted Washington to be able to retaliate in kind should the Soviets attack Europe with their new SS-20 missiles.
But Mr. Schmidt’s main intention was to close a defense gap, while Mr. Scholz’s is seemingly to fill a courage gap. The German public is split on the Leopards decision, not least because Germany does not have a nuclear deterrent of its own. But was it wise to leverage this anxiety against a resolute alliance partner like the United States? Real leadership should have meant the opposite: to use the alliance with the United States, longstanding and of indisputable worth, to assuage German angst. The fact that Mr. Scholz didn’t chose this option will be remembered not only in Washington but also in Moscow.
There is one last exhibit of Mr. Scholz’s slowness, one that allies in the East and West should heed. The chancellor steadfastly refuses to utter a sentence that most other Western leaders have said by now: that Ukraine must win this war. Mr. Scholz goes only so far as to say that Ukraine must not lose it. Why? The most probable reason is to signal to Ukrainian officials that a victory as they envision it — including the reclamation of Crimea — is not what Germany has in mind.
Here, for a change, Mr. Scholz’s caution could be justified. As much as one can argue about Mr. Putin’s red lines, possession of Crimea is certainly one that the Russian president is determined to stick to. The peninsula is not only holy to Mr. Putin as the place of baptism of Vladimir the Great, the father of Russian Christianity, but also sacred to him personally. The fate of Crimea is very likely to determine his own.
If Mr. Putin were to lose Crimea, he would fail the promise on which the entire war in Ukraine is founded: to restore national glory and greatness, in compensation for the humiliations that — as Mr. Putin sees it — the West has inflicted on Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. A Ukrainian recapture of Crimea would not be just a territorial defeat. Psychologically, it would be dangerously more than that: a humiliation of the effort to undo humiliation. Nobody knows whether Mr. Putin, in a meltdown moment, might resort to a nuclear strike to avoid this ultimate degradation.
In this setting, a push from Ukraine to win back the peninsula with Western tanks should worry more than just the faint of heart. Mr. Scholz likes to present his slowness as prudence that others recognize only in hindsight. Yet when it comes to Crimea, his strategy of caution surely won’t hold. He will have to stop playing the bystander, and act.
Jochen Bittner (@JochenBittner) is a co-head of the debate section for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
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