When a man is in a hole, he is best advised to stop digging. When a German chancellor is in a hole, by contrast, he seems to think it his duty to chide others for failing to dig their own. So it is with Olaf Scholz, Germany’s increasingly ridiculous chancellor.
Scholz lost a defence minister and appointed an unknown quantity as her replacement mere days ago. That new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, will soon meet up to 50 Nato and allied defence ministers in Ramstein on Friday to coordinate supporting Ukraine. It’s a tough thing to do within your first week on the job. Especially when the chancellor and his officials seem intent on making your job harder.
A brief step back. The consensus on arming Ukraine is moving very quickly in favour of more assistance. Major Russian spring and even winter offensives are being reported as likely by every intelligence agency. A new Russian wave of mobilisation may soon take place.
And Russia has pointedly attacked Ukrainian civilian targets with its scarce ballistic missiles in the last few weeks. The cries of those dying under the collapsed apartment block in Dnipro will be remembered by those who heard them for the rest of their lives.
Ukraine needs heavier vehicles and better weapons in order to bring this war to a swift and victorious conclusion. For a year it has demanded them and most Nato countries have twirled their hair around their fingers and claimed ignorance or incapability.
But now the dial has moved. Britain was out of the gate first, announcing the sending of a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks, with possibly more to come.
The United States has still denied that it will supply its own workhorse, the Abrams, but it has suggested that Bradley infantry fighting vehicles – which are impressive and capable machines – will at some point in the coming year be on the way.
France has leapt into action, promising more artillery and armoured vehicles of its own.
Standing like greyhounds in the slips are a coalition of smaller but enthusiastic allies of Ukraine, who field the German-made Leopard tank. For weeks now, they have sought German permission to donate these to the war effort – something the Germans have the power to deny. No formal application has been made, but the pressure has steadily mounted; in recent weeks, it has spilled out into an increasingly ugly public debate.
The Poles, the Finns, the Lithuanians, and the Danes (and several other countries so far unnamed) desperately wish to supply the hardware. So far, Scholz has pursed his lips and resolutely said ‘no’.
Pressure has built within the chancellor’s own governing coalition. Still his hands are firmly on his hips. No.
Even the sometimes smug and complacent German media have got in on the act. And Scholz’s responses, reported in the papers, almost cause the jaw to drop.
When talking to his parliamentary group earlier in the week, Der Spiegel reported, Scholz said that he had met a jogger – coincidentally a Pole – who told him that he was very good and wise not to have allowed the Polish government to ‘drive him crazy’ and cave into giving Ukraine the Leopards. How handy that the chancellor met a Pole who told him the Poles were trying to make him insane!
These evasions have begun to wear somewhat. Germany’s would-be friends are beginning to lose patience. The defence meeting is on Friday when a great deal more support for Ukrainis likely to be announced by other countries.
Now the final cards are being played, and they are feeble. Germany might – I stress, might – be prepared to supply Leopards, the chancellor’s officials have said. But only if others make the first move.
They don’t mean Britain, of course, which has already moved. Or the Baltic states, which stand ready to move with all their might the second it is possible for them to do so. The chancellor means the Americans – and if you really squint, he has the faintest ghost of a point.
The US has not sent tanks – yet. And many of the American objections are equally nonsensical. They say their Abrams tanks are simply too heavy – though it’s something the other behemoth vehicles of the war have not minded.
They claim the Abrams is simply too space-age and high-tech for simple Ukrainians to use – even though generations of 18-year-old Americans manage fine, learning to work their Abrams tanks in peacetime, or wars shorter and less intense than the one Ukrainian tank crews have fought for the past 11 months. But America has always been perverse and the people now in the Biden White House have always been strange.
It is no excuse for the Germans that a far-away nation drunk off its superpower status is sometimes enigmatic. This war effectively touches Germany’s borders. Virtually everyone else on the European continent already understands this: that there is no excuse; that this war is do or die for the continent.
Scholz does not understand. Perhaps his new defence minister will – when, this Friday, 50 baleful pairs of eyes stare blearily at him across the Ramstein conference table.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.