Germany has a special responsibility to stop Putin’s evil
A merciless war is being waged in the heart of Europe — against the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany. At least that’s what a casual observer of German politics might conclude.
Rolf Mützenich, the leader of the SPD’s parliamentary faction, denounced the demands of his Green and Free Democrat coalition partners for heavy arms deliveries to Ukraine as “irresponsible”. His colleague Ralf Stegner oscillates between angry tweets and accusatory Facebook screeds against criticism of his party’s past policy towards Russia.
Sigmar Gabriel, former foreign minister, railed against “dangerous conspiracy theories” about German-Russian influence networks. Tearful self-pity is unedifying. His stridency suggests that criticism is hitting home.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself is getting sensitive. He fired three members of the Bundestag who had visited Ukraine and called for more military support, calling them “boys and girls”. In a recent interview, he suggested that sending heavy weapons would make Germany and NATO “war parties”.
The cold truth is that there is a lot to criticize. It is high time for the SPD to expel its main Russian gas lobbyist, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. It is also essential that the German courts investigate the links between Manuela Schwesig, premier of the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and gas pipeline operator Nord Stream 2, which is 100% owned by Gazprom.
But Germany’s self-serving Russian policy and self-inflicted energy dependence – partly willfully naive and partly deeply corrupt – has found enthusiastic supporters in all political parties. They emboldened the Kremlin and allowed Vladimir Putin’s war.
However, it is missing the point to ask that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president and another former foreign minister, or former chancellor Angela Merkel be dragged before a parliamentary commission of inquiry. When in power, they and other German politicians shrewdly felt they were doing exactly what business and the general public wanted.
At least Steinmeier has publicly stated that he was wrong. But as for Russia’s war of annihilation and its relentless atrocities against the Ukrainians, they are upon us all.
To Scholz’s credit, he and his government came to power with an ambitious program of domestic transformation. Four days after the Russian invasion, the Chancellor recognized the need for a Zeitenwende, or turning point, in German energy and security policy as well, and he promised to support Ukraine. It’s hard to imagine Merkel, his Christian Democrat predecessor, doing either. Unfortunately, none of Germany’s short-term options to help kyiv and prevent a Kremlin victory are good.
Because Germany’s hydrocarbon imports fuel the Russian war machine, Berlin wants to stop importing coal by the summer and oil by the end of the year. But he fears stopping gas imports now – instead of 2024, as originally planned – could create a massive recession and political unrest. On this point, Janet Yellen, the US Treasury Secretary, seems to agree.
Ukraine calls for heavy weapons as Russia steps up offensive in Donbass. But on this issue, Scholz dithered, dithered and threw smoke, sparking growing anger from Germany’s allies and coalition partners. The lack of usable German military equipment is real, as is the pressure from the intransigent and pacifist left wing of the SPD. In a belated compromise, Berlin is moving to replace weapons supplied to kyiv by other NATO allies.
Scholz is not helped by a speaking style that ranges from stoic to gnomic. Some of his ministers are weaker than others. But his real problem lies elsewhere. As a parliamentary democracy, Germany has a federal executive that is weak by design. The chancery’s staff is tiny compared to that of other major democracies. Scholz’s most experienced advisers are scattered. This shows.
For Scholz’s unstable “traffic light” coalition to survive and exercise power effectively, it must change the way it governs. The Foreign Office is working on a national security strategy, the first such document in Germany. In principle, this will help to articulate strategic objectives more coherently.
But even more urgently, the Chancellery needs genuine national security personnel capable of advising and helping the head of government through a period of continual disruption. This is all the more important since Germany has a special responsibility to put an end to the evil unleashed by Putin.