FRANKFURT: Germany’s new government faced pressure on Sunday to take a firmer stance against Russia, after a German navy chief’s pro-Moscow remarks angered Kiev and exasperation grows with Berlin’s fence-sitting in the Ukraine crisis.
After a week of frantic diplomacy that included a visit to Berlin by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government found itself scrambling at the weekend to reassure Kiev of its support in the face of a feared Russian invasion.
The spat was triggered by German navy chief Kay-Achim Schoenbach’s musings that it was “nonsense” to think Russia was about to march on Ukraine and that President Vladimir Putin deserves respect. Schoenbach resigned late on Saturday, but the damage was done.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba summoned the German ambassador and accused Berlin of “encouraging” Putin to attack Ukraine.
Scholz on Sunday warned again of “high costs” should Russia attack, in an interview with the Sueddeutsche newspaper.
But with trademark caution, he also called for “wisdom” in considering sanctions and “the consequences they would have for us”.
Seeking to smoothe tensions, Blinken said he had “no doubts” that Germany shared Washington’s concerns and was maintaining a united front with Nato on Ukraine.
The Ukraine crisis is the first major test for Social Democrat Scholz, who took over from veteran leader Angela Merkel last month.
His coalition government of the centre-left SPD, the Greens and the pro-business FDP, has vowed “dialogue and toughness” with Russia.
But it has struggled to overcome internal divisions and craft a unified response on how to deal with an emboldened Moscow.
The Handelsblatt financial daily, noting that German politicians’ tendency to “understand Russia” remains alive and well, asked: “Where is the line between a willingness to engage in dialogue, and strategic naivete?”
A key bone of contention between Germany and Western allies is Berlin’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine.
The United States, Britain and Baltic states have already agreed to send weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
Germany is traditionally reluctant to get involved in military conflict, traumatised by its past as an instigator of two World Wars, and Scholz’s government claims arming Ukraine would only inflame tensions.
But Ukraine’s Kuleba said Germany’s ambiguous stance does not match “the current security situation”, and urged Berlin to “stop undermining unity” among Kiev’s allies.
Even in Germany, some have called for a rethink.
Henning Otte, a lawmaker from the centre-right CDU opposition party, told the Bild daily last week that if Ukraine is asking for weapons to fend off a possible attack, “we must not reject this request”.
Another sore point in the Ukraine crisis is the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has split the new cabinet in Berlin.
The completed pipeline, currently awaiting German regulatory approval, is set to double Russian gas supplies to Germany.
The previous Merkel-led government always insisted the pipeline was a purely commercial project — irritating allies who fear the pipeline will give Russia too much leverage over European energy.
While Scholz has echoed Merkel’s line on the “private sector project”, his Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, from the Greens, is a known opponent of Nord Stream 2.
But in a sign that Scholz’s position may be hardening, he reiterated last week that he stood by a German-US deal not to allow Moscow to use the pipeline as a weapon and that when it comes to sanctions, “everything” is on the table.
Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said she hoped Scholz’s words would bring “more coherence to the German debate and reassure partners abroad who had started to see Germany as the West’s weak link”.
Scholz’s SPD has a “nostalgic reflex” when it comes to Russia, Die Zeit weekly recently noted, harking back to ex-SPD chancellor Willy Brandt and his “Ostpolitik” policy of rapprochement with the east in the 1970s.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2022