Speaking at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, German Chancellor
Olaf Scholz summarized his country’s approach to the war in Ukraine. “Despite all
the pressure to take action,” he said, “caution must take priority over hasty decisions,
unity over solo actions.” The line provided Scholz’s most explicit defense to date of
Germany’s cycle of denial, delay, and cautious delivery of new weapons technologies
to assist Ukraine’s effort against Russia. What appeared to be hand-wringing over
sending Leopard 2 tanks earlier this year, Scholz assured the audience, was in fact his
government’s latest prudent measure to achieve a decisive victory for Ukraine in the
war raging east of the Dnipro River.
Scholz’s allies in Kyiv and elsewhere surely paid careful attention to the evolution that
the Munich speech represented. Nearly a year earlier, after Russia invaded Ukraine,
the chancellor had boldly declared in another speech that Germany had reached a
Zeitenwende, an inflection point in history. During a special session convened in the
Bundestag last February, he said his country would have to transform decades of
conciliation toward Russia into a clear-eyed will to dissuade President Vladimir Putin
from further aggression. Scholz identified the war’s central struggle as “whether we
permit Putin to turn back the clock to the 19th century … or whether we have it in
us to keep warmongers like Putin in check.” The challenge “requires strength of our
own,” Scholz stated.
The standing ovations that erupted after these key lines echoed the world over, as
leaders throughout Europe and North America applauded the chancellor’s remarks.
Yet in the intervening 12 months, he has not delivered on his sweeping vision for a
more modern, more active German military.
Three days after the war began, Scholz made a promise he repeated this month in
Munich: “Germany will increase its defense expenditure to 2 percent of gross
domestic product on a permanent basis.” But his government failed to meet that
objective last year, and it will likely fail again this year and next year. Germany now
spends the second-largest amount of all governments supplying Ukraine’s defense, but
it still spends less on a per capita basis than countries that are smaller and less affluent.
Germany finally sent tanks to Ukraine earlier this year, but those donations have
proved easier than genuine reform at home. Although Berlin has made good on its
promise of a boycott of Russian fossil fuels, its contribution to NATO’s “Very High
Readiness Joint Task Force”—a German-made infantry fighting vehicle called the
Puma—floundered. In training exercises, the Puma earned the nickname
Pannenpanzer, or “breakdown tank.”
Read the full article at The Atlantic.
George E. Bogden is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute and Kennan Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.