Analysis Poland is calling now is no time for.jpgw1440

Analysis | Poland is calling, now is no time for Scholz

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As far as endorsements go, this one was tense enough to be devastating. It came near the end of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s press briefing last week, shortly after senior officials from 50 countries met at a US airbase in Germany to coordinate their military support to Ukraine. Austin was asked if Germany was still a reliable ally.

Instead, he made a detour to another subject and another. But the question hung in the air too thick. Austin nudged himself and finally said as diplomatically as he could, “You’re a trusted ally. They have been for a very, very long time. And I firmly believe that they will continue to be a reliable ally.”

Just a day earlier, Austin had been engaged in a long and tense argument with Scholz’s chief of staff, Wolfgang Schmidt, in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Berlin office. That standoff was followed by a phone call to Germany from US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in which he allegedly read “the rebellion” to the Germans.

So, behind closed doors, Americans are somewhere between frustrated, at a loss and angry – and very much questioning whether the Germans are reliable allies. Besides, they’re hardly the only ones. The Poles, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians and others are even more angry. The Ukrainians are appalled.

What makes them so angry is Scholz’s stubborn refusal to make a decision on the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. These are made in Germany and used by the armies of more than a dozen western countries. There are more than 2,000 in total.

Ukraine has been advocating leopards since last spring, and allies have been urging Germany to say yes since the summer. For example, Ukrainians not only need to be able to defend themselves against Russian missile attacks, but also to be able to maneuver against and around the invading army and retake areas occupied by the Russians. For this they need armored combat vehicles, which the Americans, French and Germans are now sending. But they also need the big beasts, the so-called “battle tanks”.

So Germany could supply some of its own leopards. Or it could issue re-export licenses for other countries wanting to ship their tanks, like Poland, which formally applied this week. Scholz could even set up a consortium of allied nations. That would also show the leadership that Americans and Europeans have long been demanding of Germany – and that Scholz promised during his 2021 election campaign.

But that hasn’t happened yet. In his idiosyncratic mixture of stubbornness and shyness, Scholz neither said yes nor no, nor took the initiative to break the deadlock. He hasn’t explained his thinking either, instead reciting the same hackneyed tropes ad nauseam.

For one thing, Germany must never act unilaterally, but can only help Ukraine in coordination with allies. This has become a joke as these same allies keep urging Germany to act. In reality, Scholz used this bromide to justify that Germany is forever a follower and not a leader — and specifically to rationalize hiding behind the Americans.

What particularly infuriated Austin and Sullivan, for example, was that Scholz actually attempted to impose conditions on them by tying Leopards deliveries to simultaneous deliveries of American M1 Abrams tanks. Perhaps the US should actually send a few – the British are also giving the Ukrainians some of their Challenger 2s. But the Abrams is more difficult to operate than the Leopard and runs on jet fuel. And unlike the Leopard, it is not yet in use across Europe. In any case, there is no reason to only send Leopards if Abrams are too – even Germany’s new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has admitted this.

Another cliche Scholz and his henchmen salvaged is that Scholz was just “prudent.” Does that mean the other allies are unwise? More likely, it suggests that German angst is haunting Scholz. He seems more afraid than other leaders that Russian President Vladimir Putin will escalate into chemical, biological, or even nuclear war, and he doesn’t want to be the one to initiate the provocation.

While such an escalation cannot be ruled out, it has become unlikely – in part because every major power, from China to the US, has made it clear to Putin that Russian nuclear weapons would not be tolerated and would lead to his certain demise. In any case, the way to deter a tyrant like Putin is to show strength, not fear. And it’s unclear why Germans should be more concerned about that distant scenario than, say, Ukrainians, who would be Putin’s target.

With his dithering, Scholz did exactly what he wanted to avoid: he went it alone and increasingly isolated Germany in the western alliance. In fact, he isolates himself and his party, the Social Democrats, even within the federal government. Agnes-Marie Strack-Zimmermann, a leading parliamentarian for the Free Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition, said last week that “history has watched us and unfortunately Germany has failed.” Annalena Baerbock, Foreign Minister von Scholz and a member of the Green Party, indicated that she would not oppose Poland sending German-made Leopards.

I still believe that Scholz will eventually “free the leopards,” as protesters chanted outside his office last week. But even then, he will once again appear reticent enough to garble the signal Ukrainians need to hear – that the united West has their backs until they get their way.

In terms of style and approach, Scholz has long since emulated his predecessor, Angela Merkel. That’s not good for him. Merkel’s Russia policy now seems like appeasement. And the way she made decisions was derided as “Merkeling” – muddle through without committing yourself. Now scholzing has also become a verb. It means “to communicate good intentions only to use/find/invent any reason to delay and/or prevent them.”

If Scholz stays scholz, he will fail as chancellor. Meanwhile, the question arises: is Germany a reliable ally? What Lloyd Austin wanted to say but couldn’t is that the answer remains to be seen.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

So we are in a polycrisis. Is that even possible?: Andreas Kluth

Is Germany abandoning Ukraine? It’s not that simple: Hal Brands

If Turkey Blocks Sweden and Finland, Will NATO Boot Turkey?: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion and reports on European politics. The former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

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