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Germany’s elites run scared as Putin rains down death on Ukraine

germany urkaine scholz putin
germany urkaine scholz putin

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of an unholy alliance of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

What is driving European politics at present is fear. Fear of who Russia might invade next if Ukraine were to collapse. Fear of what might happen if Trump were to abandon Nato and leave Europe to the mercy of Putin.

To adapt Dr Johnson’s adage: depend upon it, sir, when leaders fear they may be invaded in a matter of months, it concentrates their minds wonderfully.

And so last week, when some two dozen European leaders assembled in Paris for a Ukraine summit, their host, Emmanuel Macron, gave voice to the rising sense of panic about the looming threats from east and west.

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“This is a European war,” he told the gathering. “Should we delegate our future to the American electorate? The answer is no, whatever their vote. We mustn’t wait to find out what the result [of the US Presidential election] is. We must decide now.”

But decide what, exactly? There’s the rub. The European Union has already promised Ukraine a package of aid worth €50bn (£43bn) over several years. That package required an extraordinary amount of bribery and arm-twisting to get it past Viktor Orban.

A growing body of opinion across the Continent believes that the war is unwinnable for Ukraine and a large minority is actively pro-Russian. There is simply no consensus in favour of stepping up EU assistance to Kyiv.

So Macron decided to cast any attempt to find consensus aside. Instead, he echoed Marshal Foch in 1914: “My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat, situation excellent. J’attaque!”

Macron declared: “There’s no consensus today to send, in an official manner, troops on the ground. But in terms of options, nothing can be ruled out.”

Ruling out sending ground troops, however, is exactly what all the major Nato allies immediately did – especially when the Kremlin warned that such a step would render war between Russia and Nato “inevitable”.

The Biden administration has been struggling for months to overcome a Congressional Republican block on $60bn in new military aid to Ukraine. In an election year, putting American lives at risk in a European war is out of the question.

The British were almost as quick to scotch the idea. “Beyond the small number of personnel in-country supporting the [Ukrainian] armed forces, we do not have any plans to make large-scale deployments,” Downing Street insisted.

But the most vehement attempt to shoot down Macron’s kite came from Berlin. Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, dismissed any such suggestion, now or in future.

“There will be no ground troops, no soldiers sent [to Ukraine] by European countries or Nato states,” he declared.

Robert Habeck, Scholz’s Green vice-chancellor in Germany’s centre-Left ruling coalition, was even more pointed: “I’m pleased that France is thinking about how to increase its support for Ukraine, but if I could give it a word of advice – supply more weapons.”

Habeck was referring to the notorious reluctance of Paris to pull its weight in Ukraine. The French military commitment so far has been just £500m, a fraction of Germany’s £15bn or the UK’s £7.8bn.

Yet Macron still goaded Scholz by alluding to his habit of buckling: refusing a Ukrainian request for military assistance, wavering under pressure from allies, and then handing it over anyway.

“Many of the people who say ‘never, never’ today were the same people who said ‘never, never tanks, never, never planes, never, never long-range missiles’,” Macron told an audience that included Scholz. “I remind you that two years ago, many around this table said: ‘We will offer sleeping bags and helmets.’”

The antipathy between Scholz and Macron is mutual but seldom has it burst into the open like this. No wonder Franco-German relations are worse than at any time since 1990, when François Mitterrand’s reservations about the reunification of Germany, like those of Margaret Thatcher, were brushed aside by Helmut Kohl.

Macron’s conduct was what we have come to expect from a man whose modus operandi is, in reverse of Teddy Roosevelt’s advice, to bellow loudly and carry a rather small stick.

But it is Scholz who, in his eagerness to rebut his rival, has done far more damage to the cause of freedom.

At a time of maximum danger when Ukraine is crying out for help, Scholz and Germany at large are hesitant. Cowed by Putin’s threats, propaganda and a deep-seated public reluctance to engage again in war, Berlin is desperate to draw a line in the sand regardless of what it may mean for Kyiv.

A ‘shameful’ refusal

For months, a heated debate has raged in Germany over whether to supply Kyiv with its Taurus cruise missiles. Taurus has a range of 310 miles, nearly twice as far as the Anglo-French Storm Shadow and Scalp missiles, which have already been used to great effect by the Ukrainians. Bluntly, Taurus can hit Moscow – and Scholz is terrified of Putin’s possible retaliation.

So far, Scholz has absolutely refused to hand over the missiles, leaving not only Nato allies but even his own supporters exasperated.

Last month the Bundestag voted in favour of delivering “long-range missiles” to Ukraine – including all three of the ruling coalition parties. To spare their Chancellor a vote of confidence, the resolution did not name Taurus, but there was no disguising the fact that his foot-dragging is costing Ukrainian lives.

Scholz has given all kinds of justifications for his intransigence on Taurus, but in explaining himself last Monday he let slip vital information that has infuriated his Nato allies.

“[Taurus] is a very long-range weapon. That which the British and French do in the way of target control and accompanying target control, cannot be done in Germany,” Scholz said. “German soldiers can at no point and in no place be linked with the targets that this system [Taurus] reaches. Not even in Germany.”

In Whitehall, Scholz’s comments were greeted with outrage because they inadvertently suggested that British troops were helping to aim and launch Storm Shadow – and were thus engaged not only in training but also in battle.

For a German chancellor, of all people, to disclose such sensitive intelligence was “completely irresponsible”, according to Norbert Röttgen of the opposition Christian Democratic Union. Many others have echoed him.

An MoD spokesman swiftly denied that British personnel in Ukraine had been involved in missile launches. True or not, this denial suggests that British involvement isn’t necessary. Nor, indeed, would Taurus require German troops to operate it. So Scholz’s excuse is bogus.

The episode highlights the contrasting German and British attitudes to war. Having quietly trained and equipped Ukrainian soldiers for years before February 2022, the British are now giving Zelensky the tools to finish the job – and perhaps also risking their own lives.

Meanwhile, Germany’s formidable Taurus missiles are withheld, even as the Russians rain down death and destruction on Ukraine. For many Germans, this contrast is shameful.

In his annual address in Moscow last Thursday, Putin himself seized on the issue of Nato troops on the ground, capitalising on the loose talk by both Macron and Scholz.

“There has been talk about the possibility of sending Nato military contingents to Ukraine,” he said. “The consequences for possible interventionists will be…tragic.” By way of explanation he added: “All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilisation. Don’t they get that?”

The main destination for this sabre-rattling by Putin was Berlin. He intends to intimidate Scholz: sending Taurus to Ukraine would be treated by the Kremlin as crossing a red line. Yet the British have already crossed that line. So far civilisation has survived.

Not only does Scholz show every sign of being susceptible to this kind of intimidation by Putin, but he probably also believes that his own political survival depends on not angering the Russian bear.

The respected Körber Foundation’s latest poll finds that just 38pc of the electorate want Germany to be more strongly engaged in international crises, while 71pc are opposed to their country playing a military leadership role in Europe.

Two thirds (66pc) still agree that Ukraine should receive military support, but of those only just over half (54pc) are in favour of restoring Ukraine’s lost territories, while 41pc merely want Russia to be held in check.

Röttgen accuses Scholz of focusing on next year’s German election at the expense of Ukraine. He presents himself as the Friedenskanzler – “the peacemaker Chancellor” – who can act as an honest broker between Russia and Ukraine. Most Germans just want to be kept out of war at all costs.

Berlin knows that Taurus missiles would be a major addition to the Ukrainian arsenal, enabling them to retaliate against attacks on major cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv. But their very effectiveness renders them “escalatory” in German eyes. Scholz prefers to follow rather than lead public opinion.

A reluctance to confront Russia is deep-seated. Successive governments led by chancellors Kohl, Schröder and Merkel were culpable for leaving Germany economically dependent on Russia.

Angela Merkel staked Europe’s future on détente with Putin. She knew he was no Gorbachev, but had little inkling that she was dealing with a mini-Stalin. Yet when Putin showed his true colours by invading Georgia, it was she who kept Ukraine out in the cold by blocking the country from joining Nato.

The Germans do not share the responsibility for protecting Ukraine as the US and Britain do, both of whom signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum along with Russia. In return for promises not to use military force against Ukraine, Kyiv handed over its nuclear arsenal to Moscow, trusting in “security assurances” that proved worthless.

However, Berlin has a moral duty to support Ukraine given its historic mistake on Nato membership.

Putin’s grim message

There is one member of Scholz’s government who has shown himself capable of strong leadership: Boris Pistorius, the defence minister. Plucked from provincial obscurity just over a year ago by Scholz after a similar row over Leopard 2 tanks, Pistorius soon eclipsed his boss.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius
Boris Pistorius plans to double German defence spending to 2pc of GDP - Daniel LÃ/DPA via AP

Easily the most popular politician in Germany, the defence minister has made it his business to educate the nation on the harsh realities of war and peace. His catchphrase is kriegstüchtig – by which he means not only “ready for war” but “ready to win that war”.

After decades when the Federal Republic spent only 1pc of GDP on defence, Pistorius has persuaded his reluctant colleagues to double it to Nato’s 2pc minimum. “But,” as he told the Munich Security Conference last month, “I am realistic enough to see that this might not be enough in the years to come.”

In January, Pistorius warned his compatriots that Putin might attack a Nato country within “five to eight years”, the time frame required to replace equipment lost in Ukraine. He knows better than anyone how unprepared for combat the German army, the Bundeswehr, actually is. A planned deployment of a single brigade to Lithuania in 2027 still looks problematic.

Unlike the supine Berlin elites, Pistorius grasps that the military vulnerability of Europe’s largest economy is an open invitation to Russian aggression. He has convinced Scholz to back the Czech President Petr Pavel, who is crowdfunding 800,000 shells from beyond Europe to resupply Ukraine.

What really needs to happen, though, is for German industry to switch from making cars to armaments – from butter to guns – before it is too late. If America is starving Ukraine of ammunition, Europe must step up production.

Pistorius sees the death of Alexei Navalny, not just as the assassination of a rival but as a “provocation”.

Putin is sending a grim message to his critics, especially in Berlin, the traditional exile of Russian dissidents. There, in the Charité Hospital, Navalny had recovered from Novichok poisoning before returning to Russia.

Legacy of propaganda

While so far Pistorius has remained loyal to Scholz, it is clear that if the Chancellor were to fall, perhaps over the Taurus issue, the defence minister would be the obvious candidate to take over until federal elections in 2025.

Germany’s predicament has echoes of the mid-1970s, when Helmut Schmidt replaced the charismatic but flawed Willy Brandt as chancellor. When Schmidt died in 2015, Scholz, a fellow Hamburg Social Democrat, praised him as his role model. Yet it is Pistorius, not Scholz, whose steady focus on national security and Atlanticism bears comparison with Schmidt.

There are echoes of the 1970s, too, in the fact that Germany is now once again being targeted by hostile intelligence agencies – the Russian successors to the KGB officers who included the young Vladimir Putin. Though there is still plenty of espionage, this time the main threat comes from Russian cyber warfare, disinformation and propaganda.

Despite the closure of Moscow’s German-language RT television station, pro-Russian online influencers still reach large audiences. Alina Lipp, a former RT presenter, claims to have up to two million views for her posts.

Alina Lipp
Former German Green Party activist Alina Lipp gained 200,000 followers for her pro-Russia war reports

A year ago Berlin’s Centre for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy revealed that public approval of pro-Russian narratives in Germany had increased “significantly”, particularly in the formerly communist East.

Since then, Germany has been saturated with Kremlin talking points, some echoing Putin’s lies about Nato, others much older propaganda conspiracy theories.

One Russian tactic is to turn the tables on Nato. Here is Putin himself last Thursday: “The West provoked the conflict in Ukraine, in the Middle East, in other regions of the world, and continues to lie, without any embarrassment, saying that Russia allegedly intends to attack Europe.”

Last October a poll found that 40pc of all Germans at least partially believe Putin’s claim that Nato “provoked” the invasion of Ukraine. In the former East German provinces this figure rises to 59pc.

According to a resident of Chemnitz quoted in Foreign Policy, “most people here are anti-US. Here in Saxony the people remember the Dresden firebombing. For the people here, Americans are warmongers”.

The “Free Saxon” secessionist who gave the quote is a far-Right extremist, but his reference to the Dresden raid of February 1945 is revealing. This idea that the bombing was an example of USAF and RAF terrorism was promoted heavily by the Nazi and the narrative was then adopted by the Communists as a propaganda tool during the Cold War.

This narrative of “Anglo-American terror” has in turn been taken over by the far-Right, who give it an anti-Semitic twist with the phrase Bombenholocaust, “holocaust by bombs”.

The false figure of 135,000 dead in Dresden was propagated by David Irving, the historian who was later sued for Holocaust denial, and popularised by the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five. Today Dresden is trotted out as “evidence” that Churchill was a “war criminal”.

Putin’s trolls know how to exploit the legacy of Nazi and Communist disinformation, appealing to extremes of Left and Right.

The Kremlin’s destabilising activities are widening an already deep divide in Germany. In depressed regions of the East, the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is now the most popular political party.

Meanwhile, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance, a new far-Left movement, and its demagogic leader, the eponymous Sahra Wagenknecht, feed on nostalgia for the era before 1989. The East German “red wall” would like the Berlin Wall back, please.

Inherited guilt

Faced with a fracturing country, Chancellor Scholz is paralysed by fear. Rather than seek to unify his people and provide leadership, he is shrinking.

The Russo-Ukrainian war has marked a new generation of young Europeans, just as the Second World War scarred their grandparents and the Cold War shaped their parents.

Postwar Germans, too young to have participated in Nazi crimes or to have ignored the Holocaust happening around them, used to talk about “the grace of a late birth”.

Not anymore. For the men and women now leading Germany, there is no avoiding moral responsibility for stopping the Russian war of conquest. Either they act now to make good their vow, summed up in the words “never again”, or their entire lives have been built on a lie.

That is why the debate in Germany is so heated, fraught as it is with the inherited guilt of an older generation, cast unwillingly into confrontation with younger cohorts who reject that burden. The 30-something millennials and the even younger Generation Z often care more about Gaza than Ukraine – regardless of national interest.

Despite Berlin’s reluctance to pull its weight in Nato, Germany still holds the key to Europe’s response to the most dangerous onslaught on the West since 1945. This is not just because of the country’s geopolitical situation and its economic weight, but an inescapable consequence of its history.

The Ukrainian war of independence is an epochal struggle for the defence, not just of freedom, democracy and national sovereignty, but of Western civilisation itself. The Germans, whose forefathers endangered that civilisation twice in the last century, have a duty in the present one to come to its rescue.

Scholz is a decent man, but he is unequal to this task. He has failed not only Ukraine, but his Nato allies too. Ukraine is paying the price.