BERLIN — A heated debate over sending heavy weapons to Ukraine has fractured the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, raising questions about its leadership and dampening expectations about its ability to take Europe through the continent’s most dramatic security crisis since pilot the Second World War.
As Russia opens a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, calls have increased for Berlin to offer more heavy weapons to the Ukrainian government in Kiev. Members of the coalition of Mr. Scholz have publicly broken ranks with him to demand that Germany do more.
“Europe expects Germany to play a central role,” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the head of the parliamentary defense committee and a legislator of the liberal Free Democratic Party, a coalition partner of Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats and the Greens.
Mr Scholz has largely dodged to explain his stance on heavy weapons, she said, and lost the opportunity to define the debate. “If you don’t do the storytelling yourself, others will. And that’s never good.”
Just two months ago, Mr. Scholz defined the conversation. After the Russian invasion, he announced a massive rearmament of Germany and a defense aid package for Ukraine, a dramatic break from decades of pacifist policies. He called it a “Zeitenwende” – a historic turning point – for Germany. But as far as Ukraine is concerned, his critics argue, Mr Scholz needs to act faster. He says the additional aid he announced last week could not come as quickly as direct arms deliveries.
For Mr Scholz, balancing international and domestic politics also entails many Europeans’ expectations of him acting as the continent’s leader – a role his predecessor Angela Merkel often fulfilled in moments of crisis. And his government is wary of giving Moscow the impression that Berlin is an active belligerent against Russia, at the risk of getting involved in a war that would harm not only Germany but also its NATO allies.
Germany has already sent missiles and artillery to Ukraine, but Kiev also wants heavy artillery, Leopard tanks and armored vehicles such as the Mardar, which is ranked among the best in the world. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly made public demands. With tensions mounting between Berlin and Kiev, Ukraine went so far as to invite German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to visit the capital in protest at his long-standing business ties with Moscow.
The perceived reluctance to meet that demand, especially as Germany has delayed a European plan to boycott Russian gas, has frustrated Mr Scholz’s government partners. They claim that Germany is running out of time to rein in Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin.
“The longer this war goes on and the closer Putin gets to victory, the greater the danger that more countries will be invaded and that we will end up in an extensive, de facto third world war,” said Anton Hofreiter, the head of the commission. European relations in the Bundestag and member of the Greens, Wednesday morning at the public broadcaster ZDF.
Nils Schmid, a foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats in parliament, said Mr. Scholz was unfairly cut by his partners.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
“There is now a public contest from the opposition but also within the government about who supports Ukraine the most,” he said. “What really counts is the actions of the government.”
He pointed out that Germany’s approval had been necessary for the Czech Republic to send T-72 tanks, made in former East Germany, to Ukraine. It showed that the chancellor had “no objection” to heavy weapons, he said.
But the bickering could affect Mr. Scholz. In a poll of German voters released Tuesday, 65 percent of respondents said they did not see Mr Scholz as a strong leader. The magazine Der Spiegel on Wednesday wrote: “You have to wonder if the coalition is essentially still behind him.”
Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier, rejected the idea of a threatened coalition. But he did see a risk to the chancellor’s reputation as a leader for the continent.
For Europeans, that need is especially great now that France’s President Emmanuel Macron is withdrawing from the regional stage to fend off an election challenge at home, he said.
“Scholz was expected to fill this vacuum,” said Mr. Jun. “And there’s a certain disappointment, I’d say, that Scholz didn’t.”