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 Kyiv of its support in the face of a feared Russian invasion.
The spat was triggered by German navy chief Kay-Achim Schönbach’s musings that it was “nonsense” to think Russia was about to march on Ukraine and that President Vladimir Putin deserves respect.
Schönbach resigned late 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 Süddeutsche 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.
Test for Scholz
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 Kyiv’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”.