Inside Olaf Scholz’s historic shift on defense, Ukraine and Russia

BERLIN — At 1:49 p.m. on Saturday, February 26, Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, finally got the message he’d been hoping to receive for more than seven years. 

“We’re changing course,” the text from a senior German politician began. “All arms deliveries to commence. Very late. I hope not too late. Finally.” 

Sitting at his cluttered desk in central Berlin, Melnyk, whose vociferous advocacy for Ukraine had made him a diplomatic pariah in the German capital, couldn’t believe his eyes. For years, Germany, in line with its policy of not sending weapons into war zones, had refused to give Ukraine a single bullet to help the country defend itself against Russian aggression. Now, as more than 100,000 demonstrators gathered a short distance away at the Brandenburg Gate to protest Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine earlier that week, Berlin was opening the floodgates. 

An even bigger shock came the next day when Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in a special session of parliament that Germany would set up a €100 billion fund to modernize the military and ramp up defense spending to meet the NATO goal of 2 percent of GDP — two extraordinary pledges for a country that had for decades resisted pressure from allies to step up on defense. 

Berlin’s head-spinning reversal — what Germans are calling a Zeitenwende, or historic turning point — is fueling hopes for a wider shift in the country’s foreign and security policy that some believe could both give Germany new stature on the international stage and renew faith in a Western alliance shaken by years of internal discord.

The inside story of the events that led to the German about-face on Ukraine — based on conversations with officials and lawmakers directly involved — suggests the shift was born more of panic than conviction, as Russia’s invasion exposed the folly of Germany’s long-standing policy of rapprochement towards Moscow.

It reveals that while Scholz had already privately assured allies about some of the steps Berlin would take in the event of a new Russian attack on Ukraine, others were decided on the hoof in the space of a few days by the chancellor himself and a small number of ministers and aides, with even Cabinet members out of the picture until the last minute.

A chancellor who had been considered a rank outsider for the post even a year ago, a low-key figure who had taken office just a few months earlier promising continuity with Angela Merkel’s long reign, had suddenly ditched decades of foreign policy orthodoxy.

Unlike elsewhere in the West, especially the U.S., the conventional wisdom in Germany holds that the decisive factor in winning the Cold War was not Ronald Reagan’s brinksmanship with the Soviets, but Ostpolitik, the policy of rapprochement championed by Chancellor Willy Brandt of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the 1970s. So ingrained was that belief that just days before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, prominent German politicians were still calling for a “new Ostpolitik” to defuse the crisis. 

That’s why the steps Berlin has taken in recent days — to effectively abandon the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline, arm Ukraine and get serious about its own defense — constitute not just a departure from long-standing German policy, but a repudiation of it. That Scholz is a Social Democrat who came of age in the Brandt era makes the shift all the more extraordinary.

While there is no doubt that Russia’s February 24 invasion triggered a huge shift in Berlin, a question mark remains over whether Germany will stay committed to the tighter embrace of its military and the transatlantic alliance over the longer term. In recent years, German attitudes toward the U.S. have been fickle, to say the least. In 2020, for example, Germans were roughly split on the question of whether it was more important to have good relations with U.S. or China, only to swing back in favor of America after ex-President Donald Trump left office.

So while Putin may have shocked Germans out of their collective state of denial about his willingness to terrorize his neighbors, their pacifist instincts could well kick back in with the passage of time.

New generation

Germany’s break with decades-old conventional thinking would not have been possible but for the composition of its new government, which took office in December and is populated by a new generation of liberals and Greens with no allegiance to the Russia policies of the Merkel era.

Scholz may have been part of that era, as finance minister in Merkel’s last Cabinet, but the key decisions on Nord Stream 2 and foreign policy towards Russia in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s military intervention in Donbas were taken well before he arrived in that role.  

The 63-year-old former mayor of Hamburg had also seen up close how going soft on Russia had ruined the reputation of his one-time boss, ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and cast a shadow across much of the old SPD establishment, a faction derisively referred to as Russlandversteher, or Russia apologists. 

Though Scholz was still willing to toe the Merkel line on Nord Stream 2 — that it was a commercial project, the fate of which rested with independent regulators — he had committed in private meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden in October during a G7 meeting in Rome and again at the White House in February to pull the plug if the Russians launched a new invasion of Ukraine, according to people familiar with the matter. 

An even weightier legacy than Nord Stream 2 for Scholz and his coalition, however, were the so-called Minsk agreements, negotiated by Merkel and her then-foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in 2014 and 2015. For Berlin, the accords, brokered in the Belarusian capital by Germany and France, remained the basis for a lasting peace between Russia and Ukraine. 

Though Putin signed the accords, under which the Russian-backed areas of Donbas would have remained a part of Ukraine with a degree of autonomy, neither he nor the Ukrainians showed much interest in implementing them. 

And yet in Germany’s foreign policy establishment, they were considered sacrosanct, not just because of Merkel’s direct involvement, but also due to the role of Steinmeier, who had since been elected German president. Minsk had become shorthand for the guiding principle of Germany’s postwar foreign policy: that “dialogue,” no matter how fraught, was always better than armed confrontation. 

Up until her final days in office last December, Merkel urged Putin to implement the accords in countless calls and meetings.   

In Washington, Putin’s persistent provocations of Ukraine and his massive troop build-up on the country’s border had long convinced officials that Minsk was dead.

Scholz, who took office in early December, had reached the same conclusion — at least in private. 

While his government held out hope in public that the West could coax Putin into embracing the agreements, Scholz began preparing for the worst, including the possibility of suspending Nord Stream 2.

Straight shooting 

During his inaugural visit to Washington in early February, where he met with Biden and members of Congress, Scholz made clear where he stood. At a dinner with both Republican and Democratic senators at the German embassy in Washington on February 7, he surprised his audience with his directness. 

“We had a really frank discussion at that dinner in which members of the Senate were really clear with the chancellor about what the impression was here of Germany’s position on Ukraine at the time,” said Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut. “Not every dinner with a head of state or a foreign minister gets as candid as that one did. He was equally candid in response about what he thought he could do and what he couldn’t do.”

According to a senator who attended the dinner but asked for anonymity, Scholz described the constraints he faced at home as the leader of a three-way coalition but also dispelled any lingering concerns about where Germany stood on the pipeline or Russia, writ large.

The senator described the efforts to lobby Germany — from the U.S. and other allies — as a full-court press: “Everywhere they turned, they found somebody reminding them they weren’t stepping up.”

In response, Scholz was unequivocal. The dinner instilled a striking level of confidence in U.S. lawmakers that Germany would follow through on its promises in the event of a Russian invasion.

“He underscored the commitment to NATO, the importance of it, and also underscored a commitment to a swift, coordinated response if things got worse,” said Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina who also attended the dinner. “He absolutely delivered.”

Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he found Scholz to be “a very straightforward guy, very straight up and down.”

“I have to tell you, I was surprised, the administration was surprised, thinking it was going to be a lot heavier of a lift with our European friends than what it was,” he added.

A week later, Scholz traveled to Kyiv, where he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into making concessions to grant the two Russian-backed breakaway territories in Donbas more autonomy. He then went to the Kremlin to meet with Putin, who received him at his now-famous long, white table. The Russian continued to feign interest in making Minsk work and sparred with Scholz at their joint press conference. 

But less than a week later, it was clear that Putin had just been playing for time as the Russian army made its final preparations for an invasion. 

On February 21, Putin announced in a televised address that he would recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine that had been occupied by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. Following a similar playbook to his invasion of Georgia in 2008, Putin said he was sending in “peacekeepers” to assist local forces. 

Minsk was officially dead — and the Germans were furious at having been played by the Russian president.

“The basis for the Minsk agreement had been withdrawn,” said Nils Schmid, an SPD MP who serves as the party’s spokesperson on foreign policy. “This was a serious affront.”

Scholz and his team, who followed Putin’s broadcast from the Berlin chancellery, shifted to Plan B. That evening, Scholz joined Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on a videoconference to coordinate the first salvo of sanctions against Russia.  

The next day, on February 22, Scholz made good on his promise to pull the plug on Nord Stream 2. 

“In the light of recent developments, we have to reassess the situation — also with regard to Nord Stream 2,” he said at a press conference. 

Construction on the pipeline was complete but it was still awaiting regulatory approval from both Germany and the EU. Scholz said he had ordered the economy ministry to draft a new “supply security assessment” (a crucial regulatory step) that also “takes into account what has changed in the past few days.” Translation: If Putin doesn’t back off, the pipeline is dead.

In public, Scholz still held out hope for a diplomatic resolution. But he also laid the groundwork to both send arms to Ukraine and implement the largest increase in German military spending since World War II.

Green light

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Germany had been widely mocked for only offering Ukraine 5,000 helmets and equipment for a field hospital. Now, Scholz’s Security Cabinet was discussing sending weapons. 

Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck pushed for changing Berlin’s position, citing Kyiv’s legitimate right to self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. charter. Habeck, a member of the Greens, had visited the front lines of the conflict in the Donbas a year earlier and came away convinced Germany needed to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons. His party — which has strong pacifist roots — rejected the idea at the time. But the invasion changed everything. 

Hours after Russia launched its all-out attack on Ukraine on February 24, Habeck and Green party leader Omid Nouripour visited Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador, in his embassy to discuss how Germany could help. 

That night, Scholz addressed the nation before heading to Brussels for an emergency EU leaders’ summit. He warned Germans that Putin wanted to turn back time to the 19th century “when great powers decided over the heads of smaller states” and “to the Cold War era, when superpowers divided the world among themselves into zones of influence.” 

He vowed that the Russian leadership would “pay a high price for this aggression.”

Despite the tough talk, Scholz wasn’t ready to go full bore on sanctions, worried about collateral damage to the German economy. In addition to Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas, which accounts for over half of the country’s annual gas imports, commercial links between the two countries are extensive. 

At the summit, Scholz pushed back on Ukrainian demands to shut Russia out of SWIFT, the international payments system, worried in part that doing so would also leave billions of western money stranded in Russian banks. Germany and other EU nations also use SWIFT to pay for their supplies of Russian gas.

With the support of a few other countries, including Italy and Austria, Scholz managed to avert the ban. 

But the pressure didn’t let up. In Washington, Biden pointed the finger at Europe when asked why the West hadn’t kicked Russia out of SWIFT. “That’s not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take,” he told reporters.

Back in Berlin the next day, Friday, Scholz was feeling pressure from within his own ranks. Diplomats from the foreign ministry — led by Annalena Baerbock, a Green who that week had declared that “peace and freedom in Europe don’t have a price tag” — warned that Berlin’s position on SWIFT risked squandering the international goodwill it had built up by axing Nord Stream 2.

A more immediate concern for Scholz: German public opinion was also shifting on how to deal with Russia and Ukraine. Wolfgang Schmidt, the head of the chancellery and Scholz’s influential right-hand man and spin doctor, urged that Berlin couldn’t remain idle.

“Everybody started asking: Why aren’t you guys doing more?” said a person close to the chancellery, adding that the official stance “was becoming totally unsustainable.” 

On Friday, Sven Giegold, a close Habeck aide, sent around a memo sketching a way forward. Giegold has suggested Germany could revise its arms export policy to emphasize a country’s stance on democracy and human rights instead of whether it was already engaged in armed conflict.

That same evening, the Dutch government informed the defense ministry that it intended to send 400 anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, but needed German authorization to do so because the weapons originated in Germany. 

It was clear that Berlin, which had rejected a similar request from Estonia weeks earlier, couldn’t say no. 

Habeck saw an opportunity to do more: If Berlin was going to allow its allies to send German-made weapons to help Ukraine defend itself against the invasion, it should also send weapons itself. Early on Saturday, Scholz agreed. 

A few hours later, Melnyk was seated in the office of German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, who just weeks earlier had trumpeted the sending of a few thousand helmets as a major development. This time, the ambassador got what he’d been asking for. 

“We had a very good chat and I thanked her in the name of the president,” Melnyk said.

SWIFT resolution

Scholz, meanwhile, was putting out another fire. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda had ambushed him that afternoon with a hastily-arranged visit to Berlin. Austria and Italy had agreed to support a Russian SWIFT ban and the East European leaders wanted to convince the German leader to follow suit. 

On his way to see Scholz, Morawiecki said he was there “to shake Germany’s conscience,” adding that “there is no time for the selfishness.”

Scholz agreed to back SWIFT sanctions, albeit against targeted banks and not the entire Russian economy.

Yet Scholz’s biggest surprise was still under wraps.

Jörg Kukies, a former Goldman Sachs banker who now serves as Scholz’s chief adviser on Europe and financial policy, had been huddling with liberal Finance Minister Christian Lindner’s team for days to hash out a plan to secure more money for Germany’s chronically under-financed and under-equipped military, the Bundeswehr.

The centerpiece of the plan, secretly agreed on Saturday but kept from most of the Cabinet until Sunday morning, was the €100 billion special fund to swiftly upgrade the military in the face of the Russian threat.

In the emergency parliamentary session in Berlin’s Reichstag on Sunday, Scholz argued that Putin’s aggression had left Germany with no choice. 

“The horrific images from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa and Mariupol show the whole ruthlessness of Putin,” he said. “It is clear that we need to invest significantly more in the security of our country in order to protect our freedom and our democracy.”

After the dust settled later in the week, a German interviewer asked Scholz why it had taken Berlin so long to change its position on arms exports to Ukraine. In response, Scholz, a plainspoken politician whose unadorned style has earned him comparisons to a robot, was typically matter-of-fact. 

“We can no longer prevent this war from happening,” he said. “It exists, and we must not leave those who have been innocently attacked alone.”



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