The head of Germany’s parliamentary defence committee has joined British and French criticism of the chancellor’s decision

Peter Conradi

March 10, 2024

The Sunday Times


The German chancellor has been accused of playing into the hands of President Putin by resisting calls to supply Ukraine with powerful Taurus cruise missiles because he does not want his country to be dragged into direct conflict with Russia.

There was consternation in London and Paris recently when Olaf Scholz let slip publicly that Britain and France had deployed troops in Ukraine to help operate their Storm Shadow and Scalp missiles. He vowed that Germany would not follow suit — which he said ruled out supplying Kyiv with the much-needed weapons. “What Scholz said was completely unacceptable. Only one person is happy. And that is Vladimir Putin,” Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chairwoman of the influential defence committee of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, said. “Of course you can discuss and disagree, but you must do so behind closed doors.”

The chancellor’s position was undermined days later, she argued, by a leaked recording in which the head of the German air force, Ingo Gerhartz, and other senior officers could be heard discussing how Ukrainian forces could be trained to operate the missiles.

In the 38-minute recording, apparently made by Russian intelligence services, the officers also set out details of British troops’ presence in Ukraine. Officially, the only British soldiers there are providing diplomatic protection and medical training.

Scholz looks unlikely to back down on the Tauruses, despite a visit to Berlin last week by Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, the foreign secretary. Speaking after a meeting with Annalena Baerbock, his German opposite number, Cameron said that supplying Ukraine with the weapons it needed to defend itself against Russia would help to forge peace.

The former defence secretary, Ben Wallace, who sent the Storm Shadows, has called Scholz “the wrong man, in the wrong job at the wrong time”.

The Social Democrat chancellor’s caution is in contrast to the increasingly belligerent approach taken by Emmanuel Macron. Once accused of being too dovish on Russia, the French president appeared to alarm Scholz and other allies by suggesting after a summit on Ukraine two weeks ago that Nato troops could be sent to fight in Ukraine.

The opposition Christian Democrats, who are in favour of supplying the Tauruses, are expected this week to try to change Scholz’s mind, but look likely to fail — as they did on a previous attempt late last month, Strack-Zimmermann said. Although a member of the Free Democrats

(FDP), who are part of Scholz’s coalition, she broke ranks and voted with the opposition last time and said she would do so again.

Strack-Zimmermann, who heads her party’s list for the June elections to the European parliament, said she thought that few, if any, of her colleagues would follow, despite widespread unease in her party and the Greens — Scholz’s other coalition partner — about his policy. The reason: they fear the opposition is using the row to try to bring down the government.

The row is nevertheless a further challenge for the beleaguered German government, whose three member parties, polls suggest, enjoy the support of barely a third of the electorate and may struggle to survive until October 2025 when the next elections are due.

Germany’s approach to a war that is being waged less than 500 miles from its eastern border appears paradoxical. Although the country is second only to America in the amount of weapons it has supplied to Ukraine, Scholz previously rejected for months requests by Kyiv for Leopard tanks, only finally to agree in January.

The government’s caution then over the supply of Taurus missiles, which Ukraine first requested last May, was that it would be perceived by Russia as escalation. There are concerns that Ukraine, in a moment of desperation, might use the weapons, which have a range of just over 300 miles and can be launched from aircraft, to target Moscow itself.

Strack-Zimmermann blamed Scholz’s stance on a tendency to “make policy by opinion poll”, like his long-serving predecessor, Angela Merkel, under whom he served as vice-chancellor. A most recent poll showed nearly 60 per cent of Germans were against supplying the missiles, up from 49 per cent in February. This was largely out of fear that it would lead to the country being dragged directly into the war.

Opposition appears to be strongest in the former communist east, where there is still popular support for Russia and belief in the need for a “peaceful” solution to the conflict — even if it involves territorial concessions by Kyiv. Voters for the FDP and the once-pacifist Greens are the only ones in favour of supplying the missiles.

Scholz “learned from Frau Merkel to keep constantly looking at the polls”, Strack-Zimmermann said. “And if the polls show that the majority of Germans are opposed, then that is enough for him to feel that he is right.” She added: “My view of politics is different. You cannot make consistent policy by going by the polls. I believe in taking action and then explaining it to the people. This is about the survival of Ukraine. And the Taurus would be an effective means of strengthening Ukraine.”

The roots of Scholz’s approach may also lie in the Ostpolitik policy of negotiating with the Kremlin in the 1970s, which is widely seen by Germans as having paved the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall. When he became chancellor in December 2021, Scholz vowed to follow in the footsteps of Willy Brandt, a Social Democrat predecessor who pioneered the policy.

Many in the upper echelons of the party continued until recently to have close relations with Moscow — chief among them Gerhard Schröder, another former Social Democrat chancellor, who became a multimillionaire thanks to his seats on the boards of Russian energy companies.

Scholz’s desire to be a Friedenskanzler (peace chancellor) may have survived Russia’s invasion two months later, which was described by Scholz as an “historic turning point”, prompting him to promise a massive increase in military spending.

The Russians’ success in eavesdropping on the German air force’s top brass has, meanwhile, prompted concern about the security of the country’s military communications.

Oleksiy Danilov, who co-ordinates Ukraine’s war cabinet, told The Times last week that Germany was awash with a new generation of Russian spies and said its officials had been warned on numerous occasions that they were “vulnerable” to espionage, which could allow Russia to obtain other conversations.


From his base in Paris, Peter Conradi covers the whole of Europe for The Sunday Times, with the emphasis on France, Germany and Italy, but with occasional forays into central Europe and Scandinavia. His main focus is on politics, but he also covers social trends, cultural issues and fun stories, too. You can hear Peter on Times Radio and on Stories of our Times. He has written a number of books, most recently: Who Lost Russia: From the Collapse of the USSR to Putin’s War on Ukraine. He has been at the paper for more than 25 years, including stints as foreign editor, property editor and money editor.