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German foreign policy is facing a huge dilemma

An interview with Marcus Bensmann, German journalist and commentator. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze.

March 6, 2024 - Marcus Bensmann Vazha Tavberidze - Hot TopicsInterviews

Marcus Bensmann. Photo: Correctiv.org

VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: Let’s start with a quick recap of this quite extraordinary week for Germany. It started with the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, flatly ruling out sending Taurus missiles to Ukraine, stating that it would turn Germany into a party in this war, and in the process apparently violating security protocol by saying that British soldiers are supporting Ukrainian forces in launching long-range Storm Shadow missiles. Then he proceeded to provide a public counterpoint to French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks that it cannot be ruled out that NATO troops will be sent to Ukraine, ruling that out as well, saying that as long as he was the Chancellor, no German soldier would be sent to Ukraine. Finally, Scholz crowned it all with a speech of his own on Thursday, where he said that “Diplomats instead of grenades” is what we chant to Moscow, all the while stressing that Germany was second biggest provider of the military aid to Ukraine. And just when you thought everything was said and done, there was a leak of a classified conversation between high-ranking Bundeswehr officers discussing the delivery and usage of Taurus missiles, that somehow ended in the hands of the Kremlin, and was promptly published. How would you describe this week for German diplomacy and the Chancellor in particular?

MARCUS BENSMANN: We have to understand that the German foreign policy is facing a huge dilemma. On the one hand, Scholz is coming from the Social Democratic Party, and the Social Democratic Party is one of the reasons why Germany built up a dependency on Russia – concerning gas, oil and coal for more than 10 years, selling gas storages to Russia, and refusing to build LNG terminals, thus depriving itself of an alternative. Germany’s policy towards Russia since 2014 was one of the reasons why Russia was able to launch this war against Ukraine. First, Russians got German money. And second, they also understood that Germany was not eager to split from Russia because they are so dependent on energy deliveries from Russia. I am pretty certain that if Vladimir Putin’s original plan of conquering Ukraine in three or four weeks had worked, then Germany’s political establishment would have said: “it is bad, but we have to accept the reality”.

But this didn’t happen and Olaf Scholz had to accept that fact and he said ok, we will support Ukraine. First, it was helmets, then rocket launchers and then tanks. We always have the same debate – we do not want to provoke Putin, we don’t want to escalate. Scholz didn’t understand that Putin already crossed the red line by launching this war. The demand for Scholz is now to show leadership. Germany should understand that we have to support Ukraine not only because Ukraine is attacked and we’re bound to feel compassion, but also if Russia is going to win, then we’re up next, and if in the long term America is leaving this continent, then Europe and Germany fall under the dominance of Russia. All that we had, all the things that we have achieved since the Second World War will be gone. I think that unfortunately, this is not recognized in the German leadership. Having listened to Putin’s annual address, the most interesting thing he said was: “I will send my rockets to Europe, only to trigger social democrats in Germany”. And then he’s speaking, I think for more than 80 per cent of the address about how much money he is giving to build schools, sports facilities, how Russians should procreate more and have a higher birthrate. If you read or listen to Putin’s speech, he is not preparing for an atomic Armageddon. He knows that the only way he can beat Ukraine, the only strength Russia has, is the weakness of the European Union, and the weakness of Germany. This means that Chancellor Scholz’s weakness only encourages him. When Putin says, “we are advancing in Ukraine!” They are advancing, because the Ukrainian army ran out of ammunition, and that happened because of the weakness of Europe. And he is begging the United States, please, speak with me, we are ready to discuss “reasonably”. He’s afraid, he does not want to spend more money for weapons. He’s under pressure. That’s why he isn’t speaking about the war, he didn’t say: now we have to fight for Mother Russia and everything is at stake. Instead, he says: citizens, I will protect you. I will renovate your houses. I will give you sport facilities. That is his offer. This indicates that he is under pressure. Meanwhile, we are acting like anxious chickens, worried that he’s talking about the atomic bomb! And thinking maybe we should not help Ukraine as much as we should. But we should do it, because if the United States under Donald Trump is leaving Europe, and we are not able to find a common ground to defend our interests, then we have to accept what Dmitri Medvedev says, that he wants to have a Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

On this Taurus dilemma, will we see the same scenario as with the Leopard tanks? Will we get there? And what would it take?

Courage? Unfortunately, I do not see that courage in the government. I would say that if you are not giving Taurus, then at least give ammunition. You have to understand the power logic of Putin – Putin is not making compromises if he sees that he is on a winning run, he will only make compromises if he is forced to. Everything that Ukraine needs, they should get. If there are some secrets, please, don’t spill them and please don’t start debates with Macron on the open stage, giving Russia a signal that two main powers on the continent are not on the same page. We already have enough pro-Russian forces in Europe, do not encourage them. In short, democracy should learn to defend itself.

On giving the impression that European unity is showing cracks, that Germany, the United Kingdom and France are on different pages – I have seen it described as “a lot of foreign and security policy porcelain shattered in record time”. The thing about porcelain is that, once shattered, even if glued back up, it loses much of its value. So is the damage irreparable?

I hope not. I would say that if the porcelain is shattered, then go out and buy a new cup and have another tea session. Don’t cry about spilt milk. We have to understand: we don’t have a lot of time, of this I am sure. We have a few months where Europe can find itself. If we show weakness then Putin will come out as a winner. If we show strength, he will have to retreat. But Putin knows that Germany has this long tradition of pacifism and there is always a fear of atomic Armageddon. Putin is playing on this and it resonates somehow.

I understand why Putin would want to play that card, but why is Germany playing along?

Because Germany has no tradition of defending democracy, it had a tradition of being an aggressor. Thus, Germans said: “we do not want to repeat that”. And therefore we had three or four generations with anti-military education and mentality. But now it may decide the future of our continent. We have to defend their democracy, and if they don’t, we will lose. And we will come under the shadow of Russian fascism – American democracy, I am quite sure, can survive another Trump term. But Europe is not able to survive if America leaves and we are not able to defend ourselves. I often quote the example of the Spanish Civil War, when France, the UK and the US decided not to support the republic anymore. Franco was able to win, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini. And that was the beginning of the dark shadow of fascism over Europe. We are now standing in the same situation with Russia’s war against Ukraine. If we show weakness or cowardice, or panic and not support Ukraine, the price we will have to pay will be high.

You spoke at length about what is at stake for Germany in this war, but since you reported from Central Asia and Caucasus for years, I wanted to ask you what’s at stake for those countries in this war?

It’s very easy. If Russia is to win, they would not be independent states anymore. They might retain their own elections and their own government, but they will be under the rule of the Kremlin. If Putin were to win in Ukraine, he would be so powerful, and Europe so weak, that Russia wouldn’t miss a chance to turn them into client states, like Belarus today.

Marcus Bensmann is a German journalist and international affairs commentator. His primary focus has been on Central Asia and Eastern Europe. He has worked for Deutsche Welle, the German TV channel ARD and the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Vazha Tavberidze is a Georgian journalist and staff writer with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, the Spectator, the Daily Beast and New Eastern Europe.

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