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Germany’s change of heart is now pivotal to the war in Ukraine. Here’s why | John Kampfner

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Unlike British or French politicians, Olaf Scholz doesn’t do pomp. Nor does he do charm. A man who screws up his eyes when he tries to smile, the German chancellor welcomed Ukraine’s president to Berlin on Sunday with characteristic stiffness.

Yet of all Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s meetings with fellow European leaders over the past few days – from Rome to Paris to Chequers today for more hardware and more embraces with Rishi Sunak – his day in Germany may be remembered as the most important. The announcement on the eve of his visit of a doubling of military aid to Ukraine to a total of more than €5bn finally brings Germany in from the cold. The consequences may take months to be seen on the battlefield, but in geo-strategic terms they are immediate.

Zelenskiy knows that he has perhaps only six to eight months for his counteroffensive to make sufficient inroads to force Russia out of the areas it seized in 2022 and, better still, out of lands it annexed in 2014. Doing this would also demonstrate to the west the effectiveness of the support given so far. He knows that if he cannot finish the job this year, he will have to continue into next year in even more difficult circumstances.

He sees the Chinese, the French and others showboating diplomacy not necessarily on Ukraine’s terms. At the same time he is aware that public opinion in several countries is wavering. Most of all, he sees the lumbering figure of Donald Trump coming into view. Even the prospect of a return to the White House of a man who cannot say which side he supports provides succour to Vladimir Putin and the forces on the far right and far left in Europe who put the vague notion of “peace” ahead of international law, self-determination and human rights.

That is why the debate in Europe, and Germany in particular, is so important. Germans are told to pull their weight but not to throw their weight about. They pride themselves on Vergangenheitsbewältigung, their coming to terms with their past. Yet in recent years among some sections of society, particularly Scholz’s Social Democrats, one wrong lesson was learned. These “salon pacifists” reinterpreted the phrase “never again” to mean never again going war, rather than never confronting tyranny. The terrible invasion of Iraq reinforced that view.

Ukraine has now shattered that, inserting a concept alien to several generations of “the good war”. But it has required two heaves to get there. The first was the Zeitenwende, the speech Scholz gave three days after Putin’s invasion in which he declared a new approach to hard power and an extra €100bn to be spent on reinforcing Germany’s ailing armed forces.

Having broken the mould so dramatically, the German chancellor returned to type, second-guessing each step, fearful of a backlash from his party. Relations became so toxic that the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was prevented by the Ukrainians at the last moment from visiting Kyiv. Zelenskiy feted all-comers but froze out the Germans, who complained they were not getting the credit for being one of the largest donors of military aid, amounting to more than €2bn. The problem was that it was offered grudgingly and delivered slowly.

Tensions reached a high in the autumn over the stalled delivery of German-made Leopard 2 tanks. Not only did Scholz refuse to send them, but he also held back re-export licences to Ukraine by other countries of the tanks. He eventually relented, arguing that his position had forced the Americans to make parallel moves.

So why this change of heart and is it irrevocable? Several factors in recent months have transformed the relationship between Germany and Ukraine. One is the appointment of Boris Pistorius, the first defence minister in years to get to grips with the transformation required to make Germany the major military player Nato needs it to be. Speaking at a conference last week, one of Germany’s leading diplomats, Thomas Bagger, who will shortly take over as the top official at the foreign ministry, said: “My country is now on a path to correct what in hindsight was its biggest mistake.” Announcing the new €3bn package of measures for Ukraine, Pistorius declared: “Germany will provide all the help it can, for as long as it takes.”

People around Scholz argue that if he had been more gung-ho, he would not have brought the German people with him. Meanwhile, his foreign ministry and now his defence ministry are showing greater mettle, not just towards Russia, but also in navigating the increasingly difficult dilemma about China as a business opportunity and a security threat.

On Sunday evening, Zelenskiy was in the beautiful medieval city of Aachen to receive the Charlemagne prize for services to Europe. Before an audience of luminaries, he spoke not just about the war but about Ukraine’s place in the European Union.

That is why, if – and it remains a huge if – Ukraine prevails and wins the war, its biggest goal will be accession to the EU, and the role of Germany (and France and Poland) will be so pivotal. The UK, sadly, will not be at the table. As for Scholz, every time he was referred to warmly by Zelenskiy in his speech (“my friend Olaf”), the chancellor appeared to fidget with his headphones or tie. He may not be able to do human, but he is the most important human being the Ukrainians will have to do business with.

  • John Kampfner is an author and broadcaster

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