Europe’s unrecognized leader

Berlin has a complicated communication problem

Hanco Jürgens
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 Germany has become by far the largest European donor of military equipment to Ukraine. The German government aligned strongly with the US, and Germany has taken significant new steps to defend NATO’s Eastern Flank. But why have these actions not been taken up by the media? And will they be enough to tackle so many threats from different angles?

“War preparedness” and “defense readiness”. These are the words Boris Pistorius, the popular German Minister of Defense, uses to describe the challenges facing Germany in the near future. Not only the Ministry of Defense should be ready, but society at large should be prepared. The fact that a German Minister of Defense uses the word ‘war’ relating to Germany’s own security is in itself significant. It shows how much has changed in the vocabulary of German politicians. And it certainly wasn’t just the words that changed. At the end of 2023, Germany had committed almost twice as much military aid to Ukraine as Great Britain, and thirty times more than France. Although the French government criticized the figures provided by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, it is clear that, among all European donor countries, Germany is in the lead.[1] Particularly its delivery of the short- and medium-range air-defense systems IRIS-T has been of great importance to defend Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Also, more than 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been trained in Germany.

Germany committed almost twice as much military aid to Ukraine as Great Britain, and thirty times more than France.

Germany has become the indispensable nation, not only within Europe, but also in transatlantic relations, which have intensified since the Russian invasion. Germany has sought to align much more closely with the US both in its energy as well as well as in its diplomatic policy. Biden and Scholz both seek to strengthen a rule-based international order. They both pledged to give Ukraine as much as needed as long as necessary, while avoiding getting directly involved in the war. They have been highly concerned about an escalation of this war. Biden even urged Ukraine to halt strikes on Russian oil refineries since it could drive up global oil prices. This is remarkable: one would think that, since Russian oil is so strictly sanctioned, supply constraints would no longer have an impact on world market prices. As a sign of trust between the US and Germany, the Ukraine Defense Contact Group has regularly coordinated its weapon deliveries to Ukraine at the US NATO Ramstein Airbase in the heart of Germany.

Also, Germany took the initiative to strengthen NATO’s Eastern Flank in various ways. In August 2022 the Scholz cabinet initiated the European Sky Shield Initiative to build an integrated Eastern European air-defense system by using the German IRIS-T systems, American Patriots and the Israeli-American Arrow 3 system, well known as an integral part of Israel’s Iron Dome. In the meantime, twenty-one countries joined this initiative. In April, the Polish prime minister Donald Tusk announced that he will join the initiative in the near future (the PiS government was not willing to join a German initiative, anyhow). In January 2024, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland agreed to cut the red tape hampering swift cross-border movement of troops. And since April, Germany is sending troops for its new permanent military base in Lithuania, which should be fully operational with around 5,000 military and civilian personnel by 2027. Step by step, we see a much more assertive German foreign and defense policy.

Olaf Schulz, chancellor of Germany gives a speech in the Bundestag (Photo: Federal Government of Germany).

Surprisingly, today, not many political analysts attribute a leadership role to Germany. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon media seem to rather focus on what goes wrong in German public affairs. During the Sovereign Debt crisis, Germany was better known as a reluctant hegemon. Unwillingly, so the theory goes, Germany was catapulted to the center of European power. But curiously, back then, Germany was not even able to make decisions on its own. Its financial power was strictly embedded within the European financial framework. As a matter of fact, all Euro-countries had their say in resolving the financial crisis. Today, the situation is different. The United States is the largest donor of military equipment to Ukraine, but Germany is second. Germany has, as the second largest donor to Ukraine, many more resources to shape its leadership role. Given these facts, why is Germany operating so modestly? And why is it not considered the informal leader of Europe?

5000 helmets

Clearly, the German cabinet has a communication problem, which is not easily resolved. Germany needs time to transform its military culture. In its coalition agreement, the current cabinet promised not to send weapons to crisis areas. And when it would send weapons, they should be defensive weapons. The Trier political scientist Hanns W. Maull analyzed Germany’s postwar role in world affairs as one of a Civilian Power. According to Maull, German politicians traditionally prefer to solve problems diplomatically, not militarily, within a multilateral framework, instead of ‘going alone’, focusing on human rights, the rule of law, development aid and climate assistance. In line with this, Annalena Baerbock, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, attaches great importance to ‘feminist foreign affairs’ to promote gender equality, equal rights, and women’s access to resources and political participation. Given the general concept of German diplomacy, it is not surprising that the former Minister of Defense offered 5000 helmets to Ukraine, right before the Russian invasion began.

The German cabinet has a communication problem, which is not easily resolved.

The image problem of the Scholz cabinet is increased by the fact that the three-party coalition has problems speaking with one voice. They often disagree on defense matters. While it is no secret that the Greens and the Liberals are in favor of sending Taurus missiles to Ukraine, the Social Democrats have decided against it. An explanation for these differences of opinion could be found in the political memory of each party. As political children of the illustrious party leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer, the Greens have a keen eye on human rights violations. Fischer supported the 1999 participation of German F-16 fighter jets in the Kosovo War with the words “Nie wieder Krieg, nie wieder Auschwitz, nie wieder Völkermord, nie wieder Faschismus” (never again war, never again Auschwitz, never again genocide, never again fascism). Exactly this argument is used today, to send more weapons to Ukraine. In contrast, the Social Democrats are the children of both Willy Brandt, who demonstrated against nuclear weapons, and of Gerhard Schröder, who won the 2002 elections by opposing the Iraq War. Scholz’s party has defined itself even more than the Greens as a peace party. On the other hand, also the SPD realizes the necessity of deterrence to maintain peace. At the 2024 Munich Security Conference, Scholz borrowed from one of Willy Brandt’s famous quotes by saying that ‘without security, all else is nothing.’ Also Scholz stresses the importance of the American nuclear umbrella for Germany.

The much discussed Swedish-German Taurus missile (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Despite Scholz’s attempt to appear decisive, his public image is the opposite. Particularly the considerable media attention to the government’s political indecision over whether to send Leopard tanks and Scholz’s refusal to send Taurus missiles have done harm to its reputation. Two former NATO secretary generals, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, did not praise Scholz for Germany’s major commitment to support Ukraine; instead they criticized his refusal to send Taurus missiles. Their message was that Germany should now step up and deliver, as if the country was not the largest European supplier of military equipment.

Two former NATO secretary generals, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, did not praise Scholz for Germany’s major commitment to support Ukraine; instead they criticized his refusal to send Taurus missiles.

‘Wrong man, wrong job, wrong time’

The nadir of this political communication problem was reached at the end of February this year, when Emmanuel Macron organized his summit on the Russo-Ukraine War, two years after the invasion. Before the summit, the pressure on Scholz to deliver Taurus missiles was so large that he jumped to a new argument for not sending them. Earlier, he had argued that the German missiles could hit targets deep into Russian territory, which could lead to a new escalation. He considers it his responsibility not to become part of the conflict. Now, he said that these missiles require German troops to program. He explained that what the British and French are doing in terms of target control and support for the Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles cannot be done by Germany. Since Germany has a ‘parliamentary army’, whose actions should be approved by Parliament, this was a no go. Particularly the British were furious. Why would Scholtz assert that British soldiers were involved in Ukrainian warfare? Ben Wallace, the former British Minister of Defense, who was responsible for sending the Storm Shadows, concluded that Scholz was “the wrong man, in the wrong job at the wrong time.” And Alicia Kearns, chair of the U.K. parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, called Scholz remarks “wrong, irresponsible and a slap in the face to allies.”[2]

Macron’s reaction was much more subdued. After the Paris summit to discuss the state of the Russo-Ukraine War, at the press conference, Macron was asked if he could rule out sending Western troops to Ukraine. Macron, knowing how sensitive this question was for his German counterpart, said that not everybody agreed during this conference, but that we cannot exclude anything. We will do everything we can to prevent Russia from winning this war. He added that those who now say ‘never, never’ were the ones who earlier said ‘never, never tanks, never, never planes, never never long-range missiles’. And two years ago, many offered sleeping bags and helmets.[3] Clearly, he referred to Germany. That Macron did not rule out Western troops on Ukrainian soil is in line with the French military thought. As a nuclear power, France does not rule out the possibility of using its Force de Frappe. Strategic ambiguity is part of the game: the threat of using nuclear missiles preserves peace.[4] But Scholz in no way wants to be seen as a war monger. He immediately reacted by saying that no European or NATO troops will be sent to Ukraine. Later, he specified that NATO isn’t or will not be, a war party. His promise not to send German soldiers to Ukraine will be kept. For Scholz, as a representative of a peace nation, the deployment of Federal German troops in a war between Russia and Ukraine is a no go.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, French president Emmanual Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz (Photo: Shutterstock).

To understand this stance, domestic political factors are decisive. Scholz knows that the majority of the German people are not in favor of any war rhetoric. His refusal to send Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine fits well with opinion polls in the country, as 61 percent of the Germans oppose their delivery. Particularly in Eastern Germany, the opposition to sending assault weapons to Ukraine is high. Scholz’s policy of prudence could help him in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in June, for three Eastern European federal states in the autumn, and for the next federal elections in 2025. Scholz also wants to have a clear answer to the populist right-wing party AfD, which is doing well in the polls with the hashtag #NichtUnserKrieg, not our war.

Step by step

So, what we see here is a German chancellor who is in a split position: even though Germany is the most important European donor of military equipment to Ukraine, the country is also the advocate of political restraint. This explains why Germany’s defense policy has a somewhat blurred image. All the more remarkable, given that Germany generally has a clear image of how to react to the coming threats. Indeed, Germany is in favor of more European cooperation within NATO, but step by step, and not strictly coordinated from above but from below. The full integration of the Dutch and German ground forces are an example. Both forces were weakened due to long-term budget cuts. Working together in this way could help offset one another’s weaknesses. Another example is the already mentioned European Sky Shield Initiative to build an integrated Eastern European air-defense system. A similar initiative, which is urgently needed, could be a European Center for Countering Disinformation, as Ukraine itself already has. However, to create such a center, there are some obstacles since secret services would have to work much more closely together. Moreover, the definition of disinformation may be difficult to agree on.

The German IRIS-T air defense system protecting the south of Ukraine (Photo: Defence of Ukraine).

Clearly, for Macron these initiatives are not enough. His ideas for a European army, or better formulated a ‘European capacity within NATO’, were already ignored by Angela Merkel. Now, Scholz had promised in his Zeitenwende (turning point) speech to invest in a new generation of combat aircraft and tanks together with the European partners, especially together with France, but did not deliver. Instead, he bought American Lockheed’s F-35 fighter jets. From Scholz’s point of view there were good reasons to do so: the F-35s could be delivered fast and could be used as carriers of nuclear bombs. In crisis times, this was decisive. To Macron’s great disappointment, there were no new signs of a European military-industrial strategy. When Scholz initiated the new European Sky Shield Initiative to build an integrated air-defense system, the German IRIS-T system, the American Patriots and the Israeli-American Arrow 3 were ordered. For France, this was the reason not to join the initiative, which it still has not done to this day. These are the structural problems Scholz’s Germany and Macron’s France have to face.

In 2024, the differences of opinion took on even more urgency due to the difficult situation in Ukraine as well as the upcoming American elections. In early January, Scholz started a new campaign to put pressure on allies who were not delivering as much to Ukraine as Germany did. He did not mention any names, but clearly France was one of them. Together with Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, Czechia’s Petr Fiala, Estonia’s Kaja Kallas and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte, Olaf Scholz pleaded in a letter to the editor in the Financial Times for redoubling the efforts in order to ensure sustained support to Ukraine for as long as it takes. Though giving the example of their own cooperations on weapon deliveries, they emphasized: “The ways are less important. The ends and means are critical.”[5] Scholz’ message was clear: it is not the time for complex talks about new lightly detailed proposals for European reforms. It is time to act.

Scholz’s message was clear: it is time to act.

No phone numbers

If there is one country that has rediscovered the transatlantic relationship it is Germany. By all means, Germany wants to prevent a situation similar to the one in 2016. Back then, German diplomacy was not in a position to get in touch with any member of the Trump team. They simply had no phone numbers. For this reason, Annalena Baerbock went to Texas to meet the Republican governor Gregg Abbott and to visit the US Air Force Base in Wichita Falls where American and German fighter pilots train jointly. Moreover, when Olaf Scholz visited Washington D.C., he invited a small group of Democratic ánd Republican senators for a joint dinner to speak about the transatlantic future relations. And during the 2024 Munich Security Conference, seventy American officials were present at the conference. Besides high profile Democrats, above all Kamela Harris, Antony Blinken and Nancy Pelosi, there was also a delegation of Republican Senators, including J.D. Vance, Pete Ricketts, Thom Tillis, Dan Sullivan, and Jim Risch. Generally, German diplomacy is able to attract Republican senators much better than Representatives of the House, since the senators who are interested to engage often represent a federal state which has strong economic ties with Germany. Still, Germany hopes to be prepared for a difficult year. The celebration of the 75th birthday of NATO might be decisive for the future of our continent, as there may be many crucial days to come.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Kyiv on 7 February 2022 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).



[1] Pietro Bomprezzi, Ivan Kharitonov, and Christoph Trebesch, ‘Ukraine Support Tracker, A Database of Military, Financial and Humanitarian Aid to Ukraine’,, consulted on April 19 2024.

[2] Quoted in: Joshua Posaner, Laura Kayali and Henry Donovan, ‘UK slams Scholz over claims Britain, France are helping Ukraine target missiles’, Politico, 29 February 2024.

[3] Philippe Ricard and Thomas Wieder, ‘On Ukraine, France and Germany can’t agree to speak with one voice’, Le Monde, 11 March 2024.

[4] Listen also to the podcast with Ulrike Franke and Jana Puglierin, ‘Under fire: Unpacking Germany’s defence policy drama’, Mark Leonard’s World in 30 minutes, 22 March 2024,, consulted on April 19, 2024.

[5] Olaf Scholz, Mette Frederiksen, Petr Fiala, Kaja Kallas and Mark Rutte, ‘Call for a collective effort to arm Ukraine for the long term’, Financial Times, 31 January 2024

Hanco Jürgens is a senior researcher at the Institute for German Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Photo: Kim Krijnen.