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Has Germany's chancellor lost authority over Taurus debate?

March 20, 2024

Chancellor Olaf Scholz's refusal to supply Ukraine with Taurus missiles has sparked a debate challenging his authority within Germany's coalition government. The controversy highlights division over military aid to Kyiv.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Scholz said: 'I am the chancellor, and that's why this is valid'Image: Liesa Johannssen/REUTERS

By pledging to send certain arms to Ukraine, the German government is trying to deflect attention from the ongoing controversy over the long-range Taurus cruise missiles that Ukraine wants so badly but which Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said he will not supply. With a range of 500 kilometers (310 miles), they could hit targets in Moscow, Russia's capital.

Instead, Germany has said it will give Ukraine a further €500 million (around $540 million) in military aid, including urgently needed ammunition. This resulted from a meeting of Western supporters of Ukraine at the US air base in Ramstein.

Scholz has said he fears that by supplying Ukraine with the Taurus, Germany will be drawn into Russia's war in Ukraine. But his refusal to grant Ukraine's request will not end to the debate, not even within his own coalition of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the neoliberal FDP

A missile aimed at a concrete bunker
The Taurus missiles can destroy several-storey concrete bunkers such as these Image: Luftwaffe

Policy of 'appeasement'?

Last week, Rolf Mützenich, the head of the SPD's parliamentary faction, caused outrage at home and abroad when he asked the following question in the German Bundestag: "Isn't it time we not only talked about how to wage war but also thought about how to freeze the war and later end it?"

Critics have interpreted the verb "freeze" as meaning the abandonment of Ukraine. Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany's largest opposition party, the center-right CDU, responded as follows: "The war in Ukraine has already been frozen once, namely in 2014 by the two Minsk agreements. And you can see what Putin thinks of freezing every day in the news."

There has also been criticism from within the ruling coalition. The FDP chair of the defense committee, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, accused the SPD on the public radio station Deutschlandfunk of pursuing a policy of "appeasement." Despite her party being in the ruling coalition, she has twice voted against the government in Bundestag votes concerning the Taurus missiles.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann at the German Bundestag
Marie-Agnes Strack Zimmermann has twice voted against the government on the Taurus matterImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Johannes Varwick, a political scientist from the University of Halle, defended the idea of a freeze. 

"To 'freeze' a conflict does not mean to resolve it, but to prevent it from escalating further," he told DW. "A conflict that is 'insoluble' under existing conditions does not become heavier through the striving for an ideal solution but is 'put on ice' by a minimum compromise brokered by both sides. Of course, this does not guarantee success, but it is a responsible strategy given the alternatives."

What is delicate for Scholz is that he has received praise from people on the opposite end of the political spectrum — for example, from Björn Höcke, who is on the extreme fringe of the far-right AfD, and Sahra Wagenknecht, who recently founded a party named after her. Ideally, these two would stop providing military aid to Ukraine altogether.

Praise for Scholz has also come from former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who has criticized Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine but remains friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Being praised and appropriated by Gerhard Schröder clearly shows that he [Scholz] is on the wrong track," said Markus Söder, Bavaria's state premier and the leader of the conservative CSU.

Smoke and a damaged multi-storey building in Odesa, Ukraine
Emergency workers clear rubble after a Russian attack on a multi-storey building in Odesa, UkraineImage: Ukrainian Emergency Service Office/AP Photo/picture alliance

What is behind Scholz's decision?

Meanwhile, speculation continues as to what is behind Scholz's refusal to supply Taurus missiles to Ukraine. CDU politician Roderich Kiesewetter, who has long been calling for them to be delivered to Kyiv, told DW that preventing Germany from getting involved in the war was a "sham reason." He suspected that the chancellor might be prepared to accept a "fake peace dictated" by Russia.

For his part, Varwick claims that the significance of the Taurus missiles was overestimated. "Solidarity with Ukraine is not a question of supplying as many and as many heavy weapons as possible, but a question of the degree of diplomatic initiatives to end this war with unpopular, but realistic approaches."

The debate has been further fueled by alleged comments made by the inspector general of the German army, Carsten Breuer, at a closed-door meeting of the Bundestag Defense Committee. The German t-online news portal reported that he had spoken of a "capability gap" that would affect the German armed forces if Taurus missiles were delivered to Ukraine.

What is the Taurus missile capable of?

Majority of Germans against sending Taurus missiles to Kyiv

Though Scholz faces strong resistance from his coalition partners, the FDP and the Greens, as well as from the CDU/CSU opposition, he can be sure that most of the German population will support his position on the Taurus missiles.

According to a new survey by the German Forsa Institute, 66% of Germans are against supplying Ukraine with Taurus missiles. Only 28% are in favor, as opposed to 35% at the end of February. Among supporters of the Greens, a majority are in favor, but most supporters of the FDP (54%), SPD (70%) and CDU/CSU (60%) are against.

Scholz and the parties' leaders in favor of delivering Taurus missiles to Kyiv are surely keeping a close eye on such surveys, especially regarding the upcoming European elections in June. Russia's war in Ukraine and how to end it will likely be an important topic.

The German chancellor recently criticized the Taurus debate, which he seemingly has no control over. He said it was "embarrassing" and its "ridiculousness' could not be "topped." But the fact that his statement, "I am the chancellor, and that's why this is valid" is not even effective within his own ranks shows that his authority has suffered.

This article was originally written in German.