Olaf Scholz on Russia’s War in Ukraine and Germany’s Future

TThree days after Russia sent troops to Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed lawmakers at the Bundestag in Berlin. “Feb. 24, 2022, marks a watershed moment in the history of our continent,” he said, calling the Russian invasion a Zeitenwende,A moment that changed the world.

Scholz, who had taken office only a couple of months earlier, met this historic moment with a response that would overturn decades of military policy—and with it, a crucial part of postwar German identity. He announced a €100 billion plan to boost the country’s notoriously depleted armed forces, promised to end reliance on Russian fossil fuels, and, for the first time since the Second World War, declared Germany would send weapons to a conflict zone. “The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law,” Scholz told his Parliament, “or whether we have it in us to set limits on warmongers like Putin.”

Exactly what those limits should be—and how quickly Germany should impose them—has been the subject of fierce debate in the two months since. Germany was an economic powerhouse for decades with a weak military. It has embraced pacifism as a way to atone for the Holocaust and the other destructions that it has caused during the 20th century. With his Zeitenwende speech, Scholz presented a road map for Germany to emerge as a true global power—with a military to match. “We have to be strong enough. Not so strong that we’re a danger to our neighbors,” Scholz says, during an April 22 interview with TIME, his first with a major English-language publication since the start of the war. “But strong enough.”


The announcement of this new era for Germany was met warmly by allies around the world, many of whom had complained about Germany’s hesitancy in the run-up to the invasion. And though the speech raised questions at home, the three parties in his coalition quickly swung into line, as did the broader public: a March 1 poll for the broadcaster RTL found that 78% of Germans supported Scholz’s plan to send weapons to Ukraine and fund improvements to the German army. “It was a really great moment,” Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Bundestag Defense Committee, says of the speech. “And then it went quiet.”

Quiet is Scholz’s hallmark trait. A reserved man who, as his biographer Lars Haider puts it, “deliberately does not answer questions directly,” Scholz has yet to find his political rise impeded by his apparent reluctance to explain himself. His subsequent hesitation has fueled criticisms both at home and abroad. This is a time of historical crisis when not only the fate of Ukraine, but also the whole European order, hangs in the balance.

Learn More What Will Germany’s Biggest Military Since World War II Look Like? There is no one who knows.

When it comes to military and financial aid, the international perception has been that Europe’s largest economy is shirking its responsibilities at a time when smaller nations, from Poland to Estonia, are stepping up to provide hefty donations of money and weapons. It was only on April 26, after weeks of conflicting deflections, that Scholz answered Ukraine’s pleas and agreed to send heavy weapons directly.

There is also the problem of Russian imported oil and gas. Not even the killing of hundreds of civilians in Bucha or the brutal siege of Mariupol—which Scholz calls “immoral crimes”—have persuaded the Chancellor to implement an immediate embargo on Russian fossil fuels.

Now that Gepard tanks will be rolling across Ukraine—a rare delivery of heavy weapons systems from a Western nation’s own stockpile—the decision is being cast by many as the Chancellor caving to criticism from allies.

But when he spoke with TIME four days earlier, Scholz seemed virtually immune to pressure, calmly maintaining instead that he was committed to the promises of the Zeitenwende speech, was working as fast as possible in tandem with Germany’s allies—and trying to avoid a dangerous escalation in hostilities.

In his view, he has been entrusted by the German people to lead based on what he believes—and not what polls say—is right for the country. “If you are a good leader,” Scholz says, “you listen to the people, but you never think they really want you to do exactly what they propose.”

The winter day in 2021 that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16 years in power came to an end and Scholz took office, his father told a reporter that his son was just 12 years old when he declared he wanted to become Chancellor. It’s not hard to believe; Scholz joined the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) while he was still in high school. After practicing law for many years, Scholz entered the Bundestag as a member in 1998. He quickly rose up the ranks and was elected general secretary in 2002.

He returned to Parliament in 2018, despite having served seven successful years as the mayor of Hamburg (the city where his family was born). He was serving as vice chancellor and finance minister in the “grand coalition” government that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had formed with the SPD, when she announced she would be retiring in 2021. Scholz lost his initial bid to become party leader, but his robust response as finance minister to the COVID-19 pandemic—as well as a simple campaign theme of “respect” that resonated with working-class voters—helped him regain the top spot and, with it, the chancellery. If it’s daunting to fill the shoes of a leader in power for so long that she was affectionately nicknamed “Mutti,” he doesn’t admit it.

Scholz, like his father before him is very private about his personal life. Over the course of two hours with TIME, he divulges few details: he played the oboe as a child, he didn’t have an Easter break because of the war, and he took up running in his 40s on the advice of his wife, fellow SPD politician Britta Ernst. He spends his spare time reading newspapers and history books. Steffen HEBSTRITZ, spokesperson for the government jokes about how he doesn’t have to read his boss’ press reviews every morning. “When he comes in, he’s already read everything.”

If the media’s heavy criticism of his handling of the war made for a tough morning the day we meet, the Chancellor doesn’t show it. It’s fitting for a man whose dry communication style earned him the moniker “Scholzomat” (as in, Scholz the automaton). Haider says Scholz also shares a similarity to Merkel. “He is not a great communicator. He works hard and prefers to speak out only when there is something to say.” Unlike many politicians who woo voters with rhetoric and charm, Scholz has never been one for effusive expression or even the clear explanation of his actions. If Volodymyr Zelensky is Europe’s great orator, Scholz is his opposite: reserved instead of emotive, methodical instead of spontaneous, and reticent to the point of opacity about his decision-making.

The Archives TIME’s April 2021 Interview With Volodymyr Zelensky on Russia

His supporters love his blend of knowledge, work ethic and restraint. Comparing the Chancellor with his British counterpart Boris Johnson, SPD lawmaker Adis Ahmetovic observes that while Johnson is “a performer, an entertainer, Olaf Scholz is a leader.” And the Chancellor cites his electoral success as proof that his understated approach works. “The first rule for a politician is to be yourself,” he says. “Leadership needs to be clear, to have a course, an idea about where the country has to go.”

Scholz’s idea of where the nation should go is, of course, shaped by where it has been. “Living in Germany, you can’t go away from the disasters of the first half of the 20th century, which were caused by Germany. It is in all the things we do politically, and it is in my mind too, because we have a historic responsibility to help secure peace.” For Germany, that means learning to think beyond itself to the broader collective. “We should be the nation that is willing to find the European solutions that are good for all, not just for our country.”

The weeks aheadScholz had been criticized before the Russian invasion for failing to do enough. He claimed that he was planning to react to the Russian invasion behind closed doors. In a desperate attempt to avoid war, the German Chancellor flew from Germany to Moscow on February 15. Describing that meeting as a “very bad experience,” Scholz says he pushed back as Putin expounded on his ideas of a “greater Russia.” “I was saying: ‘Please understand, if politicians start to look at history books for where borders were before, we would be at war for hundreds of years.’”

Although younger Europeans might assume that the international order has ensured decades of stability in Europe, despite centuries of violence, the Chancellor, 63, grew up in Germany. She believes strongly in NATO and NATO’s principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, as well as the European Union and NATO. Nine days after Scholz’s Moscow trip, Putin ordered troops into Ukraine and shattered that rules-based order. “The invasion is a really severe injury to European peace,” he says, gesturing for emphasis. “We are fighting for Ukraine’s sovereignty. This is an imperialist view of politics. And this is why we had to react as strongly as we did.”

A shift away from the pacifism that had defined decades of policy may have been seismic for Germany, but critics say Scholz’s follow-through is too hesitant. “We Germans are sleeping,” says Thomas Erndl, deputy chairman of the Bundestag’s committee on foreign affairs and a member of the opposition, “while the U.S. is taking a leadership role and Eastern European countries are taking a leadership role.”

By the end of March, Germany had supplied Ukraine with just €1.2 million of military aid—none of it in heavy weapons—while tiny Estonia had managed to come up with €2.2 million. (When pressed, Scholz notes that as Europe’s largest economy, Germany contributed a major share to the E.U.’s €1.5 billion military aid package.) After the atrocities in Bucha emerged in early April, leading members of Scholz’s governing coalition began pushing harder for the delivery of heavy weapons. The pressure increased on April 20—and threatened to blossom into a full-blown scandal-—when the newspaper BildThe defense industry submitted a list with available weapons at the February end, but it was not turned over to Ukraine before April. Only then were about half of the original options deleted.

Learn More The Crime Scene Russian Troops are Left behind at the Summer Camp in Bucha

Scholz insists that Germany’s deliveries are perfectly aligned with that of its allies. Scholz asks how he would explain his government’s criticism. “That is perhaps a good question for you to answer,” he replies, with a tiny, sphinx-like smile. As the U.S. started delivering heavy-duty weapons in April, Berlin increased its support. On April 15, it doubled an existing €1 billion military support fund for foreign nations, most of which will go to Kyiv. It released plans to replace Soviet-era armored vehicles and tanks from Eastern Europe with models made from its own stock, and to teach Ukrainian soldiers how to use Dutch-supplied Panzer Howitzers in Germany. Berlin also announced that it will send 50 Gepard antiaircraft cannon tank tanks to Ukraine, marking its first delivery of heavy military equipment.

For weeks leading up to this pivotal moment, however, the chancellery had offered contradictory explanations for why it wasn’t doing more. Scholz claims that these weren’t delay tactics. He was just taking the time to prevent Germany from becoming isolated and unnecessarily increasing its engagement. “There will be no activity of Germany that is not absolutely part of the activities of our allies,” he says.

But as Germany has waited to see what others are doing before stepping up, even members of Scholz’s own coalition have grown frustrated. “The war has been going on for 60 days,” says Strack-Zimmermann. “In a situation that terrible, every day counts.”

Meanwhile, Germany’s paymentsRussia continues to be a priority. In February, Scholz halted his country’s €10 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which had been designed to double the flow of Russian gas into Germany. He has not yet to place an immediate embargo on Russian fossil fuel imports. “We are implementing sanctions that will hurt Russia,” he says. “But not hurt us more than they do the Russians.”

The Russian oil and coal industries would suffer if they were to be cut off. Germany is reliant on imported energy. It has about 50% of its coal, 34% oil and 55% natural gas imports from Russia. While this has decreased significantly over the course of the war it remains one of Europe’s most dependent nations.

Learn More Germany Can’t Rely on Russian Energy. It Doesn’t Know What to Do Instead

Berlin ignored warnings from the U.S. and the Baltic states about that dependency—which only expanded after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Developing closer ties with Russia had been a priority for a succession of Chancellors, with its roots in Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik—or “east policy-”—that sought stability through engagement with Russia, and helped Germany atone for its postwar guilt. (World War II saw the death of 24 million Soviets, making it the deadliest wartime conflict.

As time passed, this belief in engagement led to a new one: Russia should be tied into a reciprocally beneficial trade relationship. Germany got cheap oil to fuel its booming industry, while Moscow gained political influence, most notoriously with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who sits on the boards of multiple Russian energy companies.

Scholz recognizes that the age of codependency is over, but he sees it as a long-term view. “We are preparing for getting out of the situation,” he says, with emphasis on the preparing.E.U. has imposed sanctions. Germany plans to follow suit. Germany will phase out Russian coal before the summer ends, according to recent E.U. sanction. Annalena Bärbock, foreign minister, stated that the same applies to oil imports by the end the year. However, cutting off natural gas imports will be more difficult due to the lack of alternative sources as well as the necessity to create the infrastructure necessary to transport and store them.

Scholz notes that Germany is working hard to quickly build that infrastructure—and that once it does, as part of its green transition, there is no going back. “Russia really misunderstands the intensity and the earnestness with which we are working on getting rid of the necessity to import any fossil fuels.”

Learn More How Germany’s New Government Plans to Be the Greenest One Yet

However laudable those goals may be, it doesn’t change the more immediate needs. Anton Hofreiter, chair of the Bundestag’s committee on European affairs and a member of the Green Party that is part of the governing coalition, argues that embargoes on coal and oil—alternative sources for which can be more easily found—should take effect much sooner than the government has planned. In other words: The next few days. “The Putin regime earns so much money selling oil—from two to four times as much as it does selling gas,” he says. “So if we are serious about cutting off the regime from its money supply, it’s important we act fast.”

For now, Scholz is following the lead of Germany’s industry, which warns that an abrupt cutoff would lead to factory closures and mass unemployment. On April 22, the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, reported that an energy embargo now would cause the German economy to contract 5% over predictions for 2022, and provoke one of the deepest recessions in decades. But that amount roughly corresponds to the 4.6% that the German economy shrank in the first year of the pandemic, which helps explain why many economists conclude that such a contraction would be manageable—especially if the government applies some of the same tools it did during that crisis. “There would be a recession and there might be some scarcity,” says Veronika Grimm, an economist at the University of Erlangen-Nüremberg, who sits on the council of economic experts advising the Berlin government. “But it would not be a catastrophe.”

Scholz’s rejection of an immediate embargo, coupled with his characteristic reluctance to explain himself, has left some wondering if the German political elite remains too close to Moscow—and thus conflicted over how to handle Putin.

Scholz, however, refused to answer questions about a possible rapprochement between Russia and Germany. While Russia will remain, as he puts it, “a reality” with which Ukraine will have to reach an agreement for peace, “there will never be a special relationship between Germany and Russia that is not the European relationship with Russia.”

Germany’s dramatic turnaround under Scholz is evident. “A few weeks ago, hardly anyone could have imagined that Germany would deliver weapons to a war zone at all; today they should be as heavy and effective as possible,” says Haider, who sees the German tendency to think in absolutes as part of the reason many believe Scholz isn’t doing enough.

However, the communication issue is not solved by this. “We are not telling the story,” defense committee chairwoman Strack-Zimmermann says. “We must explain what is happening in Ukraine and what it means to Germans and to Europe. It is up to us as allies to explain what weaponry we have been using. And OK, he’s a quiet guy. But he needs to talk.”

Claudia Major, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, argues that the lack of communication also impedes Scholz’s ability to bring about a real Zeitenwende at home. “To change the way a country behaves in security and defense policy—and this is what was announced in the speech—takes years,” she says. To pull it off, “you would need a long-term implementation plan for constant explanation on why the world has changed, how it has changed, and what needs to be done about it.” Without regular and clear explanation of policies, she adds, the rest of the world is left wondering whether Germany can’t do something—or whether it just doesn’t want to.

Without a story, actions may not register. “We have made some progress in the last few days,” lawmaker Hofreiter says on April 25. “But when I talk to colleagues from other European countries, they all say, ‘We are still waiting for Germany.’”

Scholz can communicate with a lot of people, but is not an inflexible leader. He is not bothered by all the criticism he receives. In part, that is just the nature of a man who, according to spokesperson Heiberstreit, lives by two rules: don’t get hysterical, and don’t get offended. But it’s also because he believes that Germans themselves are conflicted on the best course of action. “As a politician, I always have this feeling of two hearts in your breast,” he says. People urge him to take all measures to end Russian aggression. On the other, they want him to do avoid any escalation—especially with Putin’s threats of nuclear war.

Because they know there will be difficult decisions, they turn to the leaders. “I trust the people,” Scholz says. “And I’m sure they trust that we will do the job of thinking through all the difficult things.”

—With reporting by Simon Shuster/Berlin, Eloise Barry/London, and Leslie Dickstein/New York

Read More From Time

Reach out to usSend your letters to


Related Articles

Back to top button