German Chancellor Scholz: "There cannot be a nuclear war"

April 25, 2022 - 14:4

In an interview with Der Spiegel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz discusses arms deliveries to Ukraine and growing calls for Berlin to supply heavy weapons. He also talks about why he has been hesitant to act in this crisis and addresses critical questions about his party's policies toward Russia in the past.

Question: Chancellor Scholz, are you a pacifist?

Answer: No.

Q: Why not?

A: In the world we live in, it is necessary to ensure our own security with a sufficient defensive capability. As a member of parliament and a member of the government, I have many times approved Bundeswehr (the German armed forces) missions abroad. I could not have done that as a pacifist.

Q: Is the SPD a pacifist party?

A: The SPD is a party of peace, but it has never been pacifist. The two great postwar Social Democratic chancellors, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, made the security situation and Germany’s defense capability their vital issues. Their policy of détente was based on integration into NATO.

Q: Joschka Fischer, the former Green Party foreign minister, says German society needs to rethink its instinctive pacifism. Is he right about that?

A: Part of our country's tradition is the knowledge of the dramatic consequences of two world wars that originated in Germany, which forms the framework of our policy. But I do not see an instinctive pacifism. How else could Gerhard Schroder’s government have supported the Bundeswehr’s first combat mission? How could the Bundeswehr have engaged in Afghanistan after 9/11? There were heated debates about both, but there was also strong support.

Q: So, let's be clear: Neither you nor the SPD, nor the Germans are pacifist. Why, then, are you not doing everything in your power to assist Ukraine militarily against Russia?

A: We are doing just that.

Q: For days now, Kyiv and its allies and politicians in your government coalition, including the foreign minister, have been pressing for the delivery of heavy weapons. Why aren’t you doing that?

A: Let’s first talk about what we are doing. We have supplied anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft equipment, ammunition, vehicles and a lot of materiel from the stocks of the German armed forces, which has directly aided Ukraine in its battle to defend itself – just as dozens of allies have done. We can see this in the military successes of the Ukrainian army.

Q: Weeks ago, the Ukrainians sent a list of weapons that they urgently needed. Why not work through that list as quickly as possible?

A: The Bundeswehr’s options for supplying further weapons from its arsenal are largely exhausted. But we will certainly deliver whatever is still available – anti-tank weapons, anti-tank mines and artillery ammunition. That is why, in discussion with German industry, we have drawn up a list of military equipment that can be delivered quickly and we have discussed it with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. In other words, as before, defensive weapons and mortars for artillery action. We are paying for these arms deliveries. Germany is providing a total of 2 billion euros, a large part of which will directly benefit Ukraine.

"In the medium term, we will help Ukraine develop its defense capability, also with Western weapons."

Q: Others are supplying heavy equipment, but Germany is pulling out its checkbook. Is that the distribution of roles in this war?

A: Wrong! We have delivered weapons for the upcoming fighting in eastern Ukraine in close cooperation with the U.S., France, Italy, the U.K. and Canada. Troop carriers and artillery are quickly deployable. That’s why we are ready to help our allies in rapid training on these devices and to see if suitable equipment can still be obtained from our side. The military equipment must be deployable without lengthy training, without further logistics and without soldiers from our countries. The quickest way to do this is with weapons from the former Soviet stocks, with which the Ukrainians are well acquainted. As such, it is no coincidence that several Eastern European NATO partners are now supplying these weapons and that no alliance partner has so far supplied Western battle tanks. We can successively fill the gaps created by these deliveries by our partners with replacements from Germany, as we have just discussed in the case of Slovenia. In the medium term, we will help Ukraine develop its defensive capability, also with Western weapons.

Q: So, when Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk calls for German Marder tanks, he is ignoring the fact that his army can’t even operate them?

A: Again: We are now helping the Ukrainian government to procure arms in line with the framework agreed to by our allies. And this as quickly as possible to stop Russia’s massive offensive in the east. When I look around the world, I see that all partners are operating within the framework of our agreements, just as we are.

Q: Canada, the U.S. and the Netherlands want to deliver heavy equipment to Ukraine quickly. Why are we falling behind?

A: You can only deliver what you have and can give away. You have to take a close look at how operational which materiel really is – and when. If I deliver a vehicle that can be shot through by any machine gun, then that does little to help the Ukrainian troops.

Q: Kyiv is proposing that Germany continuously supply its deployable equipment from the Bundeswehr and then gradually replace it. What are the arguments against that?

A: The need to be able to defend alliance territory at all times. It is a difficult balancing act that we constantly have to conduct together with our partners, because the threat to NATO territory from Russia persists. This is what we are hearing from our Baltic partners, in particular, who are asking us for an increased Bundeswehr presence. We are therefore heavily engaged with units in Slovakia and Lithuania, among other countries. NATO’s stated goal is that we must be able to hold out for 12 days with our ammunition and equipment in the event of a conventional attack. In the current threat situation, particularly, I will do my utmost not to forget this commitment.

Q: The U.S. government says that it only took 48 hours from the time of Joe Biden’s signature for weapons deliveries to Ukraine to commence. For us, it’s more like 48 days.

A: I read that, too. Deliveries from our stocks also went quickly. The U.S. military has considerably larger inventories. The cuts made to the Bundeswehr in recent decades have left their mark. We are changing that now.

Q: You have dismissed critics who are calling for the delivery of heavy weapons as "boys and girls" who have googled their knowledge.

A: You can see how tense the situation is when a remark in a radio interview is immediately taken as an insult. When it comes to an issue as contentious as arms deliveries, there are, of course, many who have a different opinion than mine and also express that publicly. That is part and parcel of a good democracy.

Q: You seem to be constantly coming up with new arguments against the delivery of heavy weapons: Sometimes the Ukrainians aren’t trained well enough, sometimes the weapons aren’t ready, sometimes we can't deliver anything ourselves. Do you realize how confusing these changing messages are?

A: For Germany, it was a profound change of course when I announced that we would supply weapons to this war zone. I would like to once again state that fact. Many who categorically rejected this step in the past are now outdoing themselves with demands to deliver much more – without even knowing the exact facts of the matter. I take note of that. But in this situation, we need a cool head and carefully considered decisions, because our country bears responsibility for peace and security throughout Europe. I do not think it is justifiable for Germany and NATO to become parties to the war in Ukraine.

Q: Kyiv is not asking for that at all – they are desperately asking for weapons. What are you afraid of?

A: Again: We are supplying weapons, and many of our allies are doing so as well. This is not a question of fear, it is one of political responsibility. Imposing a no-fly zone, as has been called for, would have made NATO a party to the war. I took an oath of office. I said very early on that we must do everything possible to avoid a direct military confrontation between NATO and a highly armed superpower like Russia, a nuclear power. I am doing everything I can to prevent an escalation that would lead to a third world war. There cannot be a nuclear war.

Q: What makes you think that tank deliveries from Germany would have these terrible consequences?

A: There is no textbook for this situation in which you could read about the point at which we are perceived as a war party. The book is being rewritten every day, and some lessons are still ahead of us. This makes it all the more important that we carefully consider and closely coordinate each of our steps. Avoiding an escalation on the NATO side is my top priority. That's why I don't squint at poll numbers or get irritated by shrill rants. The consequences of a mistake would be dramatic.

Q: Did you get the impression from your meeting and telephone conversations with Vladimir Putin that he might use nuclear weapons?

A: Russia is facing extreme difficulties – the sanctions are causing enormous damage to Russia's economy; the string of military defeats can no longer be glossed over by any government propaganda. A cold peace that has not been sealed with an agreement will not free Russia from the sanctions regime. Putin is under tremendous pressure.

Q: If we deliver tanks, there is a threat of a nuclear strike – why don't you tell the Germans that as clearly?

A: I am sorry, but we will not get anywhere with simplifications of this kind! I maintain my position: We will consider everything carefully, constantly re-evaluating and consulting with our closest allies. Germany will not go it alone.

Q: Your poll ratings are plummeting. Could this also be due to the impression that people are being massacred in Ukraine, while forms still need to be filled out in Germany?

I am doing everything I can to prevent an escalation that would lead to a third world war.

A: Do you have the impression that your sentence reflects reality? I was very impressed by conversations with Helmut Schmidt, who described his feelings when the democratic movements in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany were crushed by tanks. These conversations help me today in terms of facing my own responsibility as we do everything conceivable to help the Ukrainians.

Q: Is there a red line for you that Putin cannot cross?

A: We have to weigh our principles against reality on a daily basis. But the principles themselves do not change: We are confronting terrible suffering that Russia is inflicting upon Ukraine using all means possible, without creating an uncontrollable escalation that will cause immeasurable suffering across the entire continent, perhaps even throughout the world.

Q: The use of chemical weapons would not be a red line for you?

A: I warned President Putin not to use biological or chemical weapons. Others have also issued this serious warning to him.

Q: Are you not afraid of having to look back later and say: We should have done more to stop this killing?

A: Any person who does not consider it possible to judge their own actions with hindsight differently than they do in the middle of events cannot act responsibly. Nonetheless, I still have to act now. The principles I have described in this interview guide my actions.

Q: What is your most important goal in the current situation? Does Ukraine have to win this war? Does the war have to end as soon as possible? Or does Germany have to be spared from it to the extent possible?

A: There has to be a cease-fire, and the Russian troops must withdraw. There must be a peace agreement that allows Ukraine to defend itself in the future. We will arm them so that their safety is guaranteed. And we will be available as a guarantor power. There will be no dictated peace of the kind Putin has long envisioned.

Q: What might a peace agreement look like?

A: Ukraine will formulate the conditions for a peace deal, no one can do that by proxy. That would be inappropriate.

Q: You emphasize Ukraine’s sovereignty, but at the same time you are not granting the wish of an immediate gas embargo out of fear of economic upheaval. This means that we Germans are still filling Putin’s war chest. Can you understand how Kyiv might see your words as a mockery?

A: First, I do not see at all that a gas embargo would end the war. If Putin were amenable to economic arguments, he never would have started this insane war. Second, you are presuming that it is all about making money for us. But the point is that we want to avoid a dramatic economic crisis, the loss of millions of jobs and of factories that would never open again. This would have major consequences for our country, for all of Europe, and it would also severely affect the financing of Ukraine’s reconstruction. As such, it is my responsibility to say: We cannot allow that to happen. And third, is anyone actually thinking about the global consequences?

Q: German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said that we have failed in the effort to establish a common European house that includes Russia. Do you agree?

A: Russia must accept that open societies have come together near its border to form a strong European Union, which has the greatest economic power of any economic zone in the world. I formulated that precisely in a speech I had the privilege of giving in St. Petersburg in 2016 as the mayor of Hamburg. And Russia should be clear that no one has a plan to attack Russia militarily or to bring about a change of government from the outside.

Q: After the invasion, do we seriously have to assure Putin that we mean no harm to his country?

A: My answer referred to 2016. It remains true today that there can only be security in Europe if we recognize the sovereignty of nations and the inviolability of borders. Russia has brutally disregarded this principle – not only with the invasion, but already with the annexation of Crimea, with the staging of the uprisings in the Donbas region and in other parts of the world. When heads of state have to read through history books and look at where borders used to be in order to deduce consequences for today, peace is threatened.

The consequences of a mistake would be dramatic.

Q: If Moscow already violated this principle in 2014, then wasn’t it a mistake to allow the Nord Stream 2 German-Russian gas pipeline project to continue?

A: As far as dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal is concerned, we should have made sure early on that we could also be served by other suppliers within a very short time. In a pinch, Germany would have had to finance liquefied natural gas terminals and import infrastructure for the East German oil refineries, even if they had not been economically viable. This is the real mistake that has been troubling me for a long time.

Q: Nord Stream 2 was never essential for our energy supply.

A: Correct. The problem is not that there are two, three or four pipelines – it is that they all come from Russia.

Q: But Russia’s aim with Nord Stream 2 was to exclude Ukraine from the gas pipeline. Why did you support that endeavor for so long?

A: At the same time, that is precisely why we have contractually secured the continued transit of gas through Ukraine. And if you are going to argue geostrategically, then you also have to say: Perhaps DER SPIEGEL shouldn’t have been criticizing LNG terminals all the time.

Q: But again: Was allowing Russia to isolate Ukraine in the gas business the right response to the annexation of Crimea?

A: The right response would have been to become more independent of Russian imports, or at least to have created the technical conditions to be able to do so at any time. And I say this with the knowledge we have today: We should have already responded to the annexation of Crimea with some of the sanctions that we have now imposed. That would have had an effect.

Q: Why are you unable to utter these words: Nord Stream 2 was a mistake?

A: We prevented it from going into operation in response to Russian aggression. And geostrategically, we should have diversified our imports much earlier. And it also would have been right to have moved earlier to accelerate the expansion of renewable energies in such a way that we become independent of the import and use of fossil resources, also for the sake of the environment.

Q: Do you at least see the establishment of a foundation financed with Russian money for the construction of Nord Stream 2 as a mistake today?

A: This is a decision that the government and the state parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania made.

Q: About which you and then-Chancellor Angela Merkel were informed in advance. Did you advise Governor Manuela Schwesig, your fellow party member, against it?

A: Part of the nature of such conversations is that they remain confidential.

Q: What was your basic position on the project?

A: I expected that the U.S. would impose sanctions. That is where I was wrong.

Q: An investigative committee in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is likely to look into the issue. Does the SPD need to reassess its Russia policies in the past?

A: These distorted and slanderous portrayals of the SPD's European and Russian policies have been around since Adenauer's time, and that annoys me. What distinguishes the SPD is the clear policy of détente pursued by Brandt and Schmidt. A policy that made it possible for the Iron Curtain to disappear, for many countries in Eastern Europe to gain democracy and for us to be united today in the European Union. It has always been a policy that has relied on a strong Bundeswehr and integration with the West. That is a tradition that I stand for.

Q: Steinmeier has spoken of mistakes. Matthias Platzeck, the former governor of Brandenburg and most recently the head of the German-Russian Forum, also says he was wrong about Putin. Both are politicians from the SPD.

A: Do you now also count Ms. Merkel as an SPD member?

Q: If she were sitting here, we would ask her about mistakes in the CDU’s Russia policy in the same way. But you are governing now.

A: Hence the clear statement: I am following a clear course, and I have done so for a very long time. Also because it promoted democracy in the east. As trans-Atlanticists, it is our job not only to focus on ourselves, but also to understand that the desire to live in a democracy in a free society is universal. As far as Russia is concerned, I have long been impressed by critical voices, by literary assessments such as Masha Gessen's book "The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia." This has shaped my conviction that Russia has been on the road to autocracy for a long time.

Q: Can you understand that you seem a bit arrogant to some people because you always claim to have known the right course – and you don't seem to want to have anything to do with your party's mistakes?

A: No, that's not true. But I do accuse you of painting a distorted picture of Social Democratic politics, almost like Adenauer, and of urgently insisting that we finally admit to being something that others claim us to be. The Social Democratic Party is a party firmly anchored in the trans-Atlantic alliance and the West, and it does not have to accept the accusations that are being made.

Q: So, you would rather have no debate at all?

A: I don’t reject any debate. I support any discussion of future policy. But I reject the notion that the ticket to a debate is a lie.

Q: The fact that Steinmeier considers part of his policy as foreign minister to be a failure is no lie.

A: Neither the former foreign minister nor the former chancellor can be blamed for trying to create an order in Europe in which no country invades another. They did everything they could to prevent the war that we are now unfortunately experiencing. That this did not succeed is not due to Ms. Merkel or Mr. Steinmeier, but to Putin's imperialism, which has flouted every agreement and understanding that has been reached. Putin is the aggressor, no one else.

Q: At the end of February, you announced a "watershed moment" in parliament. But little happened after that. What should Germans be preparing for now?

A: First, we are allocating 100 billion euros to better equip the Bundeswehr. By doing so, we have also encouraged others in Europe to follow the same path. Second, we are putting a lot of effort into accelerating the shift to renewable energies, so that we become less dependent on energy imports. The third part is the strong, sovereign European Union – community provides us with protection. This also includes the fact that the states of the Western Balkans belong in the EU. We have been lost in the minutiae for far too long. We have a broad majority in parliament for all these decisions. As for the Bundeswehr, we hopefully have a patriotic majority that goes far beyond the borders of the coalition.

Q: Many Germans have been skeptical about the Bundeswehr in the past. Are they ready for a more powerful army?

A: Yes, also because they know that a better equipped Bundeswehr does not mean a change to a more aggressive German policy. That is what is special about this turning point in time: This is about our country, which has emerged as a democracy after all the disasters of the first half of the 20th century in such a way that no one fears a Germany that is stronger militarily any longer.

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