BERLIN — Fierce debate over sending heavy weapons to Ukraine has struck a fault line through Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government, raising questions about his leadership and dampening expectations of his ability to help steer Europe through the continent’s most dramatic security crisis since World War II.
With Russia opening a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, calls have grown for Berlin to offer more heavy weaponry to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. Members of Mr. Scholz’s coalition have publicly broken ranks with him to demand Germany do more.
“Europe expects Germany to play a central role,” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the head of the parliamentary defense committee and a lawmaker from the liberal Free Democratic Party, a coalition partner with Mr. Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats and the Greens.
Mr. Scholz has largely evaded explaining his stance on heavy weapons, she said, and was losing the opportunity to define the debate. “If you don’t do the storytelling yourself, others will. And that’s never good.”
Just two months ago, Mr. Scholz was defining the conversation. Following Russia’s invasion, he announced a massive rearmament of Germany and a defense aid package for Ukraine in a dramatic break with decades of pacifist policy. He declared it a “Zeitenwende” – a historical turning point – for Germany. But on Ukraine, his critics argue, Mr. Scholz needs to move more swiftly, saying the extra aid he announced last week could not come as fast as direct deliveries of weapons.
For Mr. Scholz, the act of balancing international and domestic politics also includes the expectation of many Europeans that he act as a leader of the continent — a role of his predecessor Angela Merkel often filled at moments of crisis. And his government is wary of giving Moscow the impression Berlin is an active belligerent against Russia, at risk of being drawn into a war that would not just hurt Germany but its NATO allies.
Germany has already sent missiles and artillery to Ukraine, but Kyiv also wants heavy artillery, Leopard tanks and armored vehicles such as the Mardar, considered among the best in the world. Ukrainian officials have made repeated public demands. With tensions between Berlin and Kyiv rising, Ukraine went as far as disinviting Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, from a visit to its capital in protest over his longstanding business ties to Moscow.
The perceived reluctance to fulfill that demand, particularly at the same time Germany has slowed a European plan to boycott Russian gas, is frustrating Mr. Scholz’s governing partners. They argue Germany is running out of time to help rein in President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“The longer this war drags on, and the closer Putin gets to a victory, the greater the danger that further countries will be invaded and that we then end up sliding into an extended, de facto third world war,” said Anton Hofreiter, the head of the European relations committee in the Bundestag and a member of the Greens, on the public broadcaster ZDF on Wednesday morning.
Nils Schmid, a foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats in Parliament, said Mr. Scholz’s position has been unfairly skewered by his partners.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
“There is now a public contest from the opposition but also within the government about who is the most supportive of Ukraine,” he said. “What really counts is the action taken by the government.”
He pointed out that Germany’s approval had been necessary for the Czech Republic to send T-72 tanks, made in former East Germany, to Ukraine. It showed the chancellor had “no objection” to heavy weapons, he said.
But the bickering may have ramifications for Mr. Scholz’s leadership. In a poll of German voters released on Tuesday, 65 percent of respondents said they did not see Mr. Scholz as a strong leader. The magazine Der Spiegel on Wednesday wrote: “One has to ask whether the coalition is fundamentally still behind him.”
Uwe Jun, a political scientist at Trier University, dismissed the idea of a coalition under threat. But he did see a risk for the chancellor’s reputation as a leader for the continent.
For Europeans, that need is especially great with President Emmanuel Macron of France receding from the regional stage to fend off a ring-wing electoral challenge at home, he said.
“Scholz was expected to fill this vacuum,” Mr. Jun said. “And there is a certain disappointment, I would say that Scholz hasn’t done that.”