Hot off last year’s federal election victory, Olaf Scholz warned his Social Democratic Party that “whoever asks for leadership will get it”.
Six weeks into office, the Ukraine border standoff has exposed long-running SPD divisions on Russia – and plunged the new German chancellor into his first leadership challenge with a party he doesn’t officially head.
Members rejected his leadership bid in 2019, only to welcome him back a year later as their campaign lead candidate. Now Scholz faces an internal party row between realists who want to adopt a robust approach to Moscow and SPD leftists who have dismissed such talk as “verbal sabre-rattling”.
That in turn has prompted SPD realists to suggest that 100,000 Russian soldiers and tanks amounts to far more dangerous sabre-rattling.
Ralf Stegner, a senior leftist MP, would prefer a conciliatory approach towards Russia rather than the “worrying tone reminiscent of the cold war”. Moscow’s protests about the eastward creep of Nato prompted SPD parliamentary party leader Ralf Mützenich to admit he “can understand the Russian threat analyses even if I don’t share them”.
He has called for a “common European peace initiative, including Russia . . . even if, at the moment, it appears illusory”.
“I think we should at least start to overcome the singular fixation on military-political considerations,” he told the left-wing Taz newspaper.
Despairing SPD centrists, a camp where Scholz is more at home, argue that now is not the time for the theoretical peace pipe.
They agree with continuing the Merkel-era export ban on lethal weapons, anxious not to spark a military escalation. They are also pushing for greater diplomatic efforts to avoid all-out war – but they also want more to concentrate Moscow minds.
SPD foreign policy expert Nils Schmid argues that “deterrence and diplomacy belong together” and that Russia should face consequences – even if it acts through separatists or other proxies. Only then, he says, does it makes sense to step up diplomatic efforts to avoid war.
“It is important to leave Russia in the dark about how high the price will be,” he said, “so they don’t start to calculate what level of aggression they can ‘afford’ ”.
Schmid speaks for many in the SPD when he says the potential sanctions list must include Nord Stream 2, the completed 1,200km undersea gas pipeline now awaiting a permit to transport Russian gas to Germany.
Weeks of fudging
That has prompted howls of protests from SPD leftists who say it is important not to “politicise” the pipeline – a line echoed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday afternoon.
Hours later, after weeks of fudging, Scholz gave his first explicit signal that all sanctions options were on the table if Russia acted against Ukraine.
His shift came after Nato general secretary Jens Stoltenberg warned in Berlin that “the threat of war is very real”.
Scholz knows his party’s Russia dilemma is not unique: it runs through almost all Bundestag parties and the population, where history and geography have left former East Germans far more sympathetic to its eastern neighbour. Even in western regions, many fear endangering close German trade and cultural ties with Russia.
But the debate is now most heated in Olaf Scholz’s party, where nostalgia is particularly high for the détente days of SPD chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik.
Post-election, Scholz has huge political authority within his party but he knows he needs the support of the actual SPD leaders – leftist Saskia Esken and centrist Lars Klingbeil. As tensions grow on the Russian-Ukrainian border, ratcheting up pressure in SPD ranks, the party leadership duo remain silent.