Olaf Scholz’s refusal to supply Kyiv with battle tanks has baffled Western allies and stoked concerns that Berlin is sabotaging Ukraine’s chances of victory.
The row over the chancellor’s apparent hesitancy to allow Kyiv’s allies to send their Leopard II tanks to Ukraine has also exposed a major rift in Germany’s ruling coalition, with one of its members last week describing Mr Scholz’s handling of the issue as a “catastrophe”.
The fiasco has raised concerns that the paralysis in Berlin will lead to greater casualties on the Ukrainian side, which urgently needs the Leopard tanks in the face of warnings that Russia is planning fresh offensives.
But even if Mr Scholz eventually lets Western allies send the tanks to Ukraine, experts say the delays have already done severe damage to Germany’s reputation and may even encourage Vladimir Putin to believe he can bully Nato’s leadership.
“It is a problem that is harming German credibility on the international stage and the German democratic political discourse in Berlin,” said Rafael Loss, a German defence analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s not good for the Nato alliance… Vladimir Putin is looking at this and thinking that maybe his efforts to threaten the West are working.”
In Berlin, Mr Scholz and his Social Democrat (SPD) allies face strong criticism from an unexpected source – their own coalition partners.
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, of the liberal Free Democratic party, did not mince her words when she accused Ralf Mutzenich, a senior Scholz ally, of being “a symbol of everything that is wrong with German foreign policy”.
After a meeting of defence ministers at the Ramstein air base on Friday failed to produce a decision on Leopard tanks, she accused Mr Scholz of being “a catastrophe”.
That led Mr Mutzenich, the leader of the SPD parliamentary faction, to rebuke her for “talking Germany into a military confrontation”.
What followed was an ugly confrontation on Twitter, with SPD politicians rounding on Ms Strack-Zimmermann for “acting pubescently” and “embarrassing herself”. The quarrel only came to an end when one SPD politician intervened to remind everyone that “our opponent is called Putin”.
While the smaller coalition partners, the Free Democrats and the Greens, are pushing for a quick decision, voices in the SPD worry that Germany could unwittingly slip into a larger confrontation with Russia.
“You have to ask whether battle tanks will really bring the war to a quicker end or whether they will just lead to more deaths,” Ralf Stegner, a senior SPD figure and the most vocal critic of weapons deliveries inside his party, told The Telegraph.
“And what comes after that? Will they be followed by war ships or war planes, or will troops be sent? I’m sceptical that the war will end militarily.”
Other Social Democrats are at pains to insist that Germany is working behind the scenes to find consensus. Brian Nickholz, an SPD member of Germany’s parliament, said his party’s priority was for Germany to find agreement among allies before announcing a move on battle tanks.
“I understand that people are frustrated by the lack of communication, but it is right that the chancellor only says something when he actually has something to announce,” he said.
While there is no serious suggestion in Germany that Mr Scholz is a stooge for Mr Putin, Mr Loss said the German public is increasingly wary that the delay could have dire consequences for Ukrainian defenders.
“The Germans are holding up the process – specifically Olaf Scholz. He has the backing from his coalition partners. He has a party willing to go along with it and a public willing to be convinced by good arguments,” explained Mr Loss.
Some analysts say that fear is a significant reason behind the leader of Germany – which holds the export licences for the Leopards – putting the brakes on Western efforts to get the tanks delivered.
“It seems to me that the key to Germany’s reluctance to deliver tanks is what Scholz always says – that Ukraine should not lose and Russia should not win,” Minna Alander, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said in a series of posts on Twitter.
“Instead, Ukraine should get enough support to prevail until both sides are ready for negotiations. Scholz doesn’t say that Ukraine should win because he’s not certain whether a Ukrainian military victory should be the aim. The reasoning is that if Russia lost, the consequences would be too unpredictable and dangerous.
“That is reflected in the nature of Germany’s military aid – it has delivered everything that can be thought of as defensive and enables Ukraine to defend against Russian attacks, but not to [effectively] attack back.”
Whatever the outcome of the SPD’s tortuous debate on tanks, it is clear to most Nato members that Ukrainian civilians and soldiers will be the biggest losers of Mr Scholz’s Hamlet-esque dithering.