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Vladimir Putin's biggest weapon is Western fear

For more than two years, Vladimir Putin’s bluster, blame and threats of escalation have been driven by a singular goal: deterring and discouraging Western support for Ukraine. Worryingly, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is giving Putin reasons to think his tactics are working.

After stalling for months, Scholz rejected Ukraine’s request for Germany’s long-range Taurus missile system. The decision reflects Scholz’s political sensitivities and an overarching German concern about escalating the conflict with Russia. Yet by sowing confusion and alienating allies, Scholz’s handling of the matter is likely only to further embolden Putin and endanger Europe’s security.

The Taurus missiles would doubtless boost Ukraine’s ability to strike Russian supply lines and better defend against the kind of attacks on cities and vital infrastructure the country is again experiencing. Two similar long-range cruise missiles, the UK-supplied Storm Shadow and the French Scalp, have proved highly effective, notably in helping to take out about a third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Limited numbers, and their high unit cost, have forced Ukraine to ration their use. The Taurus would boost that stock, offer comparable or greater range, and is a weapon that is highly resistant to detection and jamming attempts.

Scholz has contended that sending the missiles would require deploying German soldiers to Ukraine — a claim disputed by members of his own coalition and some in the military. A leaked conversation about the Taurus by German air force officers (held over an insecure Webex line and published by Russia), and Scholz’s own loose lips, angered Germany’s closest allies.

Meanwhile, Scholz has turned down British offers to send more Storm Shadows and backfill UK stock with Taurus missiles. That may be out of concern that giving away the weapons and data systems they rely on will erode the already diminished capabilities of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military. A recently released annual report on the state of the armed forces found alarming shortfalls in personnel and weapons, as well as a lack of leadership and training.

These deficiencies argue for greater focus on addressing German underinvestment in its military while finding ways to ensure Ukraine can get the sophisticated weapons systems it needs. But Scholz’s fear of escalation has become the primary driver of German policy. Though the chancellor won plaudits for declaring a foreign-policy “zeitenwende,” or turning point, after Russia’s 2022 invasion, he’s lately seemed more interested in boosting his party’s flagging approval ratings by playing to pacifist streaks among segments of the German public.

In fairness, Scholz’s government has also come a long way in the past two years. Germany provided Ukraine with Leopard tanks last year and is now the second-largest supplier of military equipment to Kyiv, after the US. It has welcomed over a million Ukrainian refugees. Germany announced another €500 million of military support this month, including artillery shells and armored vehicles.

That is to be welcomed. But given its size and geopolitical importance, Germany punches well below its weight. Deliveries of weapons systems are slow and too few. Among NATO members, it ranks only 11th in military contributions as a share of gross domestic product and 16th in financial commitments as a share of GDP.

With the U.S. Congress blocking additional military aid for Ukraine, it’s critical Germany play a more assertive role. Berlin should work with other European governments to get more weapons to the front lines. More than any individual weapons system, Ukraine needs more of what it has, starting with ammunition but also including planes, tanks and long-range precision guided missiles (including the US’s Army Tactical Missile System). Scholz should follow up on last week’s meeting in Berlin with the Polish and French leaders with concrete measures to bolster Europe’s defenses, rebuild depleted militaries and transfer sufficient support to Ukraine. That requires acknowledging that, as Europe’s biggest economy, Germany can no longer rely on a gridlocked Washington to take the lead.

Above all, those who wish peace for Ukraine and Europe must first be prepared to show Putin that he cannot win. That this war is existential for Ukraine has been evident since February 2022. Failing to stand firm against Russian aggression would be a mistake that Germany, and Europe as a whole, will come to regret.

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