In wars, revolutions and other upheavals, politics becomes a highly risky business. The outcome is uncertain. This demands suppleness from those involved.
What is right today can be wrong tomorrow – and vice versa. Anyone who sets concrete goals and conditions early on is risking life and limb.
The French diplomat Talleyrand left the bon mot that high treason is a matter of date. He still managed to switch sides in time. After 1789 he served the revolution, then Napoleon and after his fall the returned Bourbons as foreign minister.
From this perspective, is Chancellor Olaf Scholz wise to describe his goals, how the war in Ukraine should progress and end, more and more specifically in interviews and government statements? “Russia must not win this war. Ukraine must exist,” he said in the Bundestag on Thursday.
In an interview he stated: “Our goal is that the Russian invasion attempt fails. That is the benchmark for our actions.”
After telephone calls with Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin, he even defined an “end of hostilities on the part of Russia and a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine” as the conditions for a diplomatic negotiated solution.
That sounds pretty bold, almost not Scholz-like. It is said that he communicates cautiously and shies away from commitments as long as it is unclear whether he can keep them. This is also the reason for the public image that he is a procrastinator and brakeman.
What the chancellor is now getting the citizens in the mood for is miles away from the emotional state at the beginning of the war. At the time, the only question that seemed unclear was how quickly the Ukraine would capitulate and how much territory it would have to cede for the sake of peace. But not that Putin dictates the conditions.
According to international law and morals, there is nothing wrong with the Scholz Principles. But, to paraphrase Talleyrand, shouldn’t it be “a question of the date” when a chancellor pronounces it, in order to retain flexibility?
Can Scholz guarantee today what he claims to be principles: no Russian dictated peace, no decisions across Ukraine?
On the one hand, it sounds right that the Ukrainians should have the final word on how long they fight and under what conditions they negotiate. It’s their country, they’re risking their lives.
On the other hand, the blanket promise to support Ukraine as long as it wants to continue the war to reconquer it may sooner or later lead to a dilemma. How united will the international alliance remain when Putin offers a ceasefire but the Ukrainian army has not recaptured the occupied territories?
According to the Scholz maxim – the Russian withdrawal from Ukraine as a prerequisite for a negotiated solution – Germany would then have to say no, at least as long as Zelenskyj insists on the principle.
Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, advertises that a face-saving way out must be kept open for Putin. The Chancellor moved a little away from Paris and got closer to Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, who have also promised Zelenskyj war aid, as long as he wants it.
But how would public opinion in Germany react if Putin offered a ceasefire that did not meet Scholz’s conditions? Will she allow the chancellor to remain true to herself, or will she turn against him?
Politics in uncertain times writes its own punch lines. First, his reputation as a risk-averse brakeman might then free him to support Ukraine until she gets her territories under control.
Secondly, it must be stated soberly: Germany will not have the decisive word. How long and for what goals Ukraine can fight depends on those who provide the crucial aid, first and foremost the United States. What Scholz gains in principle, he has lost in flexibility.