German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s top foreign policy aide raised eyebrows Monday night when he suggested Europe should focus more on preserving long-term relations with Russia and less on the specifics of German tank shipments to Ukraine.
In a rare public appearance, Jens Plötner — a long-standing architect of Berlin’s Russia policy — argued that the debates over Germany’s military support for Ukraine, which is frequently criticized for being too hesitant and slow, were “driven by a feverishness that misses the bigger questions in many cases.”
Specifically, he pointed to a long-running saga over whether Germany should supply the Ukrainian military with so-called Marder infantry fighting vehicles — which Scholz has so far refused to do.
“You can fill a lot of newspaper pages with 20 Marders, but larger articles about what will actually be our relationship with Russia in the future are somehow less frequent,” Plötner said.
“And that’s a question that is at least as exciting and relevant,” he added, “which could be discussed and where there could also be a public discourse.”
In addition to those remarks, Plötner also called for a softer approach toward China and argued that Ukraine should not be granted any “rebates” on its bid to become an EU member just because it was under Russian attack.
His stances, which help shed light on the German chancellery’s thinking, quickly caught the attention of foreign policy wonks on Twitter before later drawing rebukes Tuesday from some prominent politicians.
The remarks “reveal a thinking in recent decades that has brought us into this terrible situation,” tweeted Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, who chairs the German parliament’s defense committee and is a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), part of the governing coalition with Scholz’s Social Democrats (SDP) and the Greens.
“Surely this is not the time to think fondly of Russia, but to help Ukraine,” she added.
The remarks are likely to reinforce a persistent argument that the chancellor and his SPD are dragging their feet over historic ties to Russia and fears of damaging future relations with Moscow, in addition to their stated worries about triggering World War III.
Plötner himself is not an SPD member but his career has been closely tied to leading Social Democratic politicians.
From 2014 to 2017, he served as the top aide to the SPD’s former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now Germany’s president. During that time, Plötner was closely involved in crafting the 2014 and 2015 Minsk peace agreements, which aimed to end fighting in eastern Ukraine but were never implemented.
Later, Plötner was promoted to political director under SPD Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, before getting the top job under Scholz.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany has previously called out Plötner, naming him in April as part of a “spider web of contacts with Russia” Steinmeier had been weaving for decades.
Plötner on Monday night defended Berlin’s track record of weapon deliveries to Ukraine, saying the German government has supplied the Ukrainian army “early” and “continuously,” working “with what we can do and with what we can manufacture.”
Indeed, Germany has sent Ukraine lighter weapons like anti-tank and air defense missiles and is currently training Ukrainian soldiers on “Gepard” air defense tanks and state-of-the-art “Panzerhaubitze 2000” howitzers. But the heavier weapons have yet to arrive in the country.
In separate remarks that seemed directed at the U.S. government’s increasingly hard-line China stance, Plötner said “it would be a mistake to lump China and Russia together now.” He warned that attempts to decouple economically from China would result in a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of Beijing and Moscow teaming up even more.
“I believe our goal must be to try to reduce systemic rivalry [with China] as far as possible,” Plötner said, stressing the need to engage with China on issues such as climate change.
When asked about Ukraine’s aspirations to become an EU member, Plötner noted there were “clear procedures and rules” governing the process. He stressed there must be no “rebate for the fulfillment of the accession criteria” such as democratic and institutional reforms.
“Just because you are under attack you don’t automatically improve on the rule of law,” he said.