March 16, 2024 - 3:00pm

During a heated Bundestag discussion last week, a key Olaf Scholz ally put forward a controversial suggestion about the war in Ukraine. “Isn’t it time,” asked SPD politician Rolf Mützenich, that “we not only talked about how to wage a war, but also thought about how to freeze a war and end it later?”

The comments drew applause in some corners of Germany’s parliament but also angered many, with former Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andrii Melnyk ranting online that “this guy was and is the most disgusting German politician.”

Nevertheless, Mützenich’s comments might also drive a stake into the feeble heart of Germany’s ruling coalition. That he wants an end to the war in Ukraine so that ties to Russia might be re-established won’t surprise anyone in Germany. He made exactly the same point in 2014, then as foreign policy expert for the SPD, arguing that sanctions against Moscow should be lifted despite Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

But Mützenich doesn’t just speak for himself. He is the chairman of the SPD’s group in the Bundestag and as such his word will be taken as representative of the views of many allies.

The Greens, who are in the ruling coalition with Scholz’s SPD, have taken a hawkish stance under their Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. She looked appalled during Mützenich’s speech in parliament, repeatedly shaking her head. Meanwhile, co-leader of the Green Party Ricarda Lang was more explicit in her criticism, expressing disappointment that her SPD coalition partners had “relapsed” into their old Russia policy of “naive appeasement”.

Scholz’s other coalition partners of the Free Liberals (FDP) were also unimpressed. The party’s defence expert and chair of the Bundestag’s Defence Committee Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann said that she was shocked. If Mützenich spoke for the SPD, she argued, this was nothing less than a complete paradigm shift regarding the war in Ukraine and Germany’s response to Russian aggression — a reversal of the so-called Zeitenwende, the turning point Scholz had announced in February 2022, committing Germany to increased defence spending and a tougher course on Russia. For Strack-Zimmermann this is such a screeching U-turn that it would have to be discussed “intensely” within the coalition.

Mützenich no doubt feels he can get away with his remarks. Scholz is unlikely to rebuke an ally in parliament whose comments clearly reflect the opinion of many within the party. That would risk isolating him and weakening his position further. The SPD might also hope that the comments will win back voters, since the two populist parties on the Right and the Left have gathered momentum with softer Russia lines.

But the strategy — if indeed there is one — is likely to backfire on Scholz’s SPD. For one thing, it’s by no means certain that the clapping of parliamentarians is representative of SPD voters. One recent survey suggested that the vast majority of them still felt more weapons and ammunition should be sent to Ukraine.

But the biggest problem for the SPD could be the crumbling of the coalition government. The party only won the last election in 2021 by a whisker over the Christian Democrats. Each had received around a quarter of the vote. The Greens and the Liberals could have formed a majority government with either but chose Scholz’s SPD in the hope of being able to press for a progressive agenda.

Now all three ruling parties have haemorrhaged support. The SPD is set for its worst result since World War II by some margin, and has long ceased to be an attractive coalition partner with federal elections looming next year. If its stance on Ukraine is beginning to diverge so far from the Greens’ and the Liberals’ that they can no longer bear to be shackled to it, there is little to stop them from walking out. Unfortunately, Scholz’s government is so dysfunctional that he can barely run his own coalition, never mind lead on European security.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.