The War in Ukraine Just Caused a Revolution in German Military Affairs

World Politics Review, 22.03.2022
Claudia Major (SWP-Berlin) y Christian Mölling (DGAP-Berlin)

On Feb. 27, nothing less than a revolution took place in Germany. In a 30-minute speech to parliament, Chancellor Olaf Scholz overturned all the old certainties that have dominated German security policy for over 30 years. He replaced them with an ambitious agenda that had defense, a topic with which Germany normally only reluctantly engages, at its core.

Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has not felt threatened militarily. As a result, Berlin has felt little urgency to invest in its military and was reluctant to engage in the various military operations of the post-Cold War period. Where Germany did engage militarily—with troop deployments on NATO’s eastern flank, combat forces in Afghanistan or military trainers in Mali, for instance—it was largely to express solidarity with NATO allies, in the former two cases, and with France, a NATO ally and close European Union partner, in the latter. That’s not to say that Germany never took threats seriously, when it came to concerns over climate change, migration and even its economic wellbeing, for instance. But the same was never true with regard to military and security threats.

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the first wakeup call for Berlin that something had changed in European security: Russia forced Europe to think once again about power politics and old concepts like collective defense and deterrence. As a result, Germany timidly engaged in rethinking its defense policies. It increased its defense budget considerably, from 33 billion euros in 2013 to 47 billion euros in 2021. Beyond the increased spending, Berlin published a new defense White Paper in 2016 that enshrined the return to collective defense as a focus of national security policy. It subsequently adapted its armed forces to that objective and committed itself to NATO’s deterrence and defense measures in the east, including by leading a NATO-enhanced forward presence force in the Baltics.

Nevertheless, Germany was still far from fulfilling its NATO pledge of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, and in fact, had no intention of doing so. And years of underfunding, bad management and flagging political interest had deeply affected Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, which still lacks equipment and whose procurement system is dysfunctional.

Above all, defense issues remain highly controversial and get little attention in public debates. And when they do, they are often stigmatized: Nuclear deterrence is largely rejected; the military as such is criticized; and the defense industry and arms exports are characterized as “evil.” Unsurprisingly, there is a preference for civilian approaches and nonmilitary tools when it comes to conflict management. The majority of the German public remains pacifist, and with the notable exception of the Greens, the political parties have remained rather Russia-friendly until recently.

From this perspective, it is understandable that until the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Germany had refused to supply weapons to Ukraine, instead favoring diplomatic efforts to address the conflict and forestall an invasion. Nor did Berlin want to jeopardize its economic relations with Russia, most prominently symbolized by the highly criticized Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that links Russian supplies directly to Germany, circumventing Ukraine and Poland.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has now changed everything. That it took a war of aggression about 650 miles away from Berlin—almost as nearby as Paris—for Berlin to feel directly threatened is regrettable. After all, neither the barbarism of Russia’s war effort in Syria nor its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 had the same effect.

Be that as it may, Berlin now understands that Russia is attacking not only Ukraine, but also Germany’s “way of doing things.”

The term Zeitenwende—a historical turning point or epochal change—which Scholz used to describe the fundamental change Germany must now go through, perfectly captures the current situation. Germany is not so much observing and analyzing what is happening in Ukraine. It is almost physically experiencing this fundamental change, both the threat to itself and—with refugees arriving at the main train station in central Berlin—the suffering of others. And both are due to an attack carried out by Russia, a country to which Germany feels a deep historical debt, because of the millions of Soviet citizens killed by Nazi Germany and the devastation wreaked on the country by the Nazi invasion during World War II.

From Berlin’s point of view, Russia has now destroyed the old balance in Europe. The peaceful era—which began with the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union the following year, and from which Germany has benefited more than almost any other European country—is now over. Germany suddenly feels forced to act, not because it wants to be a good ally and do others a favor, despite not really sharing their threat assessment, but because Germany itself feels threatened.

Acknowledging the Russian invasion as a turning point, Scholz simultaneously did away with several principles of German security policy. He accepted the use of economic sanctions on an unprecedented scale, including against the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, thereby abandoning Germany’s previously unconditional energy partnership with Russia. And he committed Germany to rebuilding its defense capacity as quickly as possible, with the goal of turning the Bundeswehr into an efficient, modern army capable of credibly deterring enemies and defending Europe.

To underpin this intention, he announced three key decisions. First, Berlin will allocate a one-time special budget of 100 billions euros to finance the key, large-scale and long-term procurement projects—like a new fighter jet and air defense systems—that have been postponed time and time again over the years. This special budget will be enshrined in the constitution to make sure the money is not used for other purposes.

Second, the defense budget, long Germany’s Achilles’ heel in terms of its credibility among its NATO allies, will increase to more than 2 percent of GDP—beginning immediately. For the fiscal year of 2022 to 2023, that will mean an increase from the current 47 billion euros to about 75 billion euros, making it the largest defense budget in Europe.

Third, Scholz has seemingly managed to resolve a long-standing conundrum in Germany’s defense planning when it comes to weapons procurement: how to modernize its air force. He did so by taking a triple decision: to rapidly procure the U.S.-produced F-35 aircraft to allow Germany to play its role in NATO’s nuclear-sharing policy, thereby underlining the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship and firmly anchoring Germany in NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture; to further develop Airbus’ Eurofighter for electronic warfare, in order to support the development of European-led systems; and to continue Germany’s participation in the Future Combat Air System, a joint fighter jet project with France and Spain, to demonstrate Germany’s commitment to defense cooperation with France and its other European partners.

Perhaps the biggest task facing Germany when it comes to defense and security, however, is the one that Scholz cannot impose by announcement: the change in mindset that Germany will need in order to implement these revolutionary decisions. Berlin must acknowledge, permanently and not just under the duress of the current war, that military force is a factor in international relations, and that Berlin has a responsibility for maintaining peace and security in Europe.

In all likelihood, it won’t be long before Berlin feels the temptation to abandon the difficult path ahead sketched out by the chancellor. Nor will it be long before pacifist voices, or those calling for a quick rapprochement with Russia, make themselves heard. Then the German coalition government, led by Scholz’s Social Democratic Party but comprising the Greens and the Free Democratic Party as well, must remain united and not only explain, but actively promote the new policies to the German public.

Here, the support of Germany’s European and trans-Atlantic partners will matter a lot. Germans will need reassurance that this new path is the right decision and that a militarily strong Germany is not a terrifying prospect for its neighbors, but rather a comforting one that is the precondition for a strong European defense and a resilient NATO.

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