How Putin’s Aggression Is Changing Berlin
Within a week, Germany has undergone a dramatic transformation, shedding its reluctant and dovish foreign policy and committing itself to drastically increase defense spending. The shock of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine spurred Berlin to send thousands of antitank and antiaircraft weapons to Kyiv. A country that has been criticized by its allies for doing too little, too late has jumped to the front of the pack to take on a leadership role in European security. Germany now seeks to isolate and punish Russia after decades of appeasing and accommodating it. What is more, Germany will strive for energy independence from Russia by creating new domestic energy sources while it weans itself off its Russian supply.
“It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and our democracy,” said Olaf Scholz, the newly minted chancellor, at a special session of the parliament on Sunday. With a single speech, Scholz ushered in an era of monumental change for a country that has been comfortable with the status quo for three decades. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that “perhaps on this day, Germany is leaving behind a form of special and unique restraint in foreign and security policy.” The ugly legacy of German military aggression during the twentieth century had produced a mindset that viewed dialogue and multilateralism as the key and, often, the only tools of foreign policy. An unhealthy dose of fear-of-self was at the heart of German skepticism toward hard power. Alliances were meant to contain others just as they reined in Germans, who dreaded nothing more than a renewed temptation toward armed unilateralism.
The announcement of this U-turn in German policy was met with cheers and standing ovations from members of the mainstream parties in the parliament. “Enough is enough. The game is over,” proclaimed the leader of the conservative opposition, Friedrich Merz, addressing Putin directly.
The new center-left government in Berlin never intended to abandon former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy approach of balancing security needs with commercial interests nor shift away from postwar Germany’s aversion to military conflict. But for Germany, Russia’s attack on Ukraine changed everything. The historian Fritz Stern, who escaped the Holocaust when his family left Germany for the United States in 1938, once wrote about the “five Germanys” he had come to know in his lifetime: the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich, postwar West Germany and East Germany, and the unified Germany that emerged after the Berlin Wall came down. What the world is witnessing now is the birth of a sixth Germany, one willing to exercise military power in defense of liberal democratic values.
THE WAY THINGS WERE
Over the last few days, several long-standing political taboos fell by the wayside at once. Halting the certification of Nord Stream 2, the Russian natural gas pipeline that was completed in September, and sending lethal weapons to Ukraine are just two of the German government’s policy reversals. More significantly, Germany has been jolted by the reality that hard power is a necessary tool to safeguard democracy and deter today’s autocrats.
For decades, a recurring theme of German foreign policy has been that there will be no peace on the continent if Russia is shut out. This doctrine had included the idea that economic interdependence will help steady the relationship. It also led to endless patience with the Kremlin, even after Putin’s aggressive speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, when he accused the United States of destabilizing global security. And it continued after Putin’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and even Ukraine in 2014. Although Germany led the European drive for sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its incursion into Ukraine’s Donbas region, Berlin quickly balanced these moves with the offer to build Nord Stream 2 in 2015.
For Germany, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has changed everything.
Even in the face of pressure from NATO allies and Ukraine’s leaders, it seemed inconceivable that Germany would drop its resistance to arms deliveries. Earlier this year, Baerbock pointed to the lessons from history: Supplying weapons to a region where German forces killed millions of citizens during World War II could only result in more guilt, she argued at the Munich Security Conference in February.
But Putin’s war of aggression changed everything in a matter of hours. Denying defensive arms (like rocket-propelled grenades) to Ukrainians meant overlooking the distinction between perpetrator and victim. Russia may have helped defeat the Nazis, but it is now on the wrong side of history.
On Sunday, the German government announced in no uncertain terms that it will stand up to Putin and robustly defend liberalism. Perhaps it was self-critique when Scholz called for a German diplomacy without naiveté. The optimism of coaxing revisionist powers with Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) is all but gone. As long as Putin is in charge of Russia, this foreign policy instrument will be a relic of the past. Instead, Germany is all in to deter Putin in his quest to change the balance of power in Europe.
AN EXPENSIVE TRANSFORMATION
This change will be costly, especially for Germany’s import-dependent energy sector. But as Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the economically conservative Free Democratic Party told the parliament, this cost will be seen as “the price of freedom.” Scholz announced that Germany will become independent from Russian energy. Germany will build two ports for liquified natural gas (LNG) immediately, stock up national reserves of coal and gas, seek more long-term delivery contracts on the international energy market, and further accelerate the production of renewable energy— “freedom energy,” in Lindner’s words. To make sure it has enough energy on reserve, Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants may need to stay online beyond the end of 2022, at which point they were to be shut down as part of Germany’s exit from nuclear energy. Much will depend on whether Russia retaliates with a reduction in its supply of natural gas.
Germany will now shed the accusation of free-riding on others’ security spending. When Scholz announced a one-off investment of 100 billion euros in the German military and the intention to make defense spending exceed two percent of overall economic output—the goal set for NATO member states—he stunned the foreign policy community, the country, and even many in his own parliamentary group who were not privy to this snap decision. Scholz made clear that Germany doesn’t just need aircraft that fly, ships that sail, and soldiers that are well equipped but fully modernized armed forces. In his speech, the chancellor floated once controversial possibilities, such as the use of armed drones and the participation in NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing arrangements. Even the purchase of American-made F-35 fighter jets is back on the table. At the same time, Scholz recommitted to the construction of a sixth-generation fighter jet, the Future Combat Air System, which Germany is developing with France and Spain. As Finance Minister Lindner added Tuesday night, Germany will aim to turn its military “into one of the most capable, powerful and best equipped armed forces on the continent,” a statement that would have earned him the label of “warmonger” only days earlier.
In a remarkable choice of words, Scholz pledged to “defend every square meter of NATO territory together with our allies”—a nod to U.S. President Joe Biden’s vow to defend every inch of the alliance. Scholz’s strong statement is especially noteworthy coming from a country in which polls show some hesitation about Article 5, the common defense clause in NATO’s founding treaty, which states that an armed attack against one member state will be considered an attack against them all. What a difference a week makes.
THROWN IN AT THE DEEP END
Scholz, who took office in December, was first seen as hesitant and even weak during his first few weeks on the job. His speech and its underlying decisions have breathed new life into his government. His decisive approach closes the gap between Germany and its partners, and it opens up various new foreign policy opportunities. Within a week, Germany has put the transatlantic partnership with the United States on a new footing. The Biden administration had seen Germany as an indispensable partner in Europe, essential to the claim that alliances strengthen the United States without simply being a drain on resources. But not everyone believed the White House. With a little help from Putin, Germany is now silencing its critics, especially in the U.S. Congress, where Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, was leading a phalanx of Germany-skeptics. The French government, according to early press reports, is jubilated because Germany can now become the serious security partner it has been seeking for a long time.
But this decision will have its most visible effects east of Berlin. It allows Germany to repair its relations with the Baltic states and other NATO allies on the eastern flank, which had started to see Germany as selfish and sometimes too Russia-friendly. Sending additional units to Lithuania, deploying troops on Slovakian soil for the first time, and expanding air policing in Romania represent only the start of a long process that will likely see more German troops sent to eastern Europe. This trend may accelerate when NATO decides to abandon the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which limits troop deployments in member states in eastern Europe—a development that seems all but inevitable.
Europe may finally become comfortable with German military power.
Many of the decisions that Scholz described will need to be spelled out, starting with an emergency procurement and readiness plan for the armed forces. Currently, most units do not have their own equipment but need to beg and borrow from other formations when they are assigned to NATO duty abroad. An emergency program will seek to change this awkward position of Europe’s largest economy. The National Security Strategy that Scholz’s government had begun to draft will need to be jettisoned and a new one started from scratch. And NATO’s new Strategic Concept, also on the drawing board, will need to be reassessed to take account of Germany’s new posture.
This new Germany, which Stern did not live to see or add to his collection of makeovers, will wield Europe’s largest defense budget by far. Only this time, it is welcomed and even encouraged by all its immediate neighbors. Not only is Germany transforming; the perception of Germany is too. In 2011, Radoslaw Sikorski, the former defense and foreign minister of Poland, said something that seemed extraordinary at the time: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” It took another 11 years, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may represent the moment when postwar Europe finally became comfortable with German military power.