Germany’s Turning Point

Photo: German soldiers looking over a map of Ukraine. Credit: Bundeswehr via Twitter.
Photo: German soldiers looking over a map of Ukraine. Credit: Bundeswehr via Twitter.

Less than a fortnight after Russia’s invasion, a new Germany is beginning to emerge.

After weeks of hesitation and criticism from allies, Germany has taken a much tougher stance on the Kremlin’s actions: the country plans to double its defense spending and has adopted a far more muscular approach to Russia. The talk about a new Social Democrat-led Ostpolitik has abated.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s foreign policy U-turn is extraordinary, reversing not just his party’s 2021 election pledges, but more than 40 years of Social Democratic Party policy. On February 27, he announced that Germany would increase its military spending to more than 2% of GDP, the current NATO defense target, which Germany has failed to meet for years.

The head of the Bundestag pledged an immediate €100 billion ($113 billion) for the nation’s run-down armed forces and said the country would provide weapons to Ukraine (the head of the German army said on the day of the invasion his force was “empty-handed” after years of neglect, something seemingly confirmed when weapons earmarked for Ukraine were reportedly too moldy for use.)

Even so, the decisions of the last 10 days mark a paradigmatic shift in the country’s defense policy, as was its imposition of tough sanctions on Russia. Taken together, they have revitalized Germany’s credibility as a leader in the European Union.

Modern Germany, the Bundesrepublik, is ever-mindful of the nation’s history of belligerence and has long aimed for a pacific stance, adopting a foreign policy rooted in diplomacy and deterrence. While its position as a peacemaker may have seemed apt in a number of recent global conflicts, Germany faced harsh criticism from its European allies as Russia amassed troops near Ukraine’s borders. Last month, instead of sending Ukraine much-needed weaponry, Scholz’ government offered to send 5,000 second-hand helmets, and was widely mocked both by Ukrainians and allied European Union government officials.

Germany’s situation was not helped by former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to close the country’s nuclear power stations, thereby greatly increasing reliance on Russian gas. This complacency toward a possible breakdown of relations with its main supplier (as has now occurred) was compounded by a failure to build terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports. There are 37 LNG terminals in Europe, but none in Germany. Scholz says the country will now build two to lessen natural gas imports from Russia, which currently supplies about half the country’s energy.

There will be other serious costs. Russia is an important importer of German goods: in 2020, the total value of German exports to Russia was $27 billion (although, interestingly, exports to Poland are almost three times as great). Nonetheless, a combination of public opinion, energy reliance, and business income created a formidable barrier to change, until Vladimir Putin smashed it with his invasion of Ukraine, just 400 miles from Germany’s borders.

When Scholz assumed the position of German Chancellor on December 8, 2021, he was not expecting to manage a major foreign policy crisis so early in his tenure. As a matter of fact, most of the policies proposed by both Scholz and his SPD—the leading group in the Bundestag—pertained to domestic issues such as lowering the voting age, expanding citizenship rights, investing in affordable housing, and curbing the country’s carbon footprint to combat climate change.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Angela Merkel led the West in imposing sanctions; so naturally, Scholz’s initial uncertainty in repeating that response was heavily scrutinized and criticized. Merkel had bequeathed him a nation in good economic and political shape, widely seen as the EU’s leading power. But underneath that lay a morass of uncertainty and half-formed policy, particularly when it came to the threat or use of the government armory, and the possible use of hard power.

It was Scholz’s misfortune to arrive in office just as Germany’s post-war foreign policy was made obsolete.

All of this changed on February 24 as Russia launched its second and biggest invasion into Ukraine. Scholz stated that “February 24, 2022, marks a historic turning point in the history of our continent” and announced that his government would provide Ukraine with shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and surface-to-air Stinger missiles.

Scholz continued: “At the heart of the matter is the question of whether power can break the law. . . Whether we allow Putin to turn back the hands of time to the days of the great powers of the 19th century. Or whether we find it within ourselves to set limits on a warmonger like Putin.”

There are numerous signals of Germany’s radical and rapid change of mood. One of the most noticeable is the new attitude toward ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who has served on the boards of Russian energy corporations such as Nord Stream AG, Rosneft, and his pending appointment to Gazprom. In the past, Schröder was seen by some as an asset in Russo-German relations, but is now under fire from the entire SPD. Since the invasion, the philosophy that Germany’s role on the global stage was as a buffer between the US and Russia, rather than an adversary, has begun to seem increasingly naïve.

There are more direct indicators of the change: a post-invasion opinion poll showed a near-instantaneous and enormous shift in public mood, with 80% backing the government’s tougher line, or saying it doesn’t go far enough. Before Putin’s invasion, only 20% supported arms for Ukraine. That figure has now more than tripled to 61%.

It is little more than a week since Russian armor rolled into Ukraine, but Olaf Scholz’s Germany already looks radically different from Angela Merkel’s. The question now is whether this more assertive and seemingly more confident Germany will use its newfound power to rally Europeans, so that it becomes not just the continent’s foremost economic giant, but also one of its democratic security leaders too.

Alvina Ahmed is an intern at the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). 

Sasha Stone is a Senior Program Officer leading the work on Russia at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She previously worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the US Embassy in Bogotá, and the Department of State’s Office of Policy Planning and Coordination.

March 4, 2022