Time for NATO Allies to Get Tough, Says Germany’s Former Defense Minister

Photo: NATO Secretary General joins meeting of Defence Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Credit: NATO
Photo: NATO Secretary General joins meeting of Defence Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Credit: NATO

These are edited remarks from former German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer at the 2022 NATO Youth Summit

"Today is day 64 of Russia’s unjustified, brutal, and devastating war against Ukraine.

Putin’s attempt to re-shape the world poses stark questions for us.

We know that Putin will not succeed. But we also know that there is no possible return to the world order before February 24, 2022.

We now have to be determined about two big issues:

First: What kind of world do we want to create?

Second: Are we willing to shape and defend the world we prefer?

My answer today is very clear:

  • We will not leave the shaping of the world to dictators who are using military aggression and criminal wars to advance their imperial ambitions.
  • We will not leave order to self-empowered lifetime rulers who deny to their people the liberty they crave, and who exert violence and brutality at home and abroad.
  • We, the like-minded allies of Europe, the United States, and Canada, and our partners from the Indo-Pacific to the Middle East to Africa, do not have to agree on every item. But, we need to share the fundamental concepts on how to shape the world.

If we accept this role, the starting point is simple: Our will and our determination need to be strong.

We have to be ready to stand up against the enemies of a rules-based order. If necessary also by military means.

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who led post-war Germany into NATO, said in Cologne in 1957: “We can restrain the world's aggressor only if he knows that if he were to use aggression, the blowback would cause his own destruction. I know that sounds terrible, but it is realistic thinking and, as things stand, we must think realistically.”

For some Europeans in NATO and especially for my country, Germany, this is still a deeply challenging thought. But the reality is right in front of us.

Russia’s war against Ukraine requires Zeitenwende. And a true “turn of the times” can only mean that we support Ukraine now with all means to resist Russia’s brutal aggression. And, more fundamentally, that we Europeans have to become first-class military powers ourselves — so we can secure the peace.

This brings me to my last point:

Security is a long game. If we want real security, we have to discuss security in the same context as climate change or sustainability. Security is an issue of generational justice.

I ask you, the participants of the NATO Youth Summit, to be very tough with your governments at home. Make sure they understand the military side of generational justice.

We need to make tough decisions today, if we want a safe, free, self-determined, and dignified life in the future.

That is what the Ukrainians are fighting for. And that is what we must be fighting for as well."

Later, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer answered questions from NATO Youth Summit participants.

Question: On February 24, the day that Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, you tweeted that you were “angry” at Germany’s “historic failure.” You said, “we have not prepared anything that would have really deterred Putin.” Can I ask you to expand on that, what did you mean by historic failure? 

This was my very personal outcry. I grew up during the Cold War. My first political experience was the heated and very fundamental discussion about NATO’s dual-track decision: the deployment of American Pershing II missiles in Germany as a response to Soviet SS-20 missiles. That was a hugely successful decision.

But subsequently, we seem to have forgotten all lessons learned during that time. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, we all believed conflict between the West and Russia would be impossible, forever.

In 2014, Russia attacked Ukraine and occupied Crimea. And NATO and its member states reacted to this aggression. Our intention was to put pressure on Putin’s Russia and to prevent similar attacks on other countries.

Have we been successful? When we look at Ukraine today, we must accept that we have failed. We did too little too late. And that includes, sadly, my own country,

Question: Following on from that, what are the prospects for the West’s relationship with Russia going forward?

Right now, at this very moment, Putin is shaping our presence and our future. There will be no simple return to yesterday. But what kind of future will it be for Europe, for NATO, for the coming international order? This depends on the outcome of Putin’s war against Ukraine.

If he is successful, I am sure there will be further threats and attacks against other countries in the region, here in Europe.

But even if he doesn’t achieve his goals in Ukraine, Putin will remain to be unpredictable and dangerous.

We have to face reality and see Russia for what it is, not what we wish it to be. Putin‘s Russia will continue to be a threat we have to deal with. Peaceful relations can only return when people after Putin choose a different path for Russia.

For NATO this means that we need to be ready and willing to act at all times. That is especially true for the Europeans in NATO, who have a lot of catching-up to do on capabilities and spending. We need to be faster, more determined and stronger. Not just militarily, but also economically and politically. Strength is the language Russia understands.

Question: Russia's invasion of Ukraine has triggered a strategic shift in Germany, in an astonishingly short space of time. Berlin has stepped up efforts to arm the Ukrainian military, while announcing a dramatic increase in its own defense spending. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline has been suspended, and plans are now afoot to wean Germany off of Russian energy imports altogether. 

What do you make of these shifts in Germany's security and defense policy that we've seen over the past two months?

I’m glad about this remarkable policy shift. In light of German post-war and post-reunification traditions, this could be a truly remarkable turnaround. I would like it to be a huge step towards a bigger international role for Germany, and towards a more strategic, more pro-active foreign and security policy.

The word Zeitenwende [used by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a speech three days after Russia’s latest and biggest invasion] cannot be taken back. The announcements must be followed by action now. I am sure Germany’s partners will only believe in Zeitenwende when they really see it.

Question: Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Germany of not doing enough to support Kyiv in its war effort, accusing Berlin of prioritizing the German economy, of not providing the heavy weaponry Ukraine has asked for. Ukraine went so far as to refuse a visit from the German President Frank Walter-Steinmeier. What do you make of these critiques from Kyiv, and how do you assess the support Germany has given to Ukraine thus far in the war?

The people in Ukraine are suffering unspeakable hardship. Attacks, mass murder, rape, expulsion. The destruction of millions of lives and hopes, of a whole country. Ukrainians are fighting for their lives, for their homeland and for their freedom – and for our freedom as well. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so the alliance is not obliged to come to the country‘s defense. That makes it even more pressing that we provide whatever is needed, including artillery and other heavy weapons. And it means we have to stop financing Putin’s war machine through our energy imports.

Question: In Europe, in recent years we heard increasing talk of “strategic autonomy,” the idea that Europe should be less dependent on the United States for security and defense. You’ve spoken publicly about your skepticism of this. How do you expect the Russian invasion of Ukraine is going to impact that conversation? Are we going to see renewed enthusiasm for the transatlantic relationship in Europe?

What we are witnessing today is a huge increase in NATO’s relevance and reputation across Europe.

There is no doubt in my mind that Europeans have to be stronger, more capable, more able militarily. And yes, we have to be able to conduct more and bigger missions without relying on US support. But uncoupling from the US is a bad idea.

History has shown that integrated transatlantic security is best for Europe — militarily, politically, and strategically. I believe strongly in this approach.

If we share common values we must preserve our security together. It is as simple as that.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was Germany’s Defense Minister from 2019-21 and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from 2018-21.

Question: Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Germany of not doing enough to support Kyiv in its war effort, accusing Berlin of prioritizing the German economy, of not providing the heavy weaponry Ukraine has asked for. Ukraine went so far as to refuse a visit from the German President Frank Walter-Steinmeier. What do you make of these critiques from Kyiv, and how do you assess the support Germany has given to Ukraine thus far in the war?

The people in Ukraine are suffering unspeakable hardship. Attacks, mass murder, rape, expulsion. The destruction of millions of lives and hopes, of a whole country. Ukrainians are fighting for their lives, for their homeland and for their freedom – and for our freedom as well. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so the alliance is not obliged to come to the country‘s defense. That makes it even more pressing that we provide whatever is needed, including artillery and other heavy weapons. And it means we have to stop financing Putin’s war machine through our energy imports.

Question: In Europe, in recent years we heard increasing talk of “strategic autonomy,” the idea that Europe should be less dependent on the United States for security and defense. You’ve spoken publicly about your skepticism of this. How do you expect the Russian invasion of Ukraine is going to impact that conversation? Are we going to see renewed enthusiasm for the transatlantic relationship in Europe?

What we are witnessing today is a huge increase in NATO’s relevance and reputation across Europe.

There is no doubt in my mind that Europeans have to be stronger, more capable, more able militarily. And yes, we have to be able to conduct more and bigger missions without relying on US support. But uncoupling from the US is a bad idea.

History has shown that integrated transatlantic security is best for Europe — militarily, politically, and strategically. I believe strongly in this approach.

If we share common values we must preserve our security together. It is as simple as that.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was Germany’s Defense Minister from 2019-21 and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from 2018-21.


Photo: NATO Secretary General joins meeting of Defence Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Credit: NATO

April 29, 2022