Editor’s Note: Rafael Loss is an expert on European security and defense policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is based in Berlin. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In the week since Russian missiles began raining down on Ukraine, Germany has upturned its decadeslong military-light foreign policy, heralding a dramatic shift in the complexion of modern Europe.
“Putin’s war” represented nothing less than a “Zeitenwende” – a change of times – for Germany and Europe, German chancellor Olaf Scholz told a special session of the Bundestag Sunday.
In a country where “many of us still remember our parents’ or grandparents’ tales of war,” Scholz said the “terrible images” coming out of cities across Ukraine “affect us all very deeply.”
At the same time, tens of thousands of Germans gathered near the Brandenburg Gate at the weekend to condemn the Kremlin’s act of aggression, one of many such protests across the globe.
And so, after weeks of widespread criticism of his government’s timid response to Russian aggression, Scholz announced what amounted to a complete overhaul of Germany’s foreign, security and defense policy; supplying weapons to Ukraine and pumping billions of dollars into its own armed forces in the coming years.
Better late than never. Germany, which is the European Union’s biggest economy and arguably most powerful member state, had until recently been a step behind its European allies on Russia’s gradual buildup of troops along the border of Ukraine, dragging its heels on Nord Stream 2, SWIFT and arms transfers to Ukraine.
Some policymakers had already seen the end of the post-Cold War era arrive when Russia first sent troops into Ukraine in 2014 to annex Crimea and occupy parts of the Donbas region.
Still, the German government went ahead and greenlit the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia in 2015. And leaders from both former chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party and Scholz’s Social Democrats defended the project against mounting domestic and international criticism over the years.
Last week, Germany’s narrative on Russia started to shift. After Russia formally recognized the occupied regions in eastern Ukraine as independent, Scholz announced a halt to the pipeline’s certification process and a review of Germany’s energy security guidelines.
Then Saturday, after more of Germany’s European partners began transferring weapons and other military supplies to Ukraine, Scholz announced Germany now, too, would send 1,000 anti-tank and 500 anti-aircraft weapons. The following day, Scholz announced Germany would spend upwards of 2% of its GDP annually on its armed forces from now on. He also promised the creation of a €100-billion ($110 billion) special fund for strategic investments in the Bundeswehr’s readiness and modernization after decades of budget cuts.
In 1990, Germans thought they could finally abandon geopolitics for good. During the first half of the 20th century, their hunger for power and territory had ravaged Europe twice, leaving millions upon millions dead, especially as the result of Nazi Germany’s war of annihilation in Eastern Europe. During the Cold War, Germany would have been turned into a moonscape, had the East-West confrontation ever turned hot.
So in 1990, Germans felt as though they finally stood on the right side of history. And they expected everyone else to follow suit on their path toward enlightened cooperation. Hopes were particularly high Russia could be brought into the fold – “change through trade” and “transformation partnership” were guiding German policies toward Russia.
A sense of historical guilt was a powerful driving force, too, as was Germany’s thirst for cheap fossil fuels to power its industry.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine last week burst that bubble.
As German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during Sunday’s special session of parliament: “If our world is a different one, then our policy must also be different.” Robert Habeck, Germany’s minister of the economy and climate, added as a result of the war, Germany would reduce its vulnerability to economic coercion by Russia and other authoritarian powers.
Enhancing energy security by accelerating Germany’s “Energiewende” – the transition to 100% renewable energy generation by 2035 – will be a key part of the effort. Habeck’s comment to do so “without any taboos” is a likely hint to also consider extending the life span of Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants to compensate for Russian gas cutoffs in the short term.
Germany’s renewed investment in its defense capabilities could also unlock enormous potential for the European Union and the European pillar within NATO.
Smaller countries, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, could lean on Germany for strategic enablers, such as military airlift and reconnaissance capabilities. They could also count on German combat readiness to boost allied deterrence beyond the mere presence of multilateral tripwire forces, as is currently the case with the Enhanced Forward Presence deployments on NATO’s eastern flank.
These limited deployments are supposed to deter a Russian attack by committing all allies to a forceful response. In themselves, though, they are insufficient to fend off a large-scale invasion like in Ukraine. Additional NATO deployments in the coming months would aim not at deterring but at defeating Russian aggression. The deployments would be larger and more capable.
While Germany’s long-standing special relationship with Russia ceased to exist with Putin’s attack on Ukraine, diplomatic channels with the Kremlin remain of critical importance to nudge Russia toward a path of de-escalation should one emerge. Indeed, in Sunday’s address, Scholz also promised to continue to strive for “as much diplomacy as possible, without being naive.”
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But the war against Ukraine, Putin’s de facto absorption of Belarus, loose nuclear rhetoric, and desire to recreate Russia’s imperial reach have fundamentally redrawn the European security landscape.
Scholz, and with him most Germans, seem to have recognized the change of times. Preparing for its consequences will require sustained leadership at all levels. But having tied his personal political fortunes to this overhaul, Scholz must succeed, for his own sake, for Germany and Europe.