Germany Needs to Step Up Its Assistance to NATO Allies
The German government’s main focus should be on the security of its Central and Eastern European allies—not consideration for Putin.
The security interests of its Central and Eastern European partners are particularly important to the new German coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP). That, at least, is what they declared in their coalition agreement, which explicitly refers to these interests in the sections on NATO and Russia. The NATO section states, "Against the backdrop of the continuing threat to the security of Germany and Europe, we take the concerns of our Central and Eastern European partners particularly seriously, are committed to maintaining a credible deterrent potential, and want to continue the alliance's dialogue efforts."
However, the allies on NATO's eastern flank do not have the impression that their concerns are actually being heard in Berlin. Rather, Germany's stance in the current Russian conflict leaves them doubtful as to whether the new government is really serious about "credible deterrence."
In view of the Russian troop buildup on the border with Ukraine and the demands for a de facto reversal of NATO's enlargement since 1997, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in recent weeks have said what is not possible: the German government does not want to supply Ukraine with weapons itself. At the same time, it is blocking the delivery of Estonian howitzers (originally from former East Germany’s National People’s Army) to Kyiv. Together with a number of other countries, it refused to allow SACEUR, NATO's Supreme Commander in Europe, to begin contingency planning (for defense in the event of an attack on alliance territory). Yet credible defense preparedness is NATO's primary mission and, for obvious reasons, is now of paramount importance, particularly for our eastern neighbors.
Too Little, Too Late
In addition, the German government has taken far too long, at least in the eyes of many Central and Eastern Europeans, to expressly include the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the sanction package in the event of another Russian attack on Ukraine. True, the German chancellor and foreign minister repeatedly emphasize that they would then respond with "tough sanctions." But many of our allies are not sure of Germany's position. Their impression of Berlin? Too little, too late—instead of resolve, commitment, and leadership.
The German position is predicated on an effort to remain "capable of dialogue" (gesprächsfähig) with Russia, as it is currently called in political Berlin, and therefore to avoid "provoking" President Vladimir Putin. However, in doing so, the German government is neglecting what it has written so clearly in its own coalition agreement, namely the concerns and threat perceptions of our Central and Eastern European neighbors. In Warsaw, Tallinn, and Riga, but also in Stockholm, London, and Washington, many are now left wondering what to expect from Berlin. The New York Times summed this up with the headline, "Where Is Germany in the Ukraine Standoff? Its Allies Wonder."
After Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Germany worked hard to revive NATO's dual strategy: a policy of strength combined with offers of dialogue to Moscow. The German government has been instrumental in enhancing the Alliance's defense capabilities, particularly to the benefit of our eastern allies. The German-led multinational task force in Lithuania is the most visible example of this.
Time to Act
Foreign Minister Baerbock's repeated motto of "dialogue and toughness" toward Russia is also appropriate today. Right now, it is the security of Ukraine that is at stake. But Putin's goals are a threat to all of Europe. He wants NATO to withdraw its military forces and infrastructure behind the May 1997 lines, and that means to withdraw from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, as well as Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Russia now also has forces deployed in Belarus, which are likely to stay there. The West must counter Moscow's strategy with demonstrative solidarity and resolve.
As it did after 2014, the German government should now help to keep channels of communication to Moscow open and persuade the Russian leadership to de-escalate. At the same time, however, it should do everything in its power to make its own leading contribution to further strengthening and credibility of NATO and of Alliance cohesion.
Germany's main focus must be on the security of its allies in the east, not consideration for Putin. Several allies are strengthening NATO’s Air Policing in the Baltic and Black Sea regions with fighter aircraft. The United States has decided to increase its military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance’s territory. 2,000 US troops are to be sent to Poland and Germany, and 1,000 more soldiers already stationed in Germany are to be deployed to Romania. In addition, they are keeping 8,500 troops on standby for NATO's Rapid Reaction Force. Meanwhile, London is considering doubling its troop numbers in Estonia and Poland. France is ready to move a force contingent to Romania. Germany should, therefore, now advocate a joint initiative of the four countries to further improve NATO's defense and should itself contribute by significantly strengthening the German-led battlegroup in Lithuania. And the German government should announce this now.
Heinrich Brauss is a retired lieutenant general in the German Armed Forces and was NATO Assistant Secretary General for Defense Policy and Planning from October 2013 to July 2018.
Jana Puglierin is head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
NB. The German version of this article appeared on ZEIT ONLINE.