Germany’s Zeitenwende Fails to Address Europe’s New Geopolitical Reality
Germany has started to change course but it is not yet ready, mentally or militarily, to manage the threat that Russia is likely to pose to European security in the coming years.
During the post-Cold War era, Germany’s approach to Russia and European security was an uneasy mix of idealism and cynical realism, wishful thinking, and greed. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Chancellor Olaf Scholz was quick to acknowledge that a new, harsh era of geopolitical competition and power politics had arrived, which required profound changes in German foreign and security policy. A lot has indeed started to change, including dramatic shifts in energy and defense policies, which Germany’s allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe had been long calling for. Yet suspicions among the latter toward Berlin remain, as old instincts die hard on both sides and a new German security strategy is yet to emerge.
Paralyzing Fear of Escalation
The most visible and concrete source of frustration toward Germany in Central and Eastern Europe has been its hesitance to give military aid to Ukraine. Berlin has gradually stepped up its support, which has now reached a significant level of €1.2 billion. However, there are still important constraints, notably with regard to the provision of the Leopard battle tanks that would greatly enhance Ukraine’s ability to reconquer occupied territories.
Above all, the hesitation has been caused by the concern that giving more and heavier arms to Ukraine would escalate the war. The Baltic states and Poland have followed with concern the German debate about possible doomsday scenarios of a nuclear war between NATO and Russia, which have exposed an almost paralyzing fear among parts of the German elite. They have been asking themselves whether the German reaction would be constrained by similar fears in the case of an attack against one of them, even though their membership of NATO should make a decisive difference.
The reasoning in the Baltic states and Poland, which have provided the largest amount of military aid to Ukraine relative to their size, has been different: It is the withholding of arms deliveries to Ukraine that is prolonging the war and causing more death and suffering. Russia is determined to destroy Ukraine’s independent statehood and can be pushed back only by force, the faster the better. A prolongation of the war would likely benefit the Russian side, as would a premature ceasefire.
To be fair, the German concerns about escalation have been largely shared by the United States—while the latter has also caused frustration in Central and Eastern Europe. However, the US military support totals an impressive amount of $18.5 billion and counting. It has been decisive in maintaining Ukraine’s ability to defend itself and start to liberate occupied territories. Europe has been shamefully lagging behind, with Germany as the largest country and strongest economy of the continent bearing the biggest share of the blame.
Ambiguity over Russia’s Sphere of Influence
Obviously, Berlin’s hesitation over Leopard tanks is just the tip of the iceberg, indicating deeper issues with adjusting to the changed security environment. Looking at the German debate about the so-called “Zeitenwende” (turning point) from Tallinn, I am still not seeing clear answers from Berlin to three major questions regarding the future of European security. First, has Germany fully given up the idea that Russia’s sphere of influence should be de facto, even if not de jure, respected? Second, closely related to the first question, has Germany abandoned the idea of building a common security architecture with Russia, as long as Russia does not profoundly change? And third, is Germany actually ready to carry a much larger burden when it comes to defending NATO’s eastern flank, especially with a view to the possibly diminishing contribution of the US in the future?
Since the end of the Cold War, Germany’s approach to Russia’s sphere of influence has been idealistic on the surface, but cynically realistic at heart. In words, Germany has been a keen defender of the international rules-based order and European security order built on commonly agreed norms. Yet in practice, it has quietly acknowledged Russia’s right to a sphere of influence and shown a tendency to subordinate the sovereignty of the smaller countries situated between Germany and Russia to great power interests, in the false hope of achieving stability and good relations with Russia.
For most of the 1990s, Germany had a negative view of the accession to the EU and NATO of the Baltic states due to its wish not to provoke Russia. However, the speed of domestic reforms in the Baltic states, their own determination to integrate with Western structures and support from the US and several European countries helped to overcome German resistance. Had the Baltic states not joined the EU and NATO in 2004, the security situation in the whole Baltic Sea region as well as the domestic situation in the three countries would undoubtedly be much more unstable today.
In late 2004, when the Orange Revolution gave a strong push to Ukraine’s wish to become an EU member, Germany was among the countries that opposed acknowledging its membership prospects. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Germany together with France took the lead in watering down Ukraine’s prospects of ever joining the alliance. On all these issues, Central and Eastern European countries had a very different view on how to ensure security and stability in Europe. They were keen to extend their experience of transition and integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures to Ukraine.
However, the EU and NATO left Ukraine (as well as other Eastern neighbours) in a position of geopolitical ambiguity and signaled to Russia their wish to limit Western engagement in the region. This was most likely read in Moscow as a tacit acknowledgement of its sphere of influence, which encouraged Russia to move ahead with its efforts to impose its vision of European security on Ukraine and other former Soviet states, if necessary by force. The timid Western reaction to the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 confirmed the Russian perception of Western weakness. Against this backdrop, the strong Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was an unpleasant surprise to the Kremlin—but doubts remain as to whether the change of heart in Berlin and other Western capitals will endure as the costs of the war keep increasing.
All of this raises the question of what is Germany’s—and more broadly Western countries’—responsibility for Europe sliding into a major war. The EU’s and NATO’s policy of strategic ambiguity toward their Eastern neighbours was meant to reduce tensions, but eventually it encouraged Russia to invade a neighboring country that was determined not to be subsumed under its sphere of influence. The shock of war, unexpected by many Europeans, finally brought an end to the ambiguity on the EU’s side and led to the bloc granting both Ukraine and Moldova candidate country status in June 2022.
The question of Ukraine’s accession to NATO remains up in the air and will also have to be answered once the war ends, if not before. The example of the Baltic states suggests that a full integration of Russia’s European neighbors into Western structures, if and when this is the direction they choose, is the best way to ensure their stable development. By contrast, letting Russia violently impose its sphere of influence against the wishes of the countries concerned is no way to create sustainable security.
Failure of a Common Security Order with Russia
Coming back to the second question of Russia’s place in the European security architecture, it used to be an oft-repeated slogan in Germany that there can be no security in Europe without Russia. The idea of building a common security order with Russia is understandably appealing—indeed, Russia’s commitment to commonly agreed norms would be an ideal way to ensure stability on the continent. However, for many years the aspiration of Germany, shared by France and others, to engage Russia prevented the West from objectively assessing Russia’s self-expressed interests and actions regarding the European security order.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Russia has been expressing its dissatisfaction with the post-Cold War security order in Europe increasingly loudly and aggressively, first in words (notably at the Munich Security Conference in 2007) and then in deeds, attacking Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. The principle of each country’s right to choose its own security policy orientation, inscribed in the order based on the Organziation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and endorsed by Russia, clashed with the Kremlin’s determination to (re-)establish its sphere of influence. Russia’s deepening authoritarianism and fear of the spread of democracy further increased tensions between Putin’s Russia and the West.
Russia’s integration into common European structures became practically impossible due to the lack of shared norms and values. A truly common security order would require the emergence of a democratic and post-imperial Russia, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever. For years, Germany’s Russia policy focused on diplomatic engagement and economic interdependence, hoping to overcome security challenges through a soft approach. This strategy has evidently failed, but Germany has yet to clearly articulate its new approach to managing an antagonistic relationship with Russia.
This brings us to the third question, namely Germany’s contribution to European defense and deterrence, especially on NATO’s eastern flank. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed Germany to acknowledge the need for a substantial increase in defense spending. However, the historic decision to spend an extra €100 billion on defence, announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz on February 27, has been followed by excessive navelgazing and continued uncertainty about Germany’s long-term commitment to NATO’s 2-percent target.
Moreover, many allies have already moved the target to a higher level, with Poland aiming at 5 percent. After decades of German pacifism and disregard for maintaining its defense forces, doubts remain among the Central and Eastern European allies about whether Germany is ready to fight if war were to reach NATO territory. A crude lesson from Ukraine is that pacifism can kill.
On the positive side, Germany has shown that it is taking seriously the implementation of the decisions made at the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022 regarding the strengthening of forward defense on the eastern flank. This is a key element in the process of strengthening trust between Berlin and its eastern allies and working out a common understanding about how to manage the turbulent security environment in the coming years. Germany’s offer to provide a Patriot air defense system to Poland, made after a missile crashed on Polish territory on November 15, was an important step in this process.
Germany’s Influence in Europe Determined in Ukraine
To conclude, Germany more than any other European country embodied everything that went wrong with Europe’s approach to Russia in the post-Cold War era, including neglect of defense, deep dependence on cheap Russian energy, belief in positive engagement in spite of growing authoritarianism and aggressiveness of Russia, and geopolitical ambiguity vis-à-vis the countries situated between the EU and Russia, including Ukraine. Since February 24, 2022, Germany has started to change course, but it is not yet ready, mentally or militarily, to manage the threat that Russia is likely to pose to European security in the coming years and decades.
Germany deserves credit for what it has already done, but it can and should further strengthen its military support to Ukraine, contribution to NATO defense and deterrence against Russia, and commitment to the European integration of Ukraine.
The outcome of the war in Ukraine will determine the future shape of European security order: Either Russia’s defeat will deal a decisive blow to its imperial ambitions, or any Russian achievements in the war will encourage it to continue reshaping the continent by force. The extent to which Germany throws its weight behind the first option will be decisive for its future influence in Europe and for the level of trust that Berlin will enjoy among its Central and Eastern European neighbors.
Kristi Raik is Deputy Director of the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn and lead its Estonian Foreign Policy Institute.