Berlin Cable

Jan 10, 2024

Into the Unknown

2024 will likely test Germany when it comes to its two most important defense and security tasks: helping Ukraine and improving the Bundeswehr.

Ukrainian soldiers train to use a Leopard 1A5 main battle tank during a media day of the European Union Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine (EUMAM Ukraine) in Klietz, Germany August 17, 2023.
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There is much doom and gloom going around in Berlin when it comes to greeting the new year. If things go wrong, be it at the elections for a new European Parliament in June (and the subsequent forming of the new European Commission), or, even more consequential, at the US presidential elections in November, Berlin may likely be transported into a completely new and unprecedented orbit when it comes to foreign and security policy.

In other words, a European Union turning rightwing and an America turning away is just the stuff of nightmares many in Berlin are currently entertaining. What would then happen to Ukraine? Would Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is counting on Western support fading away, have its way and “bring Ukraine to its knees,” as Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it in December? Which European country would a gleeful Putin attack next?

Doing What Is Necessary

To forestall such scenarios, Olaf Scholz’ government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) took a couple of decisions before the holidays that will likely be severely tested during an ominous-looking 2024.

In December, Scholz did much to signal that Germany would be ready for all eventualities. At an SPD congress on December 9, the chancellor put his party, still reeling from its disastrous Putin-friendly Ostpolitik of decades past, on notice that Germany’s military and financial support for Ukraine was a long-term project. “It’s important that we are in a position to do what’s necessary, that is to continue to support Ukraine defending itself,” Scholz said, adding that Germany may have to do even more “if the support of others gets weaker”—a reference to the Republicans who are currently holding US aid to Ukraine to ransom in the US Congress and may eventually stop it altogether.

Four days later, in a speech to the German parliament ahead of a crucial European summit in Brussels, Scholz was able to point to the budget agreement his government had reached after having been thrown off-course by a ruling of Germany’s constitutional court. On the insistence of the FDP, the coalition kept the “debt brake” in place for 2024, but added a caveat that Scholz spelt out in the Bundestag.

There is the danger, Scholz openly admitted, that Putin’s bet on weakening Western support for Ukraine will succeed. For Germany, however, the outcome of the war is a “fundamental” question of German and European security, Scholz stressed. Should the situation deteriorate, the government is ready to call an emergency and suspend the constitutional requirement to strictly limited new debt in accordance with Article 115 of Germany’s Basic Law.

In other words: If required by an external crisis, Germany will borrow and spend big.

Considerable Obstacles

This constitutes a new tone as well a new level of ambition—the second-best option after the FDP refused to give up on its parochial fiscal policy obsession. But doubts remain when one considers the flipside of supporting Ukraine: making Germany’s armed forces fit for purpose again.

Under Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, who took over less than a year ago, things at long last are moving in the right direction. The straight-talking “surprise choice” is Germany’s most popular politician (note to international media, though: he is highly unlikely to ever become chancellor). Pistorius has instilled the troops with new confidence and has instigated some internal reforms, including the reconstitution of the defense ministry’s planning staff led by the highly-regard Major-General Christian Freuding, one of Pistorius’ key advisors. He has also, to the surprise of many inside the ministry, gone ahead with promising to permanently send a 5,000-strong brigade to Lithuania, battle-ready by 2027, to beef up NATO’s deterrence posture at the northern-eastern flank. He has also made a point of talking to the Germany’s defense industry (his predecessors left this to junior ministers).

But the obstacles of reforming, strengthening, and expanding the Bundeswehr are still considerable. The fact that it remains unclear whether the German navy will be in a position to help when it comes to securing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden from Houthi attacks is testament to that. Pistorius, while retaining his infectious optimism, has signaled that for now he will not go further with reforming the defense ministry and its labyrinthine procurement. Meanwhile, the head of the army, Alfons Mais, has pointed out, according to a report by German news magazine DER SPIEGEL, that there is simply not enough money to go round to finance both the “Lithuania brigade” and other new land forces assets Germany’s army is committed to provide from 2025.

Indeed, the key question is, once again, financial: For the first time ever, Germany will meet NATO’s goal of spending 2 percent of more on defense in 2024, with the first significant drawdowns from the €100 billion “special fund” Scholz created in 2022. But due to inflation and the consequences of the constitutional court ruling the fund will be depleted even quicker than expected. Then what? While Scholz has been clear that Germany will meet the 2-percent goal, his government has so far failed to explain how.

A New Consensus?

However, it looks as if it is dawning on the political class that Germany’s new role in defense and security cannot possibly be underwritten in a “business-as-usual” mode. It might not take the form of the “sparkling wine tax” that Kaiser Wilhelm II introduced in 1902 to finance his beloved navy, but perhaps some akin to the “Solidaritaetszuschlag” (“solidarity charge”) which helped finance German unity after 1990. Such a special measure would signal to German society that rebuilding military strength in order to stop the European continent from plunging ever deeper into war fanned by an aggressive Russia requires an “all-society” effort, at least financially.

Another question ever more frequently discussed is the return of conscription in some shape or form. Pistorius as well as Eva Högl (SPD), the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Bundeswehr, have talked about introducing the “Swedish model” to recruit more capable men and women for the Bundeswehr: all young people of school-leaving age would be medically examined, but only those with the attributes the Bundeswehr needs, and who are, crucially, willing would join the German forces.

The opposition center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) have gone further, demanding a “society year” (Gesellschaftsjahr) to be served by anyone leaving school in Germany, which may involve the Bundeswehr. In contrast, Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder, leader of the CDU’s sister party the CSU who is still harboring dreams about the chancellery, recently demanded a return of general conscription for all males.

Economic sense will hopefully trump such short-sighted populism; given Germany’s rapidly aging society, the vast majority of school leavers are urgently needed to prop up the country’s flagging economy (see also Joseph de Weck’s PARISCOPE column in this issue). Making the Bundeswehr an attractive employer would be the more intelligent and productive way to expand Germany’s military force.

But whether it’s aiding Ukraine or rebuilding the armed forces, an ultimate sense of urgency is still lacking almost two years into Vladimir Putin’s brutal war. It may well be that 2024 provides it.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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