Berlin Cable

February 28, 2022

A Revolution in German Security Policy

Vladimir Putin and his illegal war of aggression against Ukraine have achieved something no German politician has been able to: Setting the country on the path to becoming a serious military power.

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Demonstrators march during an anti-war protest, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, outside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, February 27, 2022.
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There is a revolution going on in Berlin right now.

It’s not so much to do with the more than 100,000–organizers said over half a million–Berliners who hit the streets on Sunday. By lunchtime they had quickly filled the Street of June 17 linking the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate, and many more miles up and down that main road, stretching out to Unter den Linden along the Stalinist building of the Russian Embassy, built when Berlin was a divided city. Coming from all walks of life, they demonstrated against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. The mood was solemn.

The same was true for the Reichstag building where a special sitting of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, was taking place. It was here that history was made on Sunday. The strong turnout in support of Ukraine showed that the country at large was ready for it.

Zeitenwende,” meaning a turning point in history, is the term of the moment. And if Germany’s “traffic light” governing coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) see through their plans, with the help of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), the way Europe’s biggest economy in future approaches international and security affairs will be truly revolutionized.

Old Beliefs Thrown Overboard

All of this looked unlikely for a few days. All the gains Scholz and his government had made by announcing, last Tuesday, that it would, effectively, cancel the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, was lost again by Thursday night when the European Union only agreed on sanctions that many observers felt weren’t an adequate response to Putin’s bloody and brutal attempt to recreate Russia as a European power, one that has its own sphere of influence and basically controls the continent. Once more Berlin became badly isolated and was blamed for applying the brakes on a more impactful sanctions package, one that would include cutting off Russia from SWIFT, the Europe-based international payments system.

The turnaround came on Saturday. The government announced a U-turn on delivering weapons to Ukraine, breaking with its decades-old adage of not delivering weapons to conflict zones. Not only did Berlin now allow the Netherlands and Estonia to send anti-tank weapons and howitzers that once belonged to Germany (and thus had a veto on the question), Scholz also announced that Berlin itself would now help Kyiv with weapons and other military material, too: 1,000 bazookas, 500 “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles, 14 specially armored vehicles for transportation, 10,000 tons of fuel. Also, the 5,000 helmets, promised earlier and causing so much international derision, were finally on their way. At the same time, the German government changed tack on SWIFT, getting its allies to agree to Berlin’s proviso that a SWIFT ban would not be blanket but would apply to Russian banks already sanctioned, and “if necessary, additional ones.”

An Historic Speech

On Sunday, then, in the special Bundestag session, Scholz made it clear in an historic speech that even more dramatic change was coming. Putin had created “a new reality,” the chancellor said. “President Putin always talks about indivisible security. But what he really seeks now is to divide the continent into the familiar old spheres of influence through armed force.”

Therefore, in addition to weapons deliveries and sanctions, Germany had to ramp up its own defense capabilities. Scholz went on to explain that by introducing a special, debt-financed “special fund armed forces” (“Sondervermoegen Bundeswehr”) worth €100 billion and by enshrining it in the constitution, the government would be spending more than 2 percent of GDP on security with almost immediate effect. Germany’s CDU/CSU opposition is on board, but has questions about the fiscal implications. When opposition leader Friedrich Merz raised doubts about more debt, Finance Minister Christian Lindner, told him those were investments in Germany’s, and Europe’s, “freedom.”

Getting serious, all of a sudden, with meeting the NATO goal on security spending agreed in 2014, after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, does not constitute German rearmament, despite the accusations of the hard-left Linke party. Rather, it means creating armed forces that are actually fit for purpose. During the Merkel era, the Bundeswehr was chronically underfunded and morphed into an organization that became close to irreformable. When units deployed to missions or to larger NATO exercises, they had to beg, borrow, and steal from other parts of the army, navy, or air force to be able to arrive fully kitted out as potentially fighting force. “The goal is a powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr that can be relied upon to protect us,” Scholz said.

The questionable state of Germany’s security apparatus became apparent when Putin went to war. Days earlier the head of the German navy had to step down following a visit to New Delhi during which he suggested to an Indian think tank that all Putin wanted was respect and that he personally, as “a strong Catholic Christian,” would rather fight with Russian Orthodox Christians against the Chinese than see Russia on the other side. When Russian forces first bombed and then started to march on Kyiv last Thursday, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence found himself trapped in the Ukrainian capital and had to be “extracted.” Meanwhile, the head of the German army, in his first reaction to Putin’s war, wrote in a personal post on LinkedIn that his forces were “more or less standing bare.”

On a New Path

More money won’t fix everything. The new investment, however, will be largely spent, in the first instance, on equipping Germany’s army properly, turning it into a military force that can actually be used. This would mean that Europe’s biggest economy is now willing to include the military in the toolbox of international policy. “Maybe Germany, today, is leaving a kind of special and unique restraint in foreign and security policy behind,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens said, who during the election campaign last year, had been the clearest-eyed when it came to Putin’s Russia. “The rules we set for ourselves must not keep us from living up to our responsibility. When our world is a different one, our policy must be as well.”

This reinvention of Germany as a finally fully-fledged international player will be firmly anchored in Europe, the government made clear. Scholz indicated that he saw this connected with enhancing “European sovereignty” and said that the next generations of fighter planes and tanks should be developed in a European framework, especially with France. “Those projects have the highest priority,” Scholz said.

This German foreign and security policy revolution is not only beneficial to Europe, though. US President Joe Biden and his administration had put their trust in Scholz and his government and had probably experienced many moments when they may have been tempted to rue this investment. They have now been rewarded. Scrapping Nord Stream 2 and meeting NATO’s 2-percent goal in future has turned Berlin from “problem child” to “model ally.” Attacks by Trumpist Republicans, whose continued admiration for Putin is deeply troubling, on the free-riding, self-seeking Germans will no longer wash.

Olaf Scholz and his government have taken a gigantic step to not only make Germany more secure by giving it capable forces, but also by heavily investing in its European and transatlantic alliances, which Berlin sees as mutually reinforcing. In Scholz “we have a really good chancellor,” tweeted Fritz Felgentreu, a former SPD defense spokesman who left politics last year after not being able to push through security policies that are now all implemented overnight. “Perhaps even a great one.”

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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