Feb 24, 2023

The Zeitenwende and Germany’s Unsatisfactory Stress Test: A View from Poland

Berlin’s security policy of recent decades has proven to be strategically erroneous. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” speech promised a new course. But this has not gone far enough.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz poses in front of a German self-propelled anti-aircraft gun Flakpanzer Gepard during a visit of the training program for Ukrainian soldiers on the Gepard anti-aircraft tank in Putlos near Oldenburg, Germany August 25, 2022.
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In recent decades, Germany wanted to integrate Russia into the European security system and benefit from bilateral economic relations. Until February 24, 2022, Berlin largely overlooked the fact that it was not possible due to domestic political developments in Russia and the Kremlin’s quest to re-establish spheres of influence in Europe.

Especially in energy policy, Berlin relied on close cooperation with Russia. In the years leading up to 2022, Germany’s dependence on cheap Russian energy imports was growing. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was to supply Europe with additional Russian gas. The construction of the pipeline was agreed in 2015—a year after the Russian annexation of Crimea. The fact that Berlin could submit Ukraine and Central Eastern Europe to Russian blackmail was not something anyone wanted to take note of. Meanwhile, Russian companies were allowed to take over gas storage facilities and refineries in Germany, even though Russia was known to use energy tools for foreign policy purposes. For too long political corruption, which Russia has invested in in Germany, was ignored—be it supervisory board positions for German politicians in Russian corporations or the Gazprom-sponsored Climate and Environmental Protection Foundation in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Of Secondary Interest

Because relations with Russia were treated as a priority, Ukraine policy was secondary for Berlin. Out of consideration for Russian interests, Germany saw Ukraine as being in the buffer zone between Russia and Europe, even if this situation—due to Russia’s desire to subordinate the country—was untenable for Kyiv. Berlin opposed Ukraine’s membership of NATO in 2008 and was highly skeptical of the country’s potential European Union membership in the long term. The Minsk agreements, which former German Chancellor Angela Merkel helped negotiate in 2015, to halt the Russian offensive in the Donbass, were not acceptable to Kyiv in the way Russia interpreted them. Their implementation in line with Moscow would have meant a loss of Ukraine’s sovereignty to Russia. Well aware—as the former German chancellor admitted in the fall of 2022—that “Minsk” was only a pause in the conflict, Germany continued to oppose arms deliveries to Ukraine until February 2022.

In security and defense policy, the adaptation of the Bundeswehr to crisis management operations since 2011 resulted in substantial savings and deteriorated the state of the German armed forces. Only after the annexation of Crimea did the German government agree to a limited NATO military presence on its eastern flank and participated in the NATO battlegroup in Lithuania. However, it continued to insist that the alliance unilaterally adhere to the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Since 2014, participation in NATO’s collective defense has become more important for the Bundeswehr, but the military reforms introduced to achieve this have been insufficient. Arms control, which Moscow had been undermining for years, still seemed to Berlin to be an important mechanism for promoting European security.

On February 24, 2022, it was not only the Bundeswehr that was left unprepared for the new geopolitical reality, but Germany’s security policy, too. Strategically, politically, and mentally, Berlin was not prepared for the return of war in Europe and for the need to contain an aggressive Russia.

Anxious Russia Policy

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ “Zeitenwende” speech raised expectations at home and abroad for a strategic change in Germany. One year later, the initial assessment is mixed. The turnaround has been achieved primarily in energy policy: Germany has succeeded in completely dispensing with Russian natural gas, coal, and crude oil. Close German-Russian cooperation in the gas sector is thus history. The German government diversified German gas imports, rapidly expanded LNG infrastructure, and took Russian companies in the German energy sector into trusteeship—as in the case of Gazprom Germania and Uniper. If, hypothetically speaking, Berlin were to resume purchasing natural gas from Russia after the end of the Russian war, this would not be politically possible and sustainable in terms of energy policy on a large scale.

By contrast, when stock is taken of the Zeitenwende in German policy toward Russia and Ukraine, the result is ambiguous. On the one hand, Berlin supported sanctions against Russia after February 24, even if the German government at times argued for a delayed introduction or was in favor of other restrictions. In addition, Germany has supported Ukraine with humanitarian and financial means and also with arms deliveries worth about €2 billion so far. However, if one looks more closely at the list of military support, one will find only a few heavy weapons systems on it. With regard to “offensive” equipment only 14 self-propelled howitzer PzH 2000 and five MARS II multiple rocket launchers have been delivered so far. Even if 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks and 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles are added soon, followed by Leopard 1A5 tanks and two dozen self-propelled howitzers, this is little compared to the deliveries of heavy weapon systems by the allies on the eastern flank. Berlin has focused primarily on deliveries of logistics, non-lethal equipment, and air defense systems, including one Patriot battery and four IRIS-T SLM batteries, not all of which have yet arrived in Ukraine. These deliveries are extremely important for the protection of the civilian population, but they will not help the Ukrainian armed forces to defeat Russia.

The chancellor's hesitant stance on the issue of supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine raises questions—all the more so when one looks more closely at the wording Scholz uses. According to the chancellor, Russia must not win the war, and Ukraine must not lose it. Over the past few months, one has increasingly gained the impression that the chancellor is banking on a “freeze” in the conflict, out of fear of an escalation of the war on the part of Russia, a fear that is harbored above all by the left wing of Scholz’ Social Democrats (SPD) and parts of the German public.

The chancellor seems to believe that a significant weakening of Russia could bring unforeseen negative consequences: the end of the Putin regime could mean the collapse of the entire country. For Ukraine, however, such a scenario would only be a pause in the war. The persistence of an authoritarian Russia under President Vladimir Putin means that the Kremlin's attempts to create spheres of influence in its neighborhood will continue.

How Much Change?

The chancellor’s Zeitenwende speech was based on presumptions held at the end of February. The German government, as well as large parts of the West, were almost certain that Ukraine would not survive the Russian attack as a state. Despite the initial approval of arms deliveries to Kyiv, Berlin assumed that Europe would soon be living in a different reality, that is, with a Ukraine subordinate to Russia on NATO’s borders. Hence, the Zeitenwende in German policy hardly referred to Ukraine in the beginning. This is one of the reasons why the old dogmas of German Ukraine policy live on.

For strategic reasons, Germany and Europe need a different policy toward Kyiv today. To guarantee long-term peace in the region and in Europe, a successful, rebuilt Ukraine that is part of the West is necessary. Membership of the European Union and NATO is crucial for this. On the one hand, a realistic perspective of European integration is an incentive for Ukraine to implement the reforms necessary to achieve it. On the other, it thwarts Russian neo-imperial plans and is the best way to influence a domestic change in Russia. The Kremlin will not renounce its hegemonic claims if Ukraine remains in a buffer zone. This means war in Eastern Europe and possibly beyond in the medium and long term.

Despite extensive German assistance to Ukraine, the German government does not seem to understand these strategic issues. While Berlin has opened up to Ukrainian EU membership, it remains skeptical about the pace of the integration process and remains more of an inhibiting force in the EU. Ukrainian NATO membership or even a graduated rapprochement of Ukraine to the alliance remains a taboo in Berlin.

Much was expected of the Zeitenwende especially in German security policy—in a new reality in which a brutal war is raging in Europe. For years, a comprehensive modernization of the Bundeswehr has been necessary, as has more German military involvement in deterrence and defense in NATO and on its eastern flank. Despite the Bundeswehr special fund, there is not much sign of its quick implementation a year after the war began. The question remains how serious the German government is about the 2 percent pledge for defense spending after all.

The allies on the eastern flank value the recent additional German military contributions, especially in air defense—in Lithuania, Slovakia, and recently also in Poland. But all in all, the same old questions are being asked in Central Eastern Europe: What about strengthening Germany’s military capabilities for collective defense in NATO in the short, medium, and long term? And what about the political will and strategic culture needed to make Europe more self-reliant in defense if the US reduces its military presence in Europe in the future?

The fear of an escalation of the war, of a “Third World War” into which Germany would be dragged, mentioned by the chancellor, shows that Berlin has not yet understood Russia’s strategic communication or its strategic goals. Thus, from the perspective of the eastern flank, the result of Germany’s security policy stress test has, so far, been unsatisfactory.

Justyna Gotkowska is deputy director of the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw.