The German government is accused of not matching words and deeds, especially on Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a catchy promise in his Zeitenwende speech right after Russia’s latest and greatest invasion of Ukraine in February. He promised a special fund of 100 billion euros ($107 billion) for the country’s hollowed-out army. This equals two years defense budgeta huge sum.
Late on May 29, a deal was struck between the so-called traffic light coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and liberal FDP, and right-wing opposition groups, to secure the required two-thirds majority in the Bundestag to create the fund. .
There were serious differences, but the traffic light government had no choice but to accept the demands of the opposition because failure would have called into question the entire coalition government.
A supply list for the German armed forces must be created to decide exactly how the funds will be spent. This is much more than just a domestic problem – it will be watched closely by the United States, the country’s European allies, and especially the countries of Central and Eastern Europe who have been warning Germany for many years that its policy with regard to Russia has been too accommodating, not to say naive and complacent.
Germany will also be fully committed to NATO’s commitment to spend at least 2% of its GDP in defence. Largely ignored during Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, this belated promise to honor an eight-year-old pledge will be resolved by the Special Funds Act, but as an average spend over multi-year periods. The discussion shortly after Russia’s last invasion – that the country should exceed 2% – was dropped.
So, with the bank account overflowing with cash, the German military can now embark on a much-needed spending spree. Or can he? Signals from the Chancellor suggest he has his own plans for how and where the money should be funneled. Top of its list seems to be the long-discussed missile defense system for the homeland. It was originally cost at about $4.5 billion for a now discontinued German production system, but would cost about $2.2 billion if purchased from the United States or Israel.
Shortly after the chancellor made the decision on the special fund in late February, he consulted with the Bundeswehr’s inspector general about acquiring missile defense. The system could be based on the Israeli Arrow 3 missile, or the American-made THAAD or Aegis. It could be operational by 2025.
Thanks to such a system, according to the Scholz expert group, Germany could even provide anti-missile security for Poland, Romania or the Baltic States But this is far from being a universal vision. According to critics, the idea would be not even provide protection for all of Germany. The issue is pretty clear – Germany is much bigger than Israel and faces a much more sophisticated enemy with a much wider missile range than Iran-supplied Hamas in Gaza. Anti-missile systems can be popular with voters and manufacturers, but can fail when overwhelmed by huge numbers. Some military analysts suggest that it is preferable buy offensive missiles as a deterrent, rather than trying to eliminate incoming barrages.
Germany’s armed forces have a huge shopping list, after years and years of very low defense spending, and after endless upgrade plans have been politically blocked, often by Scholz’s social democrats . He needs everything from F-35 stealth planes to heavy lift helicopters, ammunition, combat boots and even underwear – the list is huge. But the ability of an ill-equipped force to digest large influxes of new equipment and capabilities is questionable. It may take many years to fix this, even if the government can decide on a military strategy, which it currently lacks. The FDP Christian Lindner, Minister of Finance said that“Our aim is to have one of the most capable and powerful armies in Europe this decade,” but it is unrealistic to expect much change over several years.
Meanwhile, the gulf between the inspirational phrases of Chancellor Scholz Zeitenwende his government’s discourse and actions continue to broaden. Germany’s words contradict Germany’s actions. Despite the decision of the Bundestag on the delivery of heavy weapons, almost nothing has been shipped. There are signs that the government is responding to criticism – on June 1 Scholz announced that he would send IRIS-T medium range missiles in Ukraine, even if it will be “months” before they arrive.
The slow delivery of state-of-the-art equipment has been a central criticism of the coalition’s approach. And the chancellor’s language was strange; he still refuses to even say he wants Ukraine to win, instead using the baffling formula that they must not lose. This has created deep anger and confusion, both among pro-Ukrainian voices in Germany, Ukraine itself, and Central and Eastern Europe, who deeply fear that German ambivalence will foreshadow its likely behavior if an ally of the NATO in the region came to be under Russian control. offensive. Polish President Duda accused Germany of break his word on advanced weapons supplies.
What drives this seemingly counterproductive behavior? It may simply be a German fear of change, despite its accurate analysis that the invasion marked a sea change in European security. The big investments in the defense budget are indeed necessary, there is no doubt about it. But we must not forget that these investments are made under the conditions of a war provoked by Russia. This posed an existential threat to the European security order. There is perhaps the feeling that Germany’s ability to translate analysis into policy has failed, or at least is inadequate.
A strategic shift should be to recognize that Putin’s Russia cannot be a partner and that the Ostpolitik-lite for the past 30 years was an illusion. Instead, Germany will have to develop better relations with eastern countries with a history of Russian occupation. These countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine – urgently need Germany’s active support.
A German failure to act, or a half-hearted and dragging policy will only heighten suspicion among its eastern partners that it lacks a serious commitment to peace in the neighborhood. Likewise, too much focus on missile defense for the homeland will fuel the belief that the country defines its defense in the narrowest terms. The Greens seized on at least some of this, as did the FDP. This is really a problem for Scholz and his social democrats.
The most important thing is to understand what war means right now. For Ukraine, this means the lives of millions of citizens who are dying, fleeing the Russian war machine destroying their homes and cities. For Germany and Europe as a whole, this threatens the most basic foundations of continental security and independence.
German Zeitenwende was proclaimed for exactly this purpose, to counter this challenge with a radical reorientation of foreign policy and a considerable increase in defense spending. The common goal of European security can only be achieved through the unified action of independent democracies. It would be a good outcome for everyone if Olaf Scholz’s regular references to close cooperation with transatlantic partners and an understanding of common interests were translated into urgent government action.
Oxane Schmies is a postdoctoral researcher and analyst based in Berlin. She held postdoctoral positions at the University of Erfurt, the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Center for Liberal Modernity (LibMod) in Berlin.