The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Germany didn’t used to spend much on its military. Putin changed that.

Many German politicians were convinced that the Russian president was bluffing about Ukraine

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, center, holds a news conference Feb. 24 in Berlin. (Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, but one thing is already clear. Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved — albeit inadvertently — what nobody else could: a revolution in German security and defense policy.

In a remarkable session of the Bundestag on Feb. 27, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced measures that many believed impossible only days earlier. These include a $113 billion defense fund to modernize the German military — anchored in Germany’s Basic Law so that it cannot be used for any other purpose in the future — and an increase in annual defense spending to more than 2 percent of gross domestic product.

For comparison, the current level is below 1.5 percent. For the past 20 years, defense spending had averaged 1.3 percent of GDP. The announced increase translates into an annual defense budget of about 71 billion euros ($78 billion), up from about 47 billion euros ($50 billion).

In addition, the German government will supply Ukraine with lethal weapons, a move it previously rejected as incompatible with German law. Germany will also purchase armed drones — an issue that sparked a highly controversial debate last year.

Scholz also announced that Germany would indefinitely suspend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and build two LNG terminals instead. And the German government, reportedly the last holdout among European Union members on this financial sanction, gave its go-ahead to exclude major Russian banks from the SWIFT global banking communication network.

Can Putin keep the oligarchs and Russian elites on his side?

What explains this monumental shift?

On Feb. 25, NATO leaders met virtually to discuss events in Ukraine. According to German accounts, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke first: “The Russian attack on Ukraine was cold blooded and planned way in advance. We need to take into consideration that Putin does not stop in Ukraine. An attack on a NATO ally, while far-fetched, is not implausible.”

Statements like this no doubt put mounting pressure on Scholz and the new German government. In the same meeting, President Biden declared: “Everyone needs to do more and share the burden.”

Until that point, Germany’s policy on the Ukraine crisis had been erratic, to say the least. High-ranking officials within Scholz’s Social Democratic Party were convinced Putin would not invade. They were sure the military buildup on the Ukrainian border was just posturing.

Many of these German politicians knew Putin personally. They had advocated for continued dialogue with Russia and friendly relations, despite the Russian annexation of Crimea, Russia’s indiscriminate bombing in the destruction of Homs and Aleppo in Syria, and the buildup of a massive Russian military force along the border with Ukraine. In January, Germany’s decision to send 5,000 helmets to Ukraine drew widespread ridicule, and Eastern European leaders pleaded with Germany to wake up to the threat — but most of these politicians just shrugged their shoulders.

Putin has been redefining ‘sovereignty’ in dangerous ways

For these Germans, Russia’s Feb. 24 attack on Ukraine felt like a personal betrayal. But when Stoltenberg declared that Putin was a potential threat to all of Europe, their entire worldview collapsed. Feelings of guilt and shame for having trusted Putin and misread the situation thus became important factors that help explain the monumental shift in German security and defense policy. Former German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer put it the following way: “I’m so angry at ourselves for our historical failure.” To some extent, this shift is a compensation for these past mistakes.

Stoltenberg’s warning of a plausible Russian attack on a NATO country also triggered fear. Army Inspector Alfons Mais — the highest-ranking general in the German army — stated in his personal capacity that Germany’s defense forces were pretty much “empty-handed.” Decades of neglect had led to a German inability to do anything militarily to stop Putin’s aggression.

Snap polls indicated that 69 percent of Germans feared the conflict in Ukraine could expand and lead to World War III. Hundreds of thousands of Germans joined peace rallies in various cities in Germany, as anxiety superseded long-established pacifism there.

A ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment?

Scholz took notice and responded in full force. Germany’s new governing coalition, made up of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the liberals, is also driving the shift in foreign policy. It is the “only Nixon could go to China” logic, now turned on its head.

While only a hawk like Richard M. Nixon could have met China’s Mao Zedong 50 years ago, only a dovish Social Democratic chancellor, a Green foreign minister and a liberal finance minister could do what a conservative government in Germany could not. In particular, the Social Democrats and the Green Party had for years opposed all of the steps Scholz has taken. And only the Social Democrats and Greens could reverse course now.

Check out TMC’s coverage of the Russia and Ukraine crisis in our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

So far the German public strongly supports the defense spending proposal. Surveys indicate that 78 percent of the German population supports the government’s announcements. Nevertheless, when the cold reality hits, with expected budget shifts away from social spending and toward defense, some backlash is to be expected.

The youth group of the Green Party has already declared its skepticism, alluding to the fact that the government made these decisions without any political or social debate. They insist that for every additional euro Germany spends on defense, an additional euro must also go to diplomacy, humanitarian aid and development cooperation. Yet, as long as the war in Ukraine rages, it is unlikely that they will openly attack the chancellor.

For the Green Party, the Ukrainian crisis also offers a sudden policy opportunity to accelerate Germany’s energy shifts. It can now sell its energy transition project with additional security policy needs. It is an argument that also works for the liberal party, which has renamed renewable energies “freedom energies” — replacing coal and gas for wind and solar is now not only a climate goal, but also a security necessity to diminish Germany’s dependence on Russia.

The sudden turnaround in Germany’s defense and security policy will have far-reaching consequences — for Europe, for NATO and for Germany’s domestic politics. The full extent of these consequences, of course, won’t be fully understood for quite a while.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mis-identified Alfons Mais as the highest-ranking general in the German armed forces. We regret the error.

Don't miss any of TMC's smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Marina E. Henke (@mephenke) is professor of international relations at the Hertie School in Berlin and director of the school’s Center for International Security (@hertie_security). She holds a PhD from Princeton University and has published widely on topics related to European security and defense policy and transatlantic relations.

Loading...