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As over 100,000 rally for Ukraine, Germany announces vast defense spending increase that may upend European security policy

Tens of thousands of people gather in Tiergarten park in Berlin on Feb. 27 to protest the ongoing war in Ukraine. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

European leaders have for years sought to forge from their fractious ranks a robust response to a rising Russian threat — without much success. But just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin suddenly faces a continent that has rarely appeared so united.

As Europe’s biggest economy, which had long been the key obstacle to more decisive action against Russia, Germany dramatically changed course this weekend as Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a vast increase in the country’s defense spending and greenlighted arms deliveries to Ukraine. Not long after, the European Union announced it will finance and deliver weapons, even fighter jets, to Ukraine — a “watershed” move for the bloc.

In Germany, where 100,000 people turned out Sunday in Berlin to protest the invasion, the moves marked a seismic shift for a country that has been allergic to involvement in international conflict since the end of World War II.

Latest updates on the war in Ukraine

Demonstrators across the world took to the streets on Feb. 25-27, the first weekend since Russia invaded Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)

“What has happened in the last few days has been a serious wake-up call for Europe, a serious wake-up call for the NATO alliance and, tragically and very sadly for Ukraine, a wake-up call too late in the day,” said Richard Dannatt, a retired general and former British army chief. “We should have seen what [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has been up to.”

Germany’s shift appears to be enabling a new approach from the E.U., which said Sunday that it plans to block all Russian-owned, -registered or -controlled aircraft — including oligarchs’ private jets — from its skies and will ban some Russian state media. The bloc also announced that it would spend over $500 million on lethal arms and nonlethal supplies such as fuel and protective equipment for Ukraine.

“For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday. “This is a watershed moment.”

More European nations ban Russian flights from their airspace — including the entire E.U.

Marcel Dirsus, a German political scientist and fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, said the E.U. announcement Sunday was an indication of the kinds of ripple effects the earlier German pivot could have. “I think it’s highly unlikely that something like this would have happened against Germany’s opposition,” he said.

What’s still unclear is whether and how these changes will affect Ukraine. Germany won’t be sending troops to Ukraine, and neither will any other NATO members, which have been wary of being drawn into a direct confrontation with nuclear weapons-armed Russia.

NATO’s stance on Ukraine has long, in essence, been that membership has its privileges: While the alliance may be willing to offer support — both lethal and nonlethal — it won’t get directly involved in sending troops to defend Ukraine from outside attack, as it would with any NATO member.

Russia’s invasion hasn’t changed that calculus — much to the frustration of Ukrainians who have been seeking NATO membership for years, including President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We were left by ourselves. Who is ready to go to war for us? Honestly, I don’t see anybody. Who is ready to give Ukraine guarantees of NATO membership?” Zelensky asked in a speech after Russia invaded.

Not all E.U. nations are part of NATO. Finland and Sweden, for example, have remained outside the alliance, even though the current crisis has appeared to align the two countries more closely with NATO than was previously the case, despite Russian warnings that it may take military action if the two countries join the alliance.

Putin has “achieved something which many people have been trying to achieve for a long time — European unity, Western unity and an increased willingness to take action,” said Ian Kearns, a co-founder and former executive director of the European Leadership Network, who has long been active in efforts to create diplomatic channels between the West and Russia.

For the countries that are already NATO members, the German pivot on defense could have profound effects in the long run. Speaking in the German parliament on Sunday, Scholz called Russia’s attack on Ukraine “a turning point in the history of our continent” and said the German military will receive a one-off additional payment of over $110 billion — about twice Germany’s defense budget last year.

“Better and more modern equipment, more staff, that costs a lot of money,” Scholz told lawmakers in a special session.

Germany abandons muted approach to aid for Ukraine, sending weapons and greenlighting sanctions

Scholz committed to exceeding the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP “from now on, every year.” Last year Germany spent an estimated 1.53 percent of its annual economic output on defense, well below the 2 percent NATO target.

“We are not only striving for this goal because we have promised our friends and allies that we will increase our defense spending to 2 percent of our economic output by 2024, but we do this for ourselves, too, for our own safety,” Scholz said.

The plans will still need to be approved by lawmakers, but there appeared to be widespread support for them Sunday.

“One could feel societal pressure building up over the last days — pressure from a society that was no longer okay with the fact that Germany has been softening the response to the Russian attack,“ said Norbert Röttgen, a conservative German lawmaker who headed the parliament’s foreign affairs committee for much of the past decade.

A few hours after Scholz addressed the Bundestag, at least 100,000 people turned out in Berlin to protest the invasion. They stretched from the Victory Column to the Brandenburg Gate — where the Berlin Wall once divided East and West.

Ukrainian flags and colors were dominant, with others holding signs denouncing Putin and calling on NATO to enforce a no-fly zone. Many Germans welcomed the change in their government’s tone, but were disappointed it took so long.

“Olaf Scholz is two weeks too late with all these things,” said Henning Ramke, 31, from Berlin. “The government was always the last in Europe to stand behind Ukraine.”

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During previous crises, including after the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia, Germany had hesitated to swing more directly into confrontation with a country that helped defeat the Nazis. Germany’s deep economic relationship with Russia is decades old and, many critics say, has led to a foreign policy orthodoxy that long held back Europe from sharper criticism of the Kremlin.

In a sign of the deep historic ties between Germany and the former Soviet Union, anti-Russian protesters who rallied in Berlin on Sunday passed Soviet tanks that line the Soviet War Memorial in central Berlin.

One reason for Germany’s disappointing response, in the eyes of allies, has been the lack of public support until now. Polls have shown opposition to weapons deliveries or taking a harder line with Russia. Thorsten Weiss shared that view. Then Russia invaded, which he called “inconceivable.”

“It’s a difficult situation for Germany. I was opposed at first, but have since found it good and the only way to do something against what’s happening,” the 60-year-old Berliner said.

Germany’s lagging defense spending had long been defended across the German political spectrum, even as its international allies voiced discontent. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party was among core opponents of a major increase in spending.

The German army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais, said last week that “the army that I am allowed to lead is more or less powerless” against Russia amid the current crisis. Defense associations have warned that the German military is underfunded and lacks crucial equipment.

The first signs of a substantial break in tradition came Saturday, when Germany announced that it would rush 1,000 antitank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to Ukraine and embraced broad restrictions on Russian banks that it had previously rebuffed.

The move also opened up Europe’s weapons-packed armories to Ukraine, because Berlin retained a veto power over how German-manufactured armaments were used even after they were sold elsewhere.

“This is the last door being closed on the Kremlin,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who served as commander of U.S. Army Europe during the Obama and Trump administrations.

“It is going to be a sea change because all of Europe is looking at this in a different way,” he said. “The E.U. has discovered its heart and spine.”

Hodges suggested that Europe’s attitude changed because of Putin’s “flat-out lying” about the invasion. Senior officials who “really wanted to believe that you could negotiate with them” have been “humiliated,” he said, “and they are very angry about it.”

Kearns said he believes the Russian attack on Ukraine will ultimately doom Putin as the Russian president becomes increasingly isolated both at home and abroad. But he cautioned that Europe cannot be complacent as Putin flails.

With NATO now in a de facto proxy war with Russia, Kearns said, risks of an inadvertent escalation are heightened, and make it even more essential for the Russian and Western militaries to communicate with one another. Even as the West continues to intensify the pressure on Russia, he said, it will also need to help Putin “navigate an off-ramp” from an invasion that appears to be foundering.

Michael Birnbaum in Washington and William Glucroft in Berlin contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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