How Putin’s War in Ukraine became a revolutionary moment for German foreign and defence policy

By Nicholas Wright, 3 March 2022

Dr Nicholas Wright is a Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Britain in Europe, University of Surrey. He is an expert on British, German and EU foreign, security and defence policy, and the author of ‘The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy in Germany and the UK: Co-operation, Co-optation and Competition’, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020.

It is hard to overstate the potential significance of the change initiated by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in German foreign and defence policy on 27 February. Only a few weeks before, Berlin was being pilloried for dragging its feet in responding to the threat posed by President Putin’s massive build up of military might along the Russian and Belarussian borders with Ukraine – and ridiculed for its commitment to send 5,000 helmets to Ukraine in response. In a speech to a special session of the Bundestag, however, Scholz overturned decades of political consensus in Germany, declaring that by invading Ukraine three days previously, Putin had “created a new reality. This new reality requires an unequivocal response.” The response has not just been unequivocal: it represents a genuinely revolutionary moment for German foreign policy – a ‘Zeitenwende’ as Scholz put it.

For decades, and for obvious and understandable historical reasons, Germany explicitly rejected the use of force as a means of solving international crises. In doing so, it became what Hanns Maull has termed a Zivilmacht, or civilian power. Thus, diplomacy and economic tools have been preferred and prioritised over military ones, with the stability provided by the rules-based order, particularly in Europe, the primary objective. Notable exceptions were the decisions to commit Germany’s armed forces to NATO operations in Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan as part of ISAF after 9/11, but both were justified on humanitarian grounds.

Zivilmacht has been a central element in the bilateral relationship with Russia. Germany’s political and geographic position at the heart of Europe, and the memory of the carnage it unleashed during the Second World War, mean that “neither isolation nor confrontation is a prudent policy,” when it comes to Moscow as Frank-Walther Steinmeier wrote in 2016 when German foreign minister. Consequently, under the chancellorships of both Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel, Berlin has pursued a policy of economic engagement and cooperation with Russia designed to encourage reform and democratisation – described as ‘Wandel durch Annährung’ (‘change through rapprochement’) and subsequently ‘Wandel durch Handel’ (‘change through trade’). However, Putin’s domestic repression combined with his war on Georgia (2008), and the annexation of Crimea and promotion of separatist movements in eastern Ukraine (2014) have made a mockery of a policy criticised as being ‘trade without change’. Scholz’s announcements on 27 February confirm that this approach is over, certainly for as long as Putin remains in power.

In the run-up to his Bundestag speech, Scholz’s government had already agreed at EU level to a package of hard-hitting sanctions on Putin and his regime. They also decided unilaterally (but under great international pressure) to suspend the Nord Stream II pipeline (its Swiss-based owner has subsequently filed for bankruptcy). Building on this, Scholz made 5 key announcements: (i) to supply Ukraine with weapons, thereby breaking a long-standing German principle of not exporting weapons to active conflict zones; (ii) agreement to exclude key Russian banks from the SWIFT network as part of the EU sanctions measures; (iii) increasing support for NATO allies with additional deployments in Lithuania, Romania, and the North and Baltic Seas; (iv) a boost in defence spending of €100bn for 2022 and a commitment to meet NATO’s 2% of GDP investment target to be written into Germany’s Basic Law; and (v) a review of energy policy to end dependence on Russian gas.

There is a strong consensus within the German government for these measures. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party Foreign Minister, acknowledged the dramatic change they represented: “perhaps” she said, “Germany is today leaving behind a form of special restraint in foreign and security policy” but “if our world is different, then our politics must also be different.” Christian Lindner, leader of the third coalition member, the FDP, and Finance Minister was similarly strong in his backing, arguing that the debt required to pay for these plans would be “an investment in our future”. Crucially, a dramatic shift in German public opinion has created space for the government to follow this path. As Marcel Dirsus argued recently, “German foreign policy is the way it is because Germans want it to be that way”. Strong opposition to the use of force and equivocation as to Russia’s responsibility for the situation in eastern Europe has now given way to a demand for a robust response to the invasion of Ukraine. Scholz acknowledged this change in mood in his speech, declaring, “we know that when something finds a broad consensus among politicians and the public, it will endure.”

The hard part, though, will be following through on these commitments – particularly to spend 2% on defence year-on-year and end Germany’s reliance on Russian gas. While Berlin is already making good on promises to supply weapons to Ukraine’s armed forces, it will nonetheless take time for additional defence spending to lead to tangible increases in deployable manpower and equipment. Meanwhile, the change in energy strategy will potentially take even longer to achieve. The longer-term rewards – not least in terms of Germany’s drive to reach net zero – could be significant. But in the shorter term the costs – including of the sanctions – will affect many in Germany. Given that this confrontation with Russia is likely to be protracted, short term political and economic considerations will inevitably re-surface, testing the resolve of the coalition government.

However, provided the political will can be maintained, these policies will certainly result in a Germany – and therefore a EU – that is far less vulnerable to Russia’s use of energy as a foreign policy weapon. They will also mean Germany can be expected to play a more explicit leadership role in NATO and the EU’s defence and security policy. They could also create an important new dynamic in the Franco-German relationship, with Berlin becoming a much more significant defence partner for Paris.

Radek Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister and now MEP, famously said, “I fear German power less than German inaction”. Scholz’s announcements indicate that, for now at least, the latter is not an option. Longer-term, we may finally see a Germany willing to create a military component to match its political and economic power. Of all the consequences of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, these changes in German foreign and defence policy may thus prove to be amongst the most significant.