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An Early Assessment of Germany’s Zeitenwende in Security Policy

April 12, 2022
4 min read
Photo credit: Gints Ivuskans / Shutterstock.com
Just three days after President Vladimir Putin sent Russia’s army to invade Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz shed Germany’s reluctant leadership and dovish foreign policy.

Speaking in the Bundestag, he called on the country to invest much more in its security to protect its freedom and democracy. Scholz’s words amounted to an earthquake, upending decades of settled German policy. The change was reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s description of how bankruptcy happens: slowly at first and then suddenly. Under what has been labelled as the Zeitenwende—a turning-point awakening—the impossibility of German leadership now appears possible.

The announced new role for Germany in deterring further military aggression in Europe while ending Putin’s war sets the stage for a new national security strategy debate in the country. Moreover, the commitment to provide Ukraine with military, financial, and humanitarian support to defend its freedom, sovereignty, and democracy expands Germany’s role beyond NATO.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has destroyed the international security order that has provided peace in Europe since the end of the Second World War. As a result, Germany adopted unprecedented sanctions on Russia in concert with the EU and the United States. These have cut off Russian banks and businesses from financing, excluded some banks from the SWIFT banking communication system, targeted oligarchs, and enacted other measures to isolate and punish Moscow for its military aggression. These measures reversed decades of Germany appeasing and accommodating Russia.

Scholz also reversed Germany’s free-riding approach within NATO. His new measures include the creation of a €100 billion special fund to invest in security capabilities and meet or exceed the NATO defense-spending target of 2 percent of GDP. Germany’s decision to buy US F-35 fighters also lays to rest the debate on its participation in the alliance’s nuclear-sharing agreement. The purchase of armed drones will modernize military capabilities. The Bundeswehr has increased deployments in Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. Moreover, Germany will strive for energy independence from Russia by creating new domestic energy sources while it weans itself off its Russian supply.

In the aftermath of the invasion, Germany’s policy of not supplying arms to conflict zones ended. It is now sending thousands of antitank and antiaircraft weapons to Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is under massive political pressure—not only from Kyiv but also from the media and from its allies—to do more to support the country in its struggle, especially as more war crimes reveal the brutality of Russian troops.

Although the Zeitenwende signals a new German policy, implementing the changes it entails remains uncertain.

Scholz has promised more weapons for Ukraine after delivering 2,700 Soviet-era, shoulder-fired Strela missiles and other antitank weapons as well as agreeing to its allies releasing German-made weapons to the country. The list of possible deliveries of German weapons include 58 infantry fighting vehicles from former East Germany stocks now located in the Czech Republic and high-tech weapons. In addition, Ukrainians continue to ask for more weapons, including Leopard main battle tanks, Marder infantry fighting vehicles, 2,000 self-propelled howitzers, and Cobra artillery-detection systems from the Bundeswehr’s stocks.

Providing weapons that could kill Russians “is very difficult to stomach for many Germans,” as one expert puts it. However, with murderous Russian attacks on Ukrainians that will very likely culminate on the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has spoken out in favor of supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine. She said: “What is clear is that Ukraine needs further military material, especially heavy weapons.” Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty is its right under the UN Charter, Chapter VII, Article 51. Furthermore, German support for other countries’ self-defense is allowed under the German constitution.

Although the Zeitenwende signals a new German policy, implementing the changes it entails remains uncertain. For example, reasons for the delays in shipments of German weapons to Ukraine keep flowing from Berlin, such as concern that Russia will cut off gas supplies or bureaucratic procedures. Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has argued that arms are not available from her ministry. But Baerbock has stated: “Now is not a time for excuses; now is a time for creativity and pragmatism.” In the chancellor’s office, the question is “What’s the hurry?”

Scholz may have ushered in an era of monumental change, but does this really mean that Germany will be leaving behind its unique form of restraint in foreign and security policy? The country’s ugly legacy of military aggression during the 20th century produced a deep-seated mindset that views dialogue and multilateralism as the key and, often, the only tool of foreign policy. The question today is whether Germany will move away from this tradition and add its weight to the security of Europe.

Related Reading: Zeitenwende—The Dawn of the Deterrence Era in Germany

Germany’s foreign policy took a dramatic turn on Sunday, February 27, 2022. In a special address to the Bundestag, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced measures that are being called “a revolution.”