As Russian soldiers massed on Ukraine’s borders shortly before Vladimir Putin launched his ruinous war last year, Germany answered Kyiv’s pleas for military aid by offering to send 5,000 helmets, a gesture Ukrainian officials widely derided. “What kind of support will Germany send next?” asked Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko. “Pillows?”
A month later, after tens of thousands of Russian troops invaded Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told his stunned compatriots that Berlin’s decades-long thinking about national security, defense and foreign policy had to be reassessed. The country, he said, needed to support Ukraine and also to embark on a “major national undertaking” to rebuild its military. Keeping “warmongers like Putin in check,” he said, “requires strength of our own.”
Since that speech, Germany has become a major supporter of the Ukrainian military. It recently announced a $2.9 billion arms package: Instead of helmets, it is now sending advanced air-defense systems, top-shelf battle tanks, howitzers, drones and large quantities of artillery ammunition. After the United States, it is one of Ukraine’s biggest weapons providers.
Yet Mr. Scholz has failed to deliver on the other piece of the equation — the buildup of Germany’s own defenses. As the war in Ukraine settles into a bloody stalemate, the urgency he described has evaporated.
A $109 billion special fund to rebuild Germany’s anemic armed forces over the next few years remains largely untapped. Mr. Scholz backed off his initial pledge to pump additional tens of billions of dollars into annual defense spending to meet a NATO spending target Berlin has long endorsed — and long ignored. Efforts to streamline the country’s cumbersome weapons procurement system are only now gaining traction.
It is true that Germany — Western Europe’s most populous country and the world’s fourth-largest economy — carries heavy historical baggage from World War II. Sending advanced weapons to be used against Russia reflects a strategic and psychological revolution. Until Russia launched its war, Berlin’s policies had rested on rosy assumptions that history’s arc would bend toward a post-conflict future of prosperity and economic interdependence. The centerpiece of Mr. Scholz’s speech, three days after Russia’s full-scale invasion, was what he called “zeitenwende,” variously translated as a sea change, turning point, or historic shift. It was an apt coinage, and it served as both description and prescription. Not only did Germans face a more dangerous world, but they needed to respond in ways that would be jarring and unfamiliar. A pacifist approach to world affairs no longer fit the moment.
To his credit, Mr. Scholz has taken some major steps toward overhauling Germany’s policies and security posture, especially in weaning the country off its Russian energy dependency at warp speed, thereby averting winter heating shortages. He discarded principles that underpinned German foreign policy for decades, including what amounted to a policy of appeasement by economic integration with Moscow.
Impressively, Mr. Scholz has managed this transition with little domestic political pushback, owing partly to his broad center-left governing coalition and partly to his own innate caution. Germany’s peace movement, for years a potent force, is all but quiescent. Forces that long advocated warm ties with Russia, and often profited from them — especially within Mr. Scholz’s own Social Democratic Party — are now mainly silent.
Yet to reach NATO’s — and Germany’s own — target for ongoing defense outlays, equivalent to 2 percent of total economic output, Berlin would need to add some $28 billion to its current annual spending of about $55 billion., roughly a 50 percent increase. That looks unlikely. Data shows that, in May, Germany tipped into inflation-fueled recession, and officials say the defense ministry’s request for an additional $11 billion for next year is a nonstarter. This even as a poll showed 62 percent of Germans support more defense spending.
Rather than forging ahead to give Germany the muscular defense Mr. Scholz outlined, Berlin is now seized by a traditional guns-and-butter debate. And there have been only halting moves to expedite the modernization of the country’s armed forces. For example, no effort is underway to scrap a law requiring approval from parliament’s budget committee for any defense expenditure exceeding $28 million — more than the price of two Leopard 2 battle tanks, depending on their specific features.
That is a recipe for inertia. Germany needs to move swiftly and boldly in the face of Russia’s neo-imperial aggression, which is unlikely to ebb whether Mr. Putin or a successor sits in the Kremlin.