Geopolitics

What happened to the historic turning point Germany announced back in February?

The Signal

What happened to the historic turning point Germany announced back in February? Liana Fix on how a major transformation with global implications got sidetracked.
Vitaly Rubtsov
(Originally published 2022 | 11.11)

Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine,
 German Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed the moment a Zeitenwende, or historic turning point, for his country and the world. Germany, he said on Feb. 27, would abandon decades of pacifism and close relations with Russia. Berlin would send weapons to Ukraine, create a special €100-billion defense fund, and wean itself from Russian energy imports. But Scholz has largely failed to live up to those promises. By July, Germany had only sent a few pieces of heavy artillery. Berlin told NATO countries in Eastern Europe that it would resupply them with modern weapons systems if they sent their Soviet-era equipment to Ukraine, but Scholz has since reneged on these pledges. Meanwhile, as energy prices were rising dramatically across Europe, his cabinet approved €200 billion in subsidies to lower utility costs for German consumers, without consulting its partners in the European Union. Berlin’s disagreements with France on Ukraine, arms deals, and energy are so extensive that the two countries postponed a major bilateral conference planned for October until January. In Berlin, in mid-October, Latvia’s defense minister asked, “Can we trust Germany?” Where’s the promise of the Zeitenwende?

Liana Fix is a fellow for Europe at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Germany’s Role in European Russia Policy. As Fix sees it, Scholz didn’t follow through on the big promises of the Zeitenwende largely because he’s afraid that the war might expand beyond Ukraine, and he doesn’t want Germany to contribute to escalating the conflict. This reluctance has damaged Berlin’s credibility among fellow EU members to the east and west. But, Fix says, the meaning of Zeitenwende has also changed since February. Scholz originally announced a transformation of German foreign policy, yet many inside and outside Germany now understand Zeitenwende as the goal of transforming Germany from an economic power into a global political leader. And whether Scholz will be able to achieve this transformation remains highly uncertain.

Michael Bluhm: Other countries have complained that Germany wasn’t sending weapons quickly enough and that they weren’t sending their best weapons, particularly the Marder tank. But Scholz says that Germany is providing more support than anyone except the U.K. and U.S., which isn’t sending its most sophisticated tanks or weaponry, either. What’s going on here?

Liana Fix: There are two perspectives on Germany’s performance in Ukraine. The first sees how far Germany has come since before the war, when it wasn’t at all considering sending weapons to Ukraine. Germany said then that it didn’t export weapons to war zones. Now, the first German air-defense system has arrived in Ukraine, and so far, it’s been very successful in helping Ukrainians protect their cities and infrastructure.

From that perspective, Germany is being helpful: It’s trying to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, as NATO is demanding of its member states. It’s changing its policies on energy security, after going in the wrong direction for many years.

But from the second perspective, Germany is only doing what was overdue. For years, allies had criticized its energy dependence on Russia and its refusal to support Ukraine militarily. Germany has delivered weapons only under massive internal and external pressure. That created a sense of frustration and lacking leadership: A leader should be sending weapons first, not after everyone else has.

The crucial question is, what should Germany’s role be? Is it just to be part of an alliance and a reliable follower of U.S. leadership in this war? Or should Germany take a leadership role itself?

If the goal is to take a leadership role itself, then just doing your homework isn’t enough. For example, Germany could be putting together European initiatives on battle-tank deliveries for Ukraine. Germany could be leading together with the United States, to regain the trust that it’s lost among its Central and Eastern European neighbors.

From the first perspective, Germany started from a low level and is doing a good job as one member of an alliance. From the second, this is a historic opportunity, and Germany needs to step up and assume a military leadership role—and it’s not doing enough.

Bluhm: You mention the defense budget. The government has released annual budget projections through 2026, and none of them allocates 2 percent to defense. Why isn’t Scholz following through on his pledge?

Advertisement
Fix: When it comes to Germany’s defense budget, the question is, do they increase the defense budget by cutting the budget elsewhere? They avoided that question with the special fund of €100 billion, which can be spent over the next few years. But where do you cut the budget, if you need to increase your defense budget permanently?

Meanwhile, there’s the challenge that 2 percent was nice before the war, but now other countries are heading toward 3 percent. So where would that come from?

Bluhm: You make it clear that, while Germany has made major changes since the invasion, Scholz isn’t acting as though he wants Germany to take a leadership role. Why not?

Fix: The main motive to slow-walk assistance, and not to assume the leadership role we’re talking about, is a fear of escalation—which we’ve seen since the beginning of the war. This fear that the war might escalate into a NATO-Russia confrontation was prominent in Scholz’s speeches, and the fear has never disappeared. Which also explains why Germany is hesitant to send its battle tanks to Ukraine.

Olaf Scholz has argued that he is very close with the U.S. president in thinking about what to do, what not to do, and escalation. That is not entirely true, because the assistance that the U.S. provides to Ukraine is on a completely different dimension than what EU member states such as Germany provide.

Even with its smaller capabilities, Germany is definitely not assuming the same leadership role as the U.S. And by slow-walking everything, German policy has become a disappointment for its European neighbors. It’s less of a disappointment to the United States, where there’s still a very positive attitude toward Germany and its contributions. But Germany’s neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe expected more. So they’ve lost some trust in Germany—trust that Germany would be there for them if the war broadens.

Jan-Niclas Aberle
More from Liana Fix at The Signal:

Scholz would not say that Ukraine should win this war. He always said that Russia should not win, and Ukraine should not lose, but he never explicitly said that Ukraine should win. He was not too far from France’s position, but there was concern that Germany would accept an agreement that gave Russia the territories in Ukraine that it had occupied before the war—and perhaps more. These concerns are gone. Both Scholz and French President Emanuel Macron have been very explicit in saying that Russia must withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s territory and that a just peace can be achieved only by restoring Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. This phrase “a just peace” is important because it hints that the German leadership would not be satisfied with peace at any cost, but that it needs to be a peace where Russia withdraws, and Ukraine can uphold as much as possible of its territorial integrity. The reason is Russia’s escalation in the past month, which has shown everyone who argued for a quick diplomatic solution that Russia seems unwilling to go down this path.”

The debate about the Zeitenwende has changed. The original discussion was about Germany increasing its defense spending and sending military aid to Ukraine. But for Germany’s EU neighbors, Zeitenwende has become about a broader geopolitical transformation of Germany into an actor that assumes a leadership role and isn’t naive about Russia anymore. Germany’s policy toward China, for example, is part of that. Scholz recently went to Beijing, and he took a large business delegation. That fueled skepticism among Germany’s European neighbors as to whether Zeitenwende is the geopolitical awakening of a sleeping giant or just some policy changes. On China, the government still struggled to convey a sense of urgency about its transformation. It struggled to apply the lessons from its Russia policy. It struggled to convince Europeans that they can trust Germany and follow Germany’s leadership. That’s a big question.”

At the beginning of the war, the Zeitenwende was more of an emergency brake, because Germany was heading in the wrong direction on Russia policy, defense policy, and energy policy. Those policies had to be changed—with a U-turn. Three days after the war broke out, when Scholz spoke, there was a concern that Russia might occupy all of Ukraine and threaten NATO member states. But now it has a much larger meaning. It raises questions about German leadership—and German military leadership—in Europe.”

Continue reading …

Categories: Geopolitics

Leave a Reply