The writer directs the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution
As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches on February 24, and world leaders prepare to attend a three-day security conference in Munich at the end of this week, all eyes will be on its German host, Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The Zeitenwende, or historical turning point, he announced in a landmark speech three days after the attack has entered the global vernacular, like Schadenfreude and Angst before it. But has it actually happened?
The answer is, it’s complicated. The Zeitenwende is to German security and defence what Schrödinger’s cat is to quantum mechanics: it simultaneously is and isn’t.
Scholz’s coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and liberal Free Democrats assumed power in December 2021 with a programme that promised urgently needed transformations after 16 years of hyper-incrementalism under Angela Merkel, Scholz’s Christian Democratic predecessor. But their ambitious agenda was focused on social justice and planetary survival, not geopolitics. Russia’s war on Ukraine — which Berlin immediately understood as an attack not just on one sovereign nation, but on the European order, international law and the entire basis of Germany’s security — turned that calculation on its head.
All three parties have had to jettison some of their most cherished convictions in the process. The Social Democrat Scholz deserves credit for a lasting reframing of Germany’s national conversation about strategy (with some help from Vladimir Putin). Lars Klingbeil, his party chief, has driven the SPD to acknowledge the flaws of its Russia policy in a recent policy paper. Berlin suspended the Russian gas pipeline Nordstream 2 two days before the invasion. Shortly after, it lifted a legal ban on sending weapons into war zones. Germany now is the third-largest supplier of weapons, valued at €2.3bn, to Ukraine.
Standing up to the Kremlin came more naturally to the human rights-minded Greens, headed by foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and economics minister Robert Habeck. Decoupling from Russian fossil fuel was a welcome step towards the transition to renewables — astonishingly, completed in less than a year. Yet it came at a steep price to their principles: a return, albeit temporary, to coal mining and nuclear power, and begging trips to Qatar and Saudi Arabia for liquid natural gas.
The free-market, debt-hating FDP, who secured the powerful finance ministry for Christian Lindner, their leader, found themselves signing off on immense emergency spending bills: a €100bn special investment fund for the armed forces, and a €200bn offset package for German industry and consumers to buffer the impact of the Russian energy cut-off. The dire state of Europe’s and especially Germany’s armed forces and defence industry may require even more government interventionism — or, as French president Emmanuel Macron put it, a “war economy”.
Germany houses more than 1mn Ukrainian refugees. Public opinion remains supportive of helping Ukraine, despite high gas prices and inflation. The changes, in other words, are real.
Yet Scholz’s government is far from meeting the challenges of the moment, much less preparing Germany for a future of permanent disruptions. Despite clear warnings of a renewed Russian onslaught on the battlefield, Berlin refused to give Ukraine German-made Leopard tanks until the Biden administration agreed to send some of its own M1-Abrams — a pusillanimous interpretation of Nato solidarity that did little for Scholz’s standing in Washington. Berlin’s industry subsidies and frantic LNG buying sprees drove up prices, angering allies and neighbours.
Scholz’s solemn promise that Germany would finally live up to its 2 per cent of GDP defence spending commitment to Nato remains unfulfilled. Boris Pistorius, his energetic new defence minister, has warned that his €50bn budget will need an extra €10bn per year to push it up from its current level of 1.44 per cent and to tackle desperately overdue armed forces reform. Work on Germany’s first national security strategy has ground to a halt because of turf battles between the chancellery and the foreign ministry. Cue Schadenfreude in the Kremlin — and Angst among the allies.
What, then, is needed now? A will to put all Germany’s security policies, institutions and processes on the line. A sense of urgency matching the size of the challenge. An understanding that Ukraine must win this war, that Europe’s security depends on it and that Germany is central to that purpose. That would be a real Zeitenwende.