Delaying the Zeitenwende Is Leaving Germany Vulnerable

February 11, 2023 Topic: Germany Region: Europe Tags: GermanyRussia-Ukraine WarNATOZeitenwendeOlaf Scholz

Delaying the Zeitenwende Is Leaving Germany Vulnerable

Germany can’t afford to lose any more time making the Zeitenwende happen, or the country itself will risk the consequences of inaction.

On February 17, political leaders, journalists, academics, and defense officials from around the world will converge at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Germany for the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC). A year after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” speech, the MSC will center its program around Germany’s epochal turn toward taking its strategic reality seriously, and emergence as a reliable security actor in a world where conflict exists. Unfortunately for Germany, the United States, and their mutual security partners, Germany has not moved on from business as usual, even as war rages two borders away. This reflects the continued perception that Russia does not pose a direct military threat to Germany, based on the flawed assumption that Germany’s Eastern European neighbors and the United States would contain a Russian attack on NATO member states from physically reaching Germany itself. 

Wishful thinking such as this, in continuity with the prewar policies of previous governments, is increasingly divorced from the fact that the United States will direct fewer military resources to Europe over time as strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) places greater demands on its finite capacity. Combined with Russia’s continued commitment to what it views as a long-term military confrontation with NATO, Germany’s failure to truly embrace the Zeitenwende has major ramifications for European and German security. Both the United States and Germans who understand the challenge at hand must clearly communicate both the direct military threat Russia poses to Germany itself, and the consequences for Germany’s immediate national security if it fails to adequately resource its military.

Misread History

During the Cold War, when the Soviet military directly threatened the Bundesrepublik across the inner-German border, Germany maintained the second most powerful military in NATO, after the United States. Despite Germany’s partition, the fresh memory of World War II’s horrors, and the potential for German soldiers to once again fight Russians, who had suffered so much to defeat Nazism, West Germany mustered the resources necessary to contribute its share to NATO’s collective defense in line with its economic power and size. This made sense for West Germany itself, which recognized that a war fought deep in its territory would be devastating, and thus sought to stop the Soviets at the inner-German border. The Soviet threat’s immediacy was enough for the West German government to overcome popular apathy towards national defense and build an army capable of defending NATO’s eastern flank in partnership with its allies to the west.

With the Cold War’s end, and NATO enlargement through the 2000s, NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank now lies 1,000 km east of Berlin in the Baltic states. Germany is surrounded by friendly neighbors, with a “neglected” military that struggles to meet Germany’s existing collective defense commitments. In addition, despite near-constant warnings from its Eastern European allies, a generation of German leaders continued to deepen its economic relationship with Russia, built a dependency on Russian energy supplies, and blocked both Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO in 2008. 

Such behavior primarily reflects a combination of the false sense of security Germany’s peaceful post-Cold War neighborhood provided it, and the reality that ultimately other countries, including Ukraine, bore the risks stemming from political and economic engagement with Russia while Germany reaped the benefits. Germany consistently prioritized its own national interests, even when they conflicted with those of its European Union partners and NATO allies. For example, Germany shaped the euro in a way that supported its export-centric economy at the expense of its less-developed European partners, precipitating the eurozone crisis before imposing bruising austerity measures on the indebted countries. It also unilaterally opened its borders during the 2015 migrant crisis, encouraging further migration over the objections of other European countries and without any consensus within the European Union. When Germany saw an opportunity to advance its national interests, the country was willing to pursue them, even at the expense of its neighbors, though this is not unique behavior in the anarchic Westphalian international system.

Contemporary Struggles

Since February, however, it has been impossible to credibly argue that Russia does not pose a direct military threat to Germany, the rest of Europe, and NATO. Still, most Germans remain unconvinced. Recent polling from the Körber Foundation finds that 68 percent of Germans do not wish to see Germany play a military leadership role in Europe, and only 22 percent see Russia as a major military threat to Germany’s security. Germany is content to do just enough to barely stay in its allies’ good graces but does this out of a desire to be a good multilateral partner rather than actual concern for its national security. 

To Germany’s credit, as of late November, it is the second-largest source of military aid to Ukraine, following the United States. The problem is that the country’s allies have had to consistently cajole it along to each new step of military support, with Germany reluctantly following. In addition, Germany remains on track to miss the NATO 2 percent of GDP defense spending target through at least 2024 and has struggled to translate its €100 billion special military investment package into contracts and acquired capabilities. One can imagine what the counterfactual Western response to Russia’s invasion may have looked like in the absence of American leadership, and it likely would have resulted in Ukraine’s defeat, as MSC chairman Ambassador Christoph Heusgen recently suggested.  

However, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, 66 percent of Americans see Russia as a major military threat to the United States, demonstrating that political will and effective securitization can overcome geographical remoteness. This comes as the German government attempts to preserve a “relationship with Russia and with Putin for the future,” and limit German material support for Ukraine to avoid “breaking a special relationship,” per German parliamentarian Norbert Röttgen. Too many Germans still see the Russo-Ukrainian War as something happening “over there,” hence the prevalence of discussions centered on nuclear escalation as one of the few ways it could actually become Germany’s conflict. 

While there are prominent voices in Germany that do argue for greater military support for Ukraine and adequate resourcing of the Bundeswehr, discussion of German security policy is often quickly diluted by significant, but peripheral, issues. This distracts from the crisis of Germany’s national defense capacity while it faces a direct military threat from Russia. If the Zeitenwende is about everything, including action on climate change, a values-based foreign policy, and other factors separate from the balance of military power in eastern Europe, then the Zeitenwende quickly becomes nothing. As General Christopher Cavoli, NATO supreme allied commander Europe, recently said, “the great irreducible feature of warfare is hard power,” and “kinetic effects are what produce results on the battlefield.” Germany’s military leadership in Europe requires it to adequately resource the hard power capabilities needed from a nation with its size and economic strength. There are many pressing foreign policy issues facing the country, but fixing the weakness of European, and especially German, military capabilities relative to Russia should be the foremost priority at this critical juncture.

Deteriorating Security Environment

Though Russia failed to achieve its overall strategic goals at this point in the Russo-Ukrainian War, its performance indicates that it still poses a major threat to NATO’s most vulnerable members. Flawed assumptions about Ukrainian military resistance led Russia to attempt an invasion resembling the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, when it should have resembled the 2003 invasion of Iraq, using a military with a force structure more suited for mobilizing to liberate Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War. The likelihood of Russia making this same mistake leading up to a war with NATO is much smaller, and even with major failures, Russia still seized and controls significant portions of Ukrainian territory nearly a year after the invasion.

Exacerbating this challenge, the United States’ contribution to NATO’s conventional force presence in Europe is likely to shrink in the coming years. The Center for Strategic & International Studies’ recent wargames on a Chinese invasion of Taiwan demonstrate the significant challenge the U.S. military faces in deterring such a conflict. While the report shows that the United States, Taiwan, and Japan can repel the invasion, this effort would require the U.S. military’s near full devotion, including strategic enablers that European militaries often lack and the bulk of U.S. tactical airpower. This two-front challenge will force the United States to choose between prioritizing deterring the PRC, its self-described pacing threat, and resourcing European defense, with significant ramifications for Germany.

In light of this challenge, with a near-certain reduction of the U.S. military presence in Europe over the coming years and a Russian military that remains poised to target vulnerable NATO members such as the Baltic states, Germany faces an increasingly precarious security environment. The assumption that other allies will bear Germany’s share of the military defense burden ignores the clear trend towards a less favorable European NATO-Russia conventional force balance. Other countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, recognize that their own national security rests on deterring and, if necessary, defeating aggression at their geographically distant allies’ borders.