Chancellor Olaf Scholz: “If you order leadership from me, that’s what you’ll get.”
Foto:-Bildgehege / IMAGO; Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
https://www.spiegel.de-The Russian attack on Ukraine has led Germany to reverse decades of foreign and security policy. Suddenly, Europe’s pacifist giant has been forced to adopt a more military posture. Inside the country’s epochal shift.
By Florian Gathmann, Christian Reiermann, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt, Marcel Rosenbach, Christoph Schult, Gerald Traufetter, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Valerie Höhne, Kevin Hagen, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Clara Heße, Serafin Reiber, Helge Hoffmeister, Martin Knobbe und Christian Teevs
Last Wednesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was standing on a podium in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and made a far-reaching statement. “It is our task to ensure that this war does not continue.”
He had just emerged from an hour-long meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, during which they discussed a range of issues, including Scholz’s intention to upgrade Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr. Military investments are always sensitive, Bennett said during the hotel press conference. But in this case, he said, he would welcome it if Germany became “an anchor of leadership and responsibility in Europe” just as Israel is in the Middle East. Later, voices from both sides would say that Scholz’s plan was welcomed by the Israelis and viewed as an expression of strong leadership.
What a shift. Whereas Scholz, Germany’s new chancellor from the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) had seemed rather reserved, quiet and unfocused during his initial trips abroad to Paris and Brussels, he is now traveling the world as a crisis chancellor, pursuing the lofty aim of bringing an armed conflict to an end.
War is back on the European continent, and the violence is unfolding just a two-hour flight from Berlin – with German participation in the form of weapons deliveries, sanctions and bellicose rhetoric aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin. Germany has become an actor in this conflict and must expect potential consequences – including the extremely unlikely possibility of a nuclear strike. The end of history – the peaceful victory of democracy over other systems of government – has definitively come to an end. And now, history is back, marching down its old, extremely dangerous path.
And Germany has joined in, it has accepted the challenge. That was the message of his speech before the special session of German parliament at the end of February. A special fund to boost the German military, weapons deliveries to a warzone, a more active role in the world: Such were the items on Scholz’s suddenly extremely full and revolutionary agenda. And they are enough to completely change the character of an entire country. A rather pacifist country is acquiring military muscle and the ability to actively defend democracy. A country that the world had for decades seen as a languorous economic powerhouse is now to exert a far greater influence on global politics.
A word that had seemed to fade from use has also experienced a renaissance: the enemy. For a significant share of the German population, that word applied to the Soviet Union until 1989. After that, Germany suddenly found itself “encircled by friends,” as then Defense Minister Volker Rühe, of the center-right Christian Democrats, put it. In 1992, the late sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote an essay on the subject called “The State with No Enemies.”
In the essay, he wrote: “There have always been two types of authority in all democracies thus far: The one comes from the people, and the other is derived from the enemy.” The threat represented by the enemy, he wrote, promoted integration and helped “to cover up all other societal discrepancies.” Beck thought about what a Germany might look like without any enemies and predicted “deep uncertainty.”
“We Again Have an Enemy”
Now, though, one must consider what it means for Germany now that it once again has an enemy on the continent, one which disregards and attacks all that is important to the West: democracy, freedom, human rights and the rejection of wars of aggression. Sociologist Armin Nassehi recently took a closer look at Beck’s ideas in an essay for the German news website Zeit Online and wrote: “We again have an enemy that has returned scrutiny to us.” Who are we? Who do we want to be given the existence of someone like Putin?
The answer isn’t exactly free of controversy, as became clear shortly after Scholz’s speech. Among parliamentarians belonging to the governing coalition with the SPD and Green parties, Scholz’s speech triggered both astonishment and, in some cases, outrage. Scholz took pretty much everybody off guard. The decision to create the 100-billion-euro special fund for the military and the massive increase to the defense budget was made in consultation with just a handful of close advisers, with even Robert Habeck, the economy minister and vice chancellor from the Green Party, emphasizing that he hadn’t been aware of the colossal size of the fund.
Others felt there was a lack of a conceptual superstructure necessary to explain the move to the population and prepare them for this dangerous new world.
As surprising as the decision was, the method in which it was made and announced is in many ways a typical Scholz move. He is known for remaining in the background and saying little before then making a huge splash. It is a method that leaves opponents guessing; it prevents competitors from stealing one’s ideas and skeptics from ripping them to shreds. Had Scholz put his idea up for discussion, it is almost a certainty that it would have immediately generated calls for another 50 billion euros for the environment or for development aid.
The clandestine method also serves to protect political allies. Had Scholz brought Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, also of the Green Party, into the process early on, they would have had to inform their party leaders. And had they raised the alarm or expressed concerns, an uprising from below would have almost certainly followed. Instead, though, they were all able to simply shrug their shoulders: We didn’t know about it ourselves! Scholz is well aware that unawareness in such situations can act as a kind of life insurance.
The decision to fund Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, marked the chancellor’s emergence onto the world stage, a move that served to quiet all those who doubted his leadership abilities. It was a confirmation of his pledge made back when he was mayor of Hamburg: “If you order leadership from me, that’s what you’ll get.”
Scholz long remained silent as Foreign Minister Baerbock traveled the world and to the front lines of the conflict. He seemed unsure what to do, even as Ukraine had begun its fight for survival and others had begun delivering weapons to the country. It even looked for a time as though he would stand in the way of imposing the most painful of sanctions against Russia because doing so would harm the German economy and hurt German gas customers. It looked as though he was following the old German foreign policy play book: When the situation gets dicey, keep your head down.
“If our world is now a different place, then our policies must also be different.”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock
But then came the reversal, sudden and powerful. Timothy Garton Ash, the British historian and book author, said that Scholz’s speech had come as a surprise to him. Garton Ash knows Germany extremely well and has long been a strong intellectual voice in favor of Berlin seizing a leadership role in Europe and, through Europe, in the world. In recent comments to DER SPIEGEL, he criticized that German foreign and security policy was lacking “a significant impulse.” Without one, he said, Europe will be “eaten up by Russia, China and other powers.”
A New Order for Europe
“It was a strong, clear speech,” says Garton Ash, “a watershed, as Scholz justifiably said.” For Germany, he says, it also marked the end of an illusion – namely the focus on achieving change through economic trade, so-called “Wandel durch Handel,” and the possibility of establishing a modernization partnership with Russia. “If we’re honest, though, these approaches should have been discarded back in 2014 with the annexation of the Crimea.”
Now, though, the old European order is making way for the new. Garton Ash, though, believes that the focus of this new order shouldn’t just be on the EU and Russia, but also on the countries in between: Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. Scholz said little about them in his speech. “Yet the future of these countries, perhaps within the EU in the long term, is the key question facing Olaf Scholz’s new policy for Eastern Europe.” It is a question, says Garton Ash, to which the chancellor will have to find an answer if he is to go down in history as the architect of a new order. It is a tall task, and not just for Scholz.
It hasn’t even been 100 days since Annalena Baerbock appeared before the press at the Foreign Ministry to outline the priorities for her tenure in office. “The decisive questions” as to how Europe can achieve strategic sovereignty “is not primarily a military one,” said the freshly sworn-in foreign minister. That was back in December, but even then, it was a rather frivolous statement given the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border. In light of events since then, it now looks even worse.
With the recent steps taken by Scholz, German foreign and security policy have experienced the greatest boost in militarization since the end of the Cold War. In comments to parliament during the special session on Feb. 27, Baerbock said: “Perhaps Germany on this day is leaving behind a unique and singular form of reticence in foreign and security policy.” She continued: “If our world is now a different place, then our policies must also be different.”
This special form of reticence had long looked as follows: After World War II and the Holocaust, (West) Germany essentially became a pacifist country. It built up an army, to be sure, with the permission of its Western allies, but it demilitarized its society, both conceptually and politically. And within the protection of the American nuclear umbrella, doing so was relatively simple. Germany didn’t have to fight in the Cold War.
The romantic hero of this post-hero age was Willy Brandt, the SPD chancellor who launched “Ostpolitik,” as West Germany’s détente with the Soviet Union was called, and befriended Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, even though he was a brutal, authoritarian ruler. The SPD has adored Brandt for doing so ever since.
It also became the guiding light of the peace movement in the country, which rose up in protest against the rearmament policies of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, also a member of the SPD. Indeed, Schmidt ultimately proved unable to overcome the headwinds from his own party. He wasn’t a romantic, he was a realist – which didn’t endear him to the party.
After the end of the Cold War in 1990, reunited Germany was no longer able to completely stand on the sidelines, but continued to be relatively reserved when it came to military operations. Germans did have to fight here and there, and German soldiers lost their lives on the battlefield, but pacifism continued to be the primary tenor in the country.
Questions from Around the World
The watershed that Scholz spoke of, though, has now flipped the script. The Green Party concept of a values-driven foreign policy, for example. It was only recently that Baerbock underscored her rejection of weapons deliveries to conflict areas, but now she has thrown herself behind the opposite approach on Ukraine. But what does that mean for similar conflicts in the future? Will Germany rush to the aid of other former Soviet republics like Moldova and Georgia if Putin’s tanks roll across the border? Will Berlin also deliver weapons to the internationally recognized government in Libya, if it comes under attack?
The new German government is being bombarded with questions from around the world. In her speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week, Baerbock said that some of her colleagues have told her: “You are calling on us to show solidarity for Europe. But where have you been for us in the past?” She then went on to say that “we should always be willing to question … our past engagements in the world. I am willing to do so.” In other words, Baerbock’s own thinking has also experienced a watershed.
First and foremost, though, say coalition politicians, the focus must be defending Germany’s security and that of NATO. But that raises even more questions. In the negotiations that led to Scholz’s current governing coalition – made up of his SPD, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) – one sticking point was accepting the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. The Greens and elements of the SPD were able overcome FDP opposition and included a passage in the coalition agreement according to which Germany would seek observer status in the conference of states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
It wasn’t long after the conclusion of the coalition talks that Germany’s NATO allies began to question the passage. And now that the Russian president has put his own nuclear weapons on high alert, Berlin’s support for a nuclear-free world seems almost simple-minded. The FDP is almost certainly to bring up the issue again.
The question as to how many soldiers the German military sends to Eastern European NATO member states must also be reopened. The NATO-Russia “Founding Act” provides a fair degree of flexibility on the issue. And it is vital that the Baltic states or the Poles are absolutely certain that the Germans will react militarily if Putin attacks those countries. As terrible as it sounds, Germany must be willing to sacrifice the lives of its soldiers for the defense of Riga and Tallinn.
Scholz’s government pledged to come up with a new national security strategy for Germany. They intended to adopt a broad definition of security, with climate policy playing a central role. Now, though, the question as to how Europe should defend itself from the Russian threat will take up far more room than originally planned. The security strategy is to be completed by the end of the year.
Europe will also now have to come to terms with the fact that it must also become a security union, and that it must move forward here far more quickly than in other areas. It has been the focus of plenty of talk in recent years, but little has been done. And it must be done in a manner that doesn’t depend too greatly on the Americans. Putin, to be sure, has dramatically strengthened the trans-Atlantic alliance, but that could change radically if Donald Trump were to win the next presidential election.
A Plea to Relocate
And it’s not just about Russia. Germany has also become deeply economically dependent on authoritarian China, as well, which could also present dangers should Beijing opt to attack Taiwan or aggressively seek global dominance. Europe would have to exhibit significant strength were such an eventuality to come about – ideally alongside the Americans, but not dependent on them.
In 2002, the American thinker Robert Kagan wrote in an essay: “On major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” The red planet, named after the god of war, and Venus, the planet of love, where German foreign policy preferred to reside. Scholz’s speech was essentially a plea to relocate.
Doing so faces Berlin with a number of organizational problems. And the FDP was quick to raise the question as to whether the Russia crisis could provide an opportunity for institutional reform. Ulrich Lechte, the FDP’s foreign policy spokesman in parliament, proposed the creation of a national security council to further integrate diplomacy, development policy, defense and intelligence.
Still, such a radical shift won’t be easy. Last Tuesday afternoon, SPD lawmakers gathered for a virtual meeting, and floor leader Rolf Mützenich was the first to speak. It was a difficult moment for him. For the SPD, throwing 100 billion euros at the military is a major cultural shift, and for Mützenich, agonizing personally. He has been fighting for peace and disarmament for almost his entire political life. Now, though, he demonstrated loyalty to Scholz: Such decisions, meeting participants quoted him as saying, “aren’t just the chancellor’s right, but also his duty.”
In his Ph.D. thesis, Mützenich wrote about “nuclear weapons-free zones,” a favorite project of the peace movement in the 1980s. Now, though, the SPD was handing out money for warplanes, rockets and even armed drones, a taboo for many in the party.
And suddenly, a zombie raised its head in the discussion: military conscription. The draft was eliminated in Germany by Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011, but some have openly discussed its possible reintroduction in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mützenich, though, rejected the idea. “Discussing that issue is uncalled for at the moment. In such unsettling times, we shouldn’t be bringing up new issues by the hour, but concentrating on that which is feasible.”
Those close to Mützenich say it is clear just how stressful he finds the current situation. Scholz didn’t just force him and his party into a complete about-face. He essentially ambushed his own party.
Mützenich apparently only learned of the planned military fund just 30 minutes ahead of Scholz’s speech. And almost all other parliamentarians learned of it from the speech itself. Immediately, SPD lawmakers began exchanging incredulous text messages. It was a shock for the party. Can it bounce back?
The mood was explosive on Monday following the speech. Left-wing SPD lawmakers, the most powerful segment of the parliamentary group, gathered for a meeting, and reports indicate that many of them used the opportunity to voice their frustrations.
But things started looking markedly different the very next day. Party leftists spoke with Chancellery Chief of Staff Wolfgang Schmidt to discuss technical issues relating to the budget and new debt – and the tone remained calm and businesslike. Nor were voices raised later when the entire parliamentary group met, a meeting that included Chancellor Scholz. After Mützenich shared his thoughts, it was Scholz’s turn, and he provide a powerful depiction of the threat. Meeting participants say he was unusually emotional.
Scholz and Mützenich sought to assuage some of the concerns of the gathered lawmakers. They pointed out that German parliament still has the last word on specific military projects, and there was apparently a surprising lack of criticism. SPD co-chair Lars Klingbeil also sought to soothe the SPD soul: Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Social Democrat and of having promoted the cause of peace, he said according to participants.
Still, not everyone within the party is willing to leave Venus behind. The day after the SPD parliamentary group meeting, the left-wing SPD group known as Forum Demokratische Linke 21 released a joint statement with other groups. The special Bundeswehr fund and the increase to Germany’s defense budget, they wrote, is “an unparalleled paradigm shift and one which we vehemently oppose.”
Might Scholz’s move come back to haunt the SPD? Floor leader Mützenich prefers to look ahead. “Humanitarian aid for the people of Ukraine has priority for me, along with attempts to put an end to the slaughter and barbarism,” he says. “That should be the baseline for further agreements and assistance.”
But the SPD wasn’t the only party taken aback by Scholz’s speech at the special session of parliament. The Greens, too, were shocked, with cameras capturing numerous expressions of disbelief, with co-floor leader Katharina Dröge even turning around in her seat several times, apparently in an attempt to see how other Green lawmakers were reacting.
The erstwhile party of peace had already experienced a paradigm shift on the previous day, with the decision to deliver weapons to Ukraine. On that Saturday, Jürgen Trittin, a weighty voice on the party’s left wing, was still expressing his disagreement with the plan, and Baerbock had also been a vocal supporter of maintaining the status quo.
And now this. A completely new security posture for the country. That morning, Habeck and Baerbock informed party leaders of the planned special military fund, DER SPIEGEL has learned. But they did not discuss how large it would be.
On the Monday following Scholz’s speech, Green Party lawmakers gathered in a hastily called video meeting. Did Vice Chancellor Habeck and Foreign Minister Baerbock know of the 100 million euros. “I was surprised by the number,” insists Green Party co-floor leader Britta Hasselmann. Sources close to the government, though, say that Habeck of course knew of the size of the fund.
Habeck, for his part, felt validated, uttering the following noteworthy sentence in an interview with German public radio: “The weapons deliveries, that have now been approved, would have perhaps been a way to prevent war in the first place.” Habeck, after all, had urged way back in spring 2021 that defensive weapons be provided to Ukraine. His comments at the time earned him a number of stiff rebukes, including from Baerbock, who was the Green Party chancellor candidate at the time. Now, he used his radio interview to set the record straight on who had proposed the better strategy, though he did admit that such deliveries likely wouldn’t have been enough to stop Putin.
The Greens Again Facing War
The Green Party was born out of Germany’s peace and environmental movement. And they have always been at the forefront of the fight against nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Still, its first stint as part of a governing coalition, when it was paired with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s SPD from 1998 to 2005, produced a number of pragmatists when the party made the painful decision to join the military mission in Kosovo.
And here we are again, with images from the fighting pouring on the pressure. Many Greens find themselves reconsidering their former positions on foreign policy. Indeed, elements of the party continued to view NATO with a certain degree of mistrust until a few weeks ago, whereas now it suddenly looks like a necessary protective shield. Early last week, initial signals began to emerge that the party would support a constitutional change to enable the special military fund.
Some have insisted they intend to demand something in return for that support – more money for the climate or social welfare, for example, or a reform of Germany’s “debt-brake” balanced budget law. But it remains unclear if they’ll get what they’re asking for. Indeed, many have long been concerned that Green Party cabinet members would have a hard time pushing through the party’s interests against Scholz and Finance Minister Christian Lindner, who is head of the FDP. “If we are now going to talk about the special military budget and greater investments in security,” says Hasselmann, “then we also have to be talking about energy security, humanitarian aid, civilian crisis diplomacy and civilian protections. Security has to be approached across a broad front.”
But what else can they do? War has broken out and the power of the images coming out of Ukraine is immense, as is the pressure to act, even if there has been some resistance. Left-wing Green parliamentarian Andreas Audretsch was among the first to criticize Scholz’s military plans. But many in the party’s base are also dissatisfied. “We feel betrayed,” says Gazi Freitag, a Green member from Kiel. “Putin would have attacked even if we had delivered weapons earlier.” Marcus Neumann, a Green member from Erfurt, says it is “unacceptable” that Scholz didn’t include the Greens in his decision to present the military fund “even though the vice chancellor is from our party.” Dozens of party members have signed a letter demanding that the government halt all weapons deliveries to Ukraine. But party functionaries have remained largely quiet.
On the other side of the aisle, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian partners with the Christian Social Union (CSU) have the luxury of watching the government’s reversal with a fair degree of equanimity. In his reaction to Scholz’s speech, CDU chair and conservative floor leader Friedrich Merz offered the chancellor his “comprehensive assistance and support” in upgrading the Bundeswehr. “We will support it and won’t stand in the way.”
And yet? “We’re not going to simply hand the government a blank check,” says Thorsten Frei, a senior conservative parliamentarian, adding that the CDU and the CSU would like to be part of the planning. Some conservatives have also voiced skepticism of the need for a constitutional amendment to make way for the military fund, as both Scholz and Lindner are seeking. Others have expressed doubt as to whether the entirety of the 100-billion-euro fund must be financed with new debt.
Either way, the conservatives want to have a say. Some of them have even been joking that the war has essentially made them part of the governing coalition.
Meanwhile, the 180-degree shift in German security policy has the deepest implications for the Bundeswehr, which is perhaps not completely unprepared for the wave of new funding – nor, though, is it well prepared. The Russian annexation of the Crimea led to the crushing of many a pacifist dream in Germany and the defense budget has ticked upwards since then, from 32 billion euros a year to around 50 billion euros.
Until that point, the German military participated in foreign military operations at most with small and lightly armed units. Now, though, the troops are to once again be prepared to defend the homeland and for a conflict against worthy opponents. Militaries, though, aren’t always the most responsive of organizations.
The first steps, to be sure, have been taken, but until now, the Bundeswehr had always lacked the funding to undertake a comprehensive modernization. There are hardly any units in the German military that have the training and equipment necessary to be quickly shifted to NATO’s eastern flank. Furthermore, German troops are out of practice when it comes to brigade- or division-sized operations of the kind that would be necessary to defend German or NATO territory.
The Need for Better Cyberdefense
Furthermore, after years of being underfunded, there are significant doubts about the Bundeswehr’s ability to sensibly invest the sudden injection of 100 billion euros.
Germany must also boost its ability to deal with cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. In 2015, Putin’s hackers stole data from the German parliament. More recently, attackers apparently from the Russian secret service agency GRU sought to force their way into the email accounts of German lawmakers, likely to launch a smear campaign.
Shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Federal Office for Information Security proclaimed the second-highest warning level of orange. And Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, warned of “an increased risk of cyberattacks against German targets” in response to the sanctions against Russian and weapons deliveries to Ukraine. Russian secret services, an internal paper notes, possess the ability to “substantially and sustainably sabotage” both critical infrastructure and military facilities. Serious cyberattacks could even be sufficient to trigger NATO’s Article 5, according to which an attack on a single member is an attack on the entire alliance.
Experts have their doubts as to whether Germany is prepared to offer much resistance on today’s new digital battlefields. There are numerous agencies in the country that are active on the issue, but it isn’t always clear who is responsible for what. “We finally need to establish a national cybersecurity council worthy of the name and which is equipped with a clear mission and new capabilities,” says Sven Herpig from the Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV).
“We have to toughen up all of our systems.”
Stephan Thomae, domestic policy expert with the FDP
The last government set out to establish a new approach to cyberdefense, but became bogged down on the question as to whether German agencies would be allowed to penetrate foreign servers to fend off an attack. Chancellor Scholz’s current government ruled out such an approach, called a “hackback,” in its coalition agreement. But in light of the invasion of Ukraine, the question as to how robust cyberdefense should be must now be revisited. “We have to think more directly about countermeasures in the case of cyberattacks,” says German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD). The focus, she says, must be on “targeted measures to identify perpetrators and their structures abroad, uncover their masking mechanisms and prevent the execution of attacks.”
Politicians are also boosting their defenses. Last week, leading parliamentarians from the coalition parties met with the deputy head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency and received tips for how to prevent cyberattacks on their computers. “We have to toughen up all of our systems,” says Stephan Thomae, an FDP lawmaker who focuses on domestic affairs. “Including in the Bundestag.”
A Budget Under Strain
When it comes to the massive amount of money that is now to be made available to the Bundeswehr, Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the FDP is perhaps best prepared. He was heavily involved in the establishment of the fund, and it allows him to mobilize 100 billion euros for the military while still adhering to the rules pertaining to Germany’s debt-brake law. That law allows the federal government only a small amount of new borrowing, though it has already been suspended for the year due to the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead of the planned 99.7 billion euros in new debt for the year, Lindner will be borrowing twice that amount. The new fund for the military will exist for at least the next five years, and could last until the end of the decade, Lindner indicated, depending on how quickly it is used up. The government is also currently hoping to establish a repayment schedule for the special military fund. Such a schedule would require future finance ministers to continue making annual payments over a predetermined period of time, though the timeframe has not yet been finalized.
Because the fund is to be anchored in the German constitution, it will be impossible to use the money for other purposes. And it also gives Lindner a bit of breathing room in the regular budget, since the rise in defense spending that had been agreed to prior to the Russian invasion can now be used for other purposes. Government experts estimate that Lindner will have an extra 3 billion euros available this year and up to 10 billion euros by the end of the financial planning period in 2026.
The watershed moment that Germany is currently experiencing, however, goes beyond just defense spending, of course. The country must also reduce or eliminate its dependency on imports of Russian natural gas. That dependency has growing over the decades, which was a “fatal mistake,” as Economy Minister Habeck has said.
His challenge is now that of engineering a sharp change of course that is just as radical as Germany’s foreign policy reorientation. They are, Habeck says, “two sides of the same coin.” With the suspension of the approval process for the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, the symbol of German addiction to Russian gas, Habeck already started the process before the invasion, and he insists he would have taken the step even absent the Russian attack.
The first priority is that of filling Germany’s natural gas storage facilities by next winter, a process that must be largely completed by the end of September. Indeed, Habeck is now establishing a legal minimum that storage facility operators must achieve. In the future, much of the gas will arrive in a liquified state from source countries like Qatar.
But Russia also dominates German imports of coal and crude oil, which is why Habeck’s officials are now searching for sites that could be used as coal depots and for companies willing to take on the task. He still intends to stick to the coal phase-out plan outlined in the government coalition, which calls for the elimination of coal from the German energy mix by 2030. But even in the coming decade, Germany will still have to maintain some coal-fired power plants as a backup. When it comes to petroleum, he and other countries are trying to slow the rise in prices by selling some of the country’s oil reserves.
Germany’s shift to renewable energies, which has always been seen as a step necessary to protect the climate, has now been elevated by Habeck to a question of national security. “Under tragic circumstances,” Habeck says, the expansion of renewables will now be accelerated.
Is Germany Ready?
The steps Habeck is taking are extremely pragmatic, and he could ultimately come under pressure from elements within his own party as a result. But on at least one point, he is remaining loyal to Green Party doctrine: nuclear energy. He has, to be sure, commissioned a study to determine the degree to which Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants could continue operations beyond the end of this year. An initial study, though, he says, determined that nuclear power wouldn’t help in the coming winter of 2022-2023. Furthermore, he says, preparations for shutting down the reactors have proceeded so far that their continued operations would raise “significant safety concerns.”
He will, no doubt, be the focus of strong criticism on that point from the FDP and the conservatives, but Habeck can be comfortable in knowing that he will likely win the debate in the end. The companies operating the nuclear plants, he says, have already said they are opposed to extending their lifespans.
One of the biggest questions remaining, though, is whether Germans themselves are prepared for the significant changes now facing the country. For the moment, surveys reflect significant public backing for Germany’s new foreign policy direction. That, though, is a function of fear, says Christian Mölling, head of research for the German Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). “A war in Europe is no longer abstract, the population is seeing it live on their TVs.” But that, he says, is just a momentary impression. To ensure long term support, the government will have to take the population’s concerns seriously, Mölling says, and provide a clear rationale for the steps it takes. On a day-to-day level, Germans will primarily take note of the war in terms of the number of refugees that are arriving in the country. “Solidarity can be measured in how the refugees are being treated,” says Mölling.
Gustav Gressel, an expert on Eastern Europe with the ECFR in Berlin, believes that Germans and Europeans will ultimately be confronted with other changes. “Personal stockpiling, evacuation plans, all of that will again become part of our daily lives,” he says. It could be, he says, that even things like the ceiling strength of subterranean parking garages must be planned such that they can be used as shelters.
Whatever the future holds, Scholz’s response to the war has thus far been a bit of a diversionary tactic, offering the illusion of a solution to an insoluble predicament. It is, after all, extremely likely that the current war in Ukraine will be over by the time the new military fund produces initial results and German foreign policy has begun to feel adapt to its new role. In the best case, Putin will no longer be in the Kremlin by then. But because it is impossible to predict such a future, Germany will have to get used to the fact that Russia will remain an enemy of the West for years to come.