March 1, 2022

Bravo, Herr Bundeskanzler! Germany and the Security of the Baltic States: Postscript

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivers a speech on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine during a meeting of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, at the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, on February 27, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivers a speech on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine during a meeting of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, at the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, on February 27, 2022.

On 18 February, I posted a commentary intended to wrap up a series of ICDS briefs on various aspects of Germany’s role in the security of the Baltic region. Its title was “The Baltic States Would Wish Germany’s New Government to Step Up in Defence and Step Back from Russia”. This weekend, Chancellor Scholz has done just that.

The briefs, produced with the kind support of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, were written by Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian authors in the closing weeks of 2021 and published in January and February. One theme that runs through the series is that Germany is too weak on defence. It spends too little and struggles to meet its commitments to NATO, damaging European and Baltic security. A second is that Germany is too soft on Russia. It avoids confrontation and allows its economic entanglement with Russia to override its and Europe’s security interests. Several authors pointed to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, stubbornly pursued by Germany in the face of bitter opposition from the Baltic states and others, as symbolic of an unhealthy German-Russian relationship. Some authors hoped for a change of tone from the new government but did not expect a revolution.

As the crisis over Ukraine gathered steam, Berlin’s reaction was, indeed, hesitant. Germany refused to allow other states, including Estonia, to transfer military equipment of German origin to Ukraine, while its own offer to send just 5 000 military helmets was ridiculed. Scholz wavered over Nord Stream 2, unable to say definitively whether or not it would be stopped if Russia invaded, even as Joe Biden insisted that this would be the case. The signs were not promising and there was criticism at home and abroad.

But despite concerns that Putin would lure him into some sort of trap, Scholz stood his ground in a key meeting in Moscow on 15 February. He demanded that Russia back down, warning of dire consequences and even allowing himself a sly joke at Putin’s expense. At the same time, Germany began to reinforce its framework nation contribution to the NATO battlegroup in Lithuania with the deployment of an additional 350 personnel and approximately 100 pieces of heavy equipment.

There had, it seemed, been a change of attitude in the new government, even if some commentators were not yet convinced. The full extent of the change was not apparent until the extraordinary—and heartening—news from Berlin this weekend. Before a special session of the Bundestag, Scholz did not just set out a meaty response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but a template for a greatly enhanced German role in hard European security. Among the more immediate measures, Berlin removed its objections to the supply to Ukraine of weapons of German origin, allowing the Netherlands to ship anti-tank weapons and Estonia Howitzers. Scholz also announced, in a major foreign policy shift, that Germany too would supply Ukraine with 1 000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft missile systems.

For the longer term, the government appears ready to abandon decades of German reluctance to recognise the continuing necessity of military power in Europe. Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, who represents the traditionally pacifist Green Party and who had previously argued against sending weapons to Ukraine, spoke of a 180-degree turn in policy as Scholz announced a one-off EUR 100 billion boost for the Bundeswehr and a commitment to reach the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence. If implemented today, this would mean almost EUR 17 billion extra per year for Germany’s defence budget a sum greater than the individual annual defence expenditure of all NATO members except Canada, France, Italy, the UK and the US.

These amounts will add substantially to Europe’s defence capability and will be especially welcome in the Baltic states—of the larger Allies, Germany places most emphasis on collective defence and the bulk of the funds can be expected to be allocated for this role. There is a very real prospect that the decline of the Bundeswehr can be reversed, and that Germany can provide the modernised divisions it has previously promised for Europe’s defence but had little prospect of delivering. This capability will, however, take some years to generate and Scholz, no doubt, will have to work hard to persuade a population uncomfortable with military power and expecting a substantial—and costly—programme for climate protection and modernisation.

Despite this, the package of measures also included not very climate friendly plans to increase coal and gas reserves and to build two new LNG terminals (and perhaps also the climate friendlier life extension of Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants). Seemingly, Scholz’s government is not just focused on the longer term in defence, but also in its desire to reduce energy dependency on Russia and with it to change the character of its bilateral relationship. More immediately, Scholz has agreed to remove Russia from the SWIFT global payment system and sent Nord Stream 2 back to square one.

Vladimir Putin has miscalculated badly, not just in his assumptions about a war in Ukraine that would be quickly and easily won, but in his likely belief that he could continue to divide Europe using Germany as a weak spot. But Europe’s cohesion has been impressive and Germany, despite the reservations of its allies, has taken a huge step up in defence and a huge step back from Russia. “If our world is different, then our politics must also be different,” said Baerbock this weekend. Germany’s new different politics will be very welcome in the Baltic region.