May 10, 2024

The Zeitenwende, Two Years On

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz held a press conference in Berlin on 16 February after signing a bilateral security agreement for ten years on behalf of Ukraine and Germany.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz held a press conference in Berlin on 16 February after signing a bilateral security agreement for ten years on behalf of Ukraine and Germany.

Two years ago, in his Zeitenwende speech, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ushered in a new era for defence policy. Has anything changed since? Yes. Has it been sufficient? No.

Scholz clearly intended his speech to have a deep impact, explaining in just 30 minutes why it was necessary to support Ukraine’s defence, why Germany needed to take on a stronger role in NATO, and why the new geopolitical situation required a Zeitenwende—literally a turning point—across all policy areas.

He raised hopes that as part of this Zeitenwende, the German military, which had been neglected for years, would recover and be able to fulfil its main task of protecting German and other NATO territory. The desperate state of the Bundeswehr had been long apparent. Ammunition stocks, for example, were sufficient for just a few days or even hours of fighting. And not only was military equipment lacking, but also everyday items for soldiers such as socks and underpants.

However, in her most recent annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr, published on 12 March 2024, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Eva Högl, affirmed that such problems persist. While Scholz’s €100 billion Sondervermögen (special fund) has delivered so much new personal equipment that there is no longer enough cupboard space in barracks, much existing military equipment is still inadequate. For example, most paratroopers use a parachute model that was designed in 1958, a situation clearly unworthy of an army that is supposed to play a leading role in Europe. Spare parts for vehicles are also in short supply—for example Marder infantry fighting vehicles deployed in Lithuania have had to be cannibalised for repairs. Overall, while the Sondervermögen has solved some problems, Högl concludes that there is still a lack of modern military equipment—and the Sondervermögen will be used up by 2027.

Meanwhile, army barracks suffer from problems such as mould in bathrooms and malfunctioning kitchens that Högl estimates will require 7 000 projects at a cost of €50 billion to rectify. And there are personnel shortages: the German army, for example, currently numbers around 181 000 against a target for 2031 of 203 000 in 2031. While investments in the well-being of soldiers should make the Bundeswehr a more attractive employer, Högl has also called for teenagers to spend a “year for our society” in social institutions including the Bundeswehr where compulsory military service ended in 2011. Defence Minister Boris Pistorius is currently considering various models of military service, including the reintroduction of conscription, for which just a simple majority of the MPs in the Bundestag would be needed.

In addition, there have been suggestions that Germany’s defence budget had been misused on low priority projects, such as the navy’s training ship, Gorch Fork, whose six-year renovation was surrounded by suspicions of corruption at the responsible shipyard and eventually cost around €135 million compared to an original budget of €10 million. Adding confusion to the mix, according to Der Spiegel, the Ministry of Defence is withholding information on where the Sondervermögen will be spent while the Ministry of Family Affairs and the Bundesrat (Germany’s upper house of parliament) are contributing millions to the 2024 defence budget despite having little or nothing to do with defence (which is an exclusive competence of the German Federation).

But the most important component of the Zeitenwende was undoubtedly the shift in Germany’s support for Ukraine. Germany’s delivery of 5 000 helmets just before the start of the full-scale invasion had been a great disappointment to its partners. The Zeitenwende speech raised high hopes for serious German assistance for Ukraine, but these were soon dashed. Scholz has been consistently hesitant regarding military assistance, apparently concerned not to provoke Russia and thus keep Germany and NATO from becoming directly involved in the war.

The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany gives the Chancellor power over foreign assistance decisions, a power that Scholz used in January 2023 to block Germany’s supply of Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv. For this, he was roundly criticised by the opposition parties, but his biggest critic was Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, Chairwoman of the Bundestag’s Defence Committee, and a member of the liberal FDP party, which is also part of Germany’s governing Ampelkoalition (traffic light coalition). A combination of domestic pressure and the Biden Administration’s agreement to supply Ukraine with US Abrams tanks eventually persuaded Scholz to back down and approve the delivery of Leopards.

By the second half of 2023, Scholz had become more decisive and begun to supply increasing levels of military assistance to Ukraine. Germany’s contribution is now second only to that of the US in the value of its military assistance to Ukraine. It supplied more than €22 billions’ worth of military, financial and humanitarian assistance (€17.7 billion in military assistance) between January 2022 and January 2024, causing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to describe Scholz as the leader of Europe.

On the other hand, as a percentage of GDP, Germany’s assistance is only in 10th place. By this measure, its 0.6% contribution falls a long way short of those of the top 3 countries: Estonia (3.55%), Denmark (2.41%), and Norway (1.72%). Furthermore, Germany’s support has again been brought into question by the debate about providing Ukraine with German-Swedish Taurus air-to-ground cruise missiles. There is a concern, shared by Scholz, that these long-range weapons could be used to attack targets on Russian territory, risking escalation.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann has been a strong advocate for the Taurus. In the Bundestag, she was one of the few members of the government parties to vote in favour of a proposal by the opposition CDU/CSU to supply these missiles. But Scholz has remained firm, stating on 5 March 2024: “If you deliver a weapon system and then don’t think about how control over the weapon system can take place and if you want to have control and that is only possible if German soldiers are involved, that is out of question for me. And I have made this statement very clear: I am the Chancellor, and therefore this applies!” Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann was stunned by Scholz’s statement and sharply contradicted his assertion that German soldiers would be needed to operate Taurus, saying that this “is simply not true.”

Two years after the Zeitenwende speech, progress has been made with Bundeswehr reform and with military assistance to Ukraine. But Scholz’s consistent hesitation has lost him a lot of trust within the German government. As Chancellor, he has the right of decision, but the tone of his rejections—regarding the delivery of Leopard tanks in 2023 and Taurus cruise missiles today—has led to major criticism. A Zeitenwende is not only the beginning of a new period, but also an opportunity to question principles and to choose to act differently. There will be more debate on assisting Ukraine and Scholz will have further chances for reconsideration. We should hope that he will do so.

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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