In Foreign Policy U-turn, Germany Ups Military Spending, Arms Ukraine

BERLIN — It took an invasion of a sovereign country nearby, threats of nuclear attack, images of civilians facing off against Russian tanks and a spate of shaming from allies for Germany to shake its decades-long faith in a military-averse foreign policy that was born of the crimes of the Third Reich.

But once Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided to act, the country’s about-face was swift.

“Feb. 24, 2022, marks a historic turning point in the history of our continent,” Mr. Scholz said in an address to a special session of Parliament on Sunday, citing the date when President Vladimir V. Putin ordered Russian forces to launch an unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

He announced that Germany would increase its military spending to more than 2 percent of the country’s economic output, beginning immediately with a one-off 100 billion euros, or $113 billion, to invest in the country’s woefully underequipped armed forces. He added that Germany would speed up construction of two terminals for receiving liquefied natural gas, or LNG, part of efforts to ease the country’s reliance on Russian energy.

“At the heart of the matter is the question of whether power can break the law,” Mr. Scholz said. “Whether we allow Putin to turn back the hands of time to the days of the great powers of the 19th century. Or whether we find it within ourselves to set limits on a warmonger like Putin.”

The events of the past week have shocked countries with typically pacifist miens, as well as those more closely aligned with Russia. Both have found the invasion impossible to watch quietly. Viktor Orban, the pro-Russia, anti-immigrant prime minister of Hungary, who denounced sanctions against Russia just weeks ago, reversed his position this weekend. And Japan, which was hesitant to impose sanctions on Russia in 2014, strongly condemned last week’s invasion.

In Germany, the chancellor’s speech capped a week that saw the country abandon more than 30 years of trying to balance its Western alliances with strong economic ties to Russia. Starting with the decision on Tuesday to scrap an $11 billion natural gas pipeline, the German government’s steps since, driven by the horror of Mr. Putin’s attack on the citizens of a democratic, sovereign European country, mark a fundamental shift in not only the country’s foreign and defense policies, but its relationship with Russia.

“He just repositioned Germany strategically,” said Daniela Schwarzer, executive director for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, said about Mr. Scholz’s address.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Bundestag in Berlin on Sunday.Credit…Michele Tantussi/Reuters

Germany, and especially the center-left Social Democratic Party of Mr. Scholz, has long favored an inclusive approach toward Russia, arguing about the danger of shutting Moscow out of Europe. But the images of Ukrainians fleeing the invasion dragged up older Germans’ memories of fleeing from the advancing Red Army during World War II, and triggered outrage among a younger generation weaned on the promise of a peaceful, unified Europe.

On Sunday, several hundred thousand Germans marched through the heart of Berlin in a demonstration of support for Ukraine, waving signs that read “Stop Putin” and “No War.”

Appealing to Germans’ commitment to European unity and the deep cultural and economic ties that reach back centuries, Mr. Scholz placed the blame for Russia’s aggression squarely on Mr. Putin, not the Russian people. But he left no doubt that Germany would no longer sit back and rely on other countries to provide its natural gas, or its military security.

“The narrative that Scholz employed today is there to last,” Ms. Schwarzer said. “He spoke about responsibility to Europe, what it takes to provide for democracy, freedom and security. He left no doubt that this has to happen.”

The country’s firm repudiation of its horrific Nazi past meant that it had long adopted a foreign policy of diplomacy and deterrence. But since the Russian invasion, many of Germany’s allies have accused it of not doing enough to fortify itself and Europe.

Germany pledged in 2014 that it would increase its military spending to 2 percent of its overall economic output — the goal set for NATO member states —within a decade, but projections had shown the government was not on track to meet that target, even as that deadline approached. The topic had long been a source of conflict between Berlin and Washington, which spends more than 3 percent of its G.D.P. on defense. The debate escalated under former President Donald J. Trump, who would regularly berate the German government for failing to carry its weight in the alliance.

In his speech, Mr. Scholz proposed that the military spending be anchored into the country’s constitution. That would ensure, he said, that the country would not again find itself with a military force of soldiers equipped with rifles that misfire, planes that can’t fly and ships that can’t sail. And he made clear that the doubling down on defense was for Germany’s own good.

“We are doing this for us as well, for our own security,” he said.

German soldiers in an armored vehicle in Rukla, Lithuania, with the NATO Forward Presence Battle Group battalion earlier this month.Credit…Petras Malukas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Saturday, the German government dropped its resistance to two other measures the country’s allies in Europe and the United States were seeking: cutting off key Russian banks from the money transfer network known as SWIFT and sending weapons to Ukraine.

That came after an admonishment from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, who traveled to Berlin to personally “shake Germany’s conscience” on how to respond to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “Today there is no time for selfishness,” Mr. Morawiecki said, in announcing his visit on Twitter.

Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine

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What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.

Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.

How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.

What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.

How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”

How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.

How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.

Germany has had a policy of refusing to send weapons into conflict zones, although it has a steady business selling them to countries in the Middle East. But after the meeting with Mr. Morawiecki — who was joined by President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania — the government announced it would send 1,000 shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles to Ukraine.

It also lifted its objections to allowing German-made weapons that were held by the Dutch and Estonian governments to be sent to Ukraine, enabling transfers that it had blocked for months.

Just weeks ago, the German government was pilloried for what critics called its tepid response to Russia’s troop buildup, after it announced that it would send Ukraine 5,000 helmets and a field hospital to help the country defend itself.

“In a matter of a week, political taboos about military spending to relations with Russia have fallen to the wayside,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a trans-Atlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Germany is putting money where its mouth is to strengthen defense capabilities, and is braced to isolate Russia even at a cost to its own economy.”

German Leopard tanks during a demonstration at the army’s training grounds in Munster earlier this month.Credit…Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last week, Mr. Scholz also caved to pressure from abroad to abandon a disputed natural gas pipeline that would link Russia directly to Germany, Nord Stream 2, as his economy minister declared the country would pivot away from its dependence on Russia, which currently supplies more than half of its natural gas needs.

Going forward, Germany will ensure that there are strategic reserves of coal and natural gas, Mr. Scholz said, similar to those the country holds for oil. In the long run, Germany would like to radically transform its energy sector to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels, but the process will take time and in the short term, Germans will feel the pinch in rising prices for energy and other goods.

The Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, whose demands for German weapons for months had seemingly fallen on deaf ears, listened to Mr. Scholz’s speech on Sunday from the visitors’ balcony and was given a minute-long standing ovation by lawmakers of all parties, even the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

Its lawmakers, who regularly use their positions to grandstand and loudly oppose speeches coming from the government instead applauded some elements of Mr. Scholz’s remarks, which the largest opposition party, the Christian Democrats, agreed to support.

“The mainstream political parties in Germany realize this is a 1939 moment and seem ready to support this new government in meeting the challenge at hand,” Ms. David-Wilp said.

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

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