Putin Accidentally Started a Revolution in Germany

The invasion of Ukraine is triggering a dramatic reversal of Berlin’s grand strategy.

By , the president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivers a speech on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine during a meeting of the German federal parliament, the Bundestag, at the Reichstag building on February 27, 2022 in Berlin.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivers a speech on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine during a meeting of the German federal parliament, the Bundestag, at the Reichstag building on February 27, 2022 in Berlin.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivers a speech on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine during a meeting of the German federal parliament, the Bundestag, at the Reichstag building on February 27, 2022 in Berlin. Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images

German politics is normally characterized by a cautious continuity, finely balanced and slow to adapt to changing circumstances. But it remains able to surprise. In the past week, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his government have carried out a revolution in Germany’s foreign policy, discarding in a matter of days the outmoded assumptions of Berlin’s post-Cold War dreams and setting a course for confrontation with Russia that will bring dramatically increased resources and modernize the country’s armed forces.

Each day has brought new breaks with German tradition. On Feb. 27, in an extraordinary session of the German parliament (the first-ever Sunday meeting), Scholz described the Russian attack on Ukraine as a “turning point” that required a German national effort to preserve the political and security order in Europe. Scholz announced the creation of a one-time 100 billion euro ($113 billion) fund for the German military this year and committed Germany to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense henceforth. He highlighted Germany’s contributions to NATO and expanded commitments, including its deterrent presence in Lithuania and making German air defense systems available to Eastern European member states. He underscored Germany’s nuclear role in NATO and indicated that the government would likely acquire F-35 aircraft instead of the previously planned F/A-18 Super Hornet purchase. The chancellor emphasized Berlin’s responsibilities within NATO but in a departure from the style of German defense policy also defined these measures as ensuring Germany’s national security. Decades of German taboos and sensitivities dissolved amid applause from the mainstream parties and the pro-Ukrainian chants of upwards of half a million demonstrators throughout central Berlin.

And that was just Sunday. The day before, the government dropped its position as one of the last trans-Atlantic holdouts against excluding Russian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system, and the Defense Ministry announced that it would provide 1,000 anti-tank systems and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine, reversing the Germany’s long-standing policy against providing arms to crisis zones. (Berlin also lifted key holds on third countries providing German-origin equipment to Ukraine.) Those historic moves came on top of the tough economic sanctions imposed by the European Union on Moscow within 24 hours of the start of the Russian invasion—measures that will hit Germany, too, since Russia is one of its top five export and import partners outside the EU. It was only five days ago, on Feb. 22, that Scholz decided to halt the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

German politics is normally characterized by a cautious continuity, finely balanced and slow to adapt to changing circumstances. But it remains able to surprise. In the past week, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his government have carried out a revolution in Germany’s foreign policy, discarding in a matter of days the outmoded assumptions of Berlin’s post-Cold War dreams and setting a course for confrontation with Russia that will bring dramatically increased resources and modernize the country’s armed forces.

Each day has brought new breaks with German tradition. On Feb. 27, in an extraordinary session of the German parliament (the first-ever Sunday meeting), Scholz described the Russian attack on Ukraine as a “turning point” that required a German national effort to preserve the political and security order in Europe. Scholz announced the creation of a one-time 100 billion euro ($113 billion) fund for the German military this year and committed Germany to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense henceforth. He highlighted Germany’s contributions to NATO and expanded commitments, including its deterrent presence in Lithuania and making German air defense systems available to Eastern European member states. He underscored Germany’s nuclear role in NATO and indicated that the government would likely acquire F-35 aircraft instead of the previously planned F/A-18 Super Hornet purchase. The chancellor emphasized Berlin’s responsibilities within NATO but in a departure from the style of German defense policy also defined these measures as ensuring Germany’s national security. Decades of German taboos and sensitivities dissolved amid applause from the mainstream parties and the pro-Ukrainian chants of upwards of half a million demonstrators throughout central Berlin.

And that was just Sunday. The day before, the government dropped its position as one of the last trans-Atlantic holdouts against excluding Russian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system, and the Defense Ministry announced that it would provide 1,000 anti-tank systems and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine, reversing the Germany’s long-standing policy against providing arms to crisis zones. (Berlin also lifted key holds on third countries providing German-origin equipment to Ukraine.) Those historic moves came on top of the tough economic sanctions imposed by the European Union on Moscow within 24 hours of the start of the Russian invasion—measures that will hit Germany, too, since Russia is one of its top five export and import partners outside the EU. It was only five days ago, on Feb. 22, that Scholz decided to halt the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

In seven days, Germany has axed its biggest Russian energy project, imposed sanctions that will cause significant pain at home, and instituted a course that will make Germany the largest European defense spender, with the most advanced aircraft and a growing forward presence in Central and Eastern Europe. One can wonder whether Germany’s dedicated detractors in Washington will notice. How did it happen so quickly, when German officials had so tenaciously defended their status quo policies for so long?

The brazen brutality of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is the most important reason. Scholz and his government made every diplomatic effort to avert war, including Scholz’s Feb. 15 visit to Moscow, in which he tried to save the Minsk Process. Putin advanced his perceived grievances and distorted history—which Scholz later characterized as “ridiculous”—and through his recognition of the breakaway regions in Donetsk and Luhansk effectively killed the Minsk agreements. Scholz and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock knew from personal experience that Russia had closed off the paths of diplomacy.

Germany’s new political alignments paved the way for this revolution. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) governs with the values-driven Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, both of which advocate a tougher line toward Moscow. The government’s energy transformation ambitions, which set a 2045 carbon neutrality target, have now acquired a national security dimension. This may complicate the near-term certainty of adequate natural gas provision, but German Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck of the Greens has seized on the Russia crisis as additional justification to accelerate the transition to renewables and building out the energy grid. Scholz formulated the goal for Germany to build two liquefied natural gas terminals “as soon as possible” as part of a national effort to overcome its dependence on individual suppliers.

Within his own party, the pragmatist Scholz has advocated a reassessment of the SPD’s outdated approach to Russia, based on mutual economic dependence and the legacy of arms control. Putin’s invasion presented Scholz with an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, and he lost no time. Faced with indefensible Russian actions, the “dialogue” wing of the SPD has seen its arguments crumble. The most visible advocate for pro-Russian positions, ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD, has come under fire from the entire party leadership for his positions on the boards of Russian energy corporations such as Nord Stream AG, Rosneft, and just recently Gazprom (although that is still pending). Schröder has in a matter of weeks gone from being one of Russia’s most valuable assets in Germany to a political liability.

Lastly, some credit goes to the Biden administration. Despite pressure from the U.S. Congress and foreign-policy community, U.S. President Joe Biden carefully built a partnership on Russia policy—first with Chancellor Angela Merkel through the July 2021 joint statement on energy security and later by defending Germany’s approach, including during Scholz’s Feb. 7 visit to Washington. Biden faced backlash from Republicans and some Democrats, but he realized that a change in Germany’s Russia policy would have to come from Berlin, not be imposed by Washington. If Biden had given in to the calls for unilateral U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2, he would have engendered a defensive response from the German government that would have rendered inconceivable Scholz’s comprehensive Russia turnabout.

Change comes to German policy in ways similar to Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy: first gradually, then suddenly. That’s how it was with Merkel’s 2011 accelerated phaseout of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, her 2015 decisions that led to more than 1 million refugees coming to Germany from Syria and elsewhere, and the COVID-19 EU economic support package, in which Germany for the first time supported the issuance of common EU debt.

The road ahead for Scholz’s government will not be easy. Germany’s economic entanglement with Russia is extensive, and it will be costly to decrease dependency. The risk of inflation and impact of energy shortages on German industry could become a political liability that the opposition (including the extreme-right Alternative for Germany) will try to exploit. Building the military that Scholz sketched will take significant time, and the Defense Ministry has struggled in recent years to turn growing budgets into deployable capabilities. Rooting out Russian influence in German politics will be contested. But there can be no mistake: Scholz has bolstered the trans-Atlantic pillar of German policy and positioned Berlin to be a stronger leader of Europe and a bulwark against Russian bullying for decades to come.

Jeff Rathke is the president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He also served for 24 years as a foreign service officer with the State Department.

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