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It’s Time for Olaf Scholz to Walk His Talk

Since announcing revolutionary changes in German defense, Berlin has been dragging its feet nonstop.

By , a fellow in history and politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, and , a researcher in international affairs and military history at the University of Potsdam.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears at a press conference at European Union headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 10, 2021.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears at a press conference at European Union headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 10, 2021.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears at a press conference at European Union headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 10, 2021. ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP via Getty Images

On Feb. 27, visibly shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three days earlier, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stepped before an emergency session of the German Bundestag in Berlin and gave his now-famous Zeitenwende speech—outlining a “change of era” in German defense policy. In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression, Scholz promised a decisive break with Germany’s negligence of military defense and passive attitude toward foreign affairs. Scholz pledged to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense annually “from now on,” provide an emergency fund of 100 billion euros (around $110 billion) to facilitate this increase, and to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine in a reversal of long-standing German arms export policies.

The speech was immediately lauded as a historic milestone—not just in Berlin, but also in Washington and other NATO capitals, where the absence of any serious German defense policy has been lamented for years. In a curious way, Scholz’s thunderclap of a speech has established a narrative about a newly sober, serious Germany finally taking some responsibility for European security. The problem with this narrative is that there remains a rather large gap between Scholz’s Zeitenwende rhetoric and Germany’s policies since then.

For one, Scholz’s promise to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense annually proved short-lived. The regular German defense budget is set to remain at around 50 billion euros (around $55 billion) until 2026, with only 8.5 billion euros (about $9 billion) of the emergency fund earmarked for 2023. Defense spending thus falls short of the 2 percent target, which would currently be around 70 billion euros (around $77 billion), and much will depend on the emergency fund’s further use. None of this suggests a change of era. Given the dismal state of Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, including a lack of functioning equipment, the current steps are unlikely to measurably improve Germany’s defense capabilities. Much higher spending will have to be sustained over at least a decade just to make up for past neglect—instead, Berlin is still dragging its feet. Almost half a year since Scholz’s speech, his government has yet to present any serious strategy or plan for the future of the Bundeswehr, the role Germany intends to play in European collective security, or the contribution of Germany’s improved military to warding off the Russian threat.

On Feb. 27, visibly shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three days earlier, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stepped before an emergency session of the German Bundestag in Berlin and gave his now-famous Zeitenwende speech—outlining a “change of era” in German defense policy. In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression, Scholz promised a decisive break with Germany’s negligence of military defense and passive attitude toward foreign affairs. Scholz pledged to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense annually “from now on,” provide an emergency fund of 100 billion euros (around $110 billion) to facilitate this increase, and to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine in a reversal of long-standing German arms export policies.

The speech was immediately lauded as a historic milestone—not just in Berlin, but also in Washington and other NATO capitals, where the absence of any serious German defense policy has been lamented for years. In a curious way, Scholz’s thunderclap of a speech has established a narrative about a newly sober, serious Germany finally taking some responsibility for European security. The problem with this narrative is that there remains a rather large gap between Scholz’s Zeitenwende rhetoric and Germany’s policies since then.

For one, Scholz’s promise to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense annually proved short-lived. The regular German defense budget is set to remain at around 50 billion euros (around $55 billion) until 2026, with only 8.5 billion euros (about $9 billion) of the emergency fund earmarked for 2023. Defense spending thus falls short of the 2 percent target, which would currently be around 70 billion euros (around $77 billion), and much will depend on the emergency fund’s further use. None of this suggests a change of era. Given the dismal state of Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, including a lack of functioning equipment, the current steps are unlikely to measurably improve Germany’s defense capabilities. Much higher spending will have to be sustained over at least a decade just to make up for past neglect—instead, Berlin is still dragging its feet. Almost half a year since Scholz’s speech, his government has yet to present any serious strategy or plan for the future of the Bundeswehr, the role Germany intends to play in European collective security, or the contribution of Germany’s improved military to warding off the Russian threat.

While Scholz’s decision to supply heavy arms to Ukraine was a reversal of a long-standing policy not to send arms into combat zones, Berlin has been dragging its feet here as well. Germany agreed to resupply Eastern European countries with modern weapons systems in return for these countries sending their Soviet-era tanks, ammunition, and other materiel to Ukraine. This policy, too, has not been implemented as announced. Poland donated 200 of its T-72 main battle tanks to Ukraine—about one-third of its total main battle tanks. Berlin’s promise to resupply the Polish armed forces with German-built Leopard 2 tanks out of Bundeswehr stocks has come to nil. When German arms manufacturers offered to step into the breach and deliver around 100 antiquated Leopard 1 tanks and 100 Marder infantry fighting vehicles, Berlin delayed approval of the deal. Meanwhile, discussions with the Czech Republic for a similar resupply are still underway. But who still has any trust in German promises, many months after they were made? Poland has now looked for more reliable partners elsewhere and ordered around 1,000 tanks, 650 artillery pieces, and dozens of combat aircraft from South Korea. Berlin’s decision-making paralysis is thus not only undermining European defense in the worst security crisis since World War II but also frustrating any chance for a strategic and coordinated European defense industrial policy.

With his Zeitenwende speech, Scholz was the man of the hour—but has done almost nothing significant to follow through.

Equally corrosive for German credibility has been the handling of the few arms the country has delivered to Ukraine. A self-propelled howitzer, the Panzerhaubitze 2000, was the first major platform to be delivered, yet Berlin only freed up seven of them—and even those weren’t sent until June. (The Bundeswehr has about 100 of them and could certainly spare more.) Given the intensity of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, some of these pieces are already showing considerable wear and tear, prompting Berlin to send three more last month. Germany has also approved a Ukrainian order of 100 Panzerhaubitze 2000s from the manufacturer, yet it remains unclear how quickly they can be built. What’s more, Berlin has yet to grant the necessary export permit—more red tape that, given its notorious foot-dragging, should be a red flag for Kyiv.

At the end of July, Germany finally supplied three MARS-II multiple-launch rocket systems, long-range precision artillery similar to the U.S.-made HIMARS that have allowed Ukraine to strike in the Russians’ rear. Germany also sent three Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, of which it had promised 15 in May. Considering Berlin’s repeated overpromising and underdelivering, there are naturally doubts in Kyiv about other promised German deliveries, such as Iris-T SLM anti-aircraft systems and a Cobra counter-artillery radar this fall. Repeated official pronouncements that these complex systems need long training for the Ukrainians to handle them properly must sound like arrogant condescension coming from a country with a barely functioning military—while the Ukrainians are successfully fighting the Russian juggernaut to a halt.

The German government has not helped its case by stating that it cannot afford to deliver more weapons given the urgent need to maintain its own military preparedness in the face of the heightened threat from Russia. This is an almost comical excuse given Germany’s systematic starving of the Bundeswehr of resources. It is said, for example, that the German military has enough ammunition for a few days of full combat at best, the result of Berlin’s refusal to fulfill NATO’s minimum requirements for ammunition stockpiles. The notion that the Bundeswehr is able or willing to offer any serious resistance to a Russian attack on NATO territory is fanciful. To the extent that it allows itself to think about actual threats at all, the German government is likely betting that the United States would send the cavalry—and that Poland would fight to hold the Russians off.

What Germany could do today—and what many of its allies expect—is offer as much support as possible to the Ukrainian struggle, despite Russian threats. This would mean dropping the practice of resupplying East European NATO partners, which has become an untenable policy anyway, given the dearth of remaining Soviet-era equipment and ammunition. Instead, Ukraine needs new, NATO-standard equipment along with the necessary ammunition. This also requires a boost of Germany’s own defense industry, which the government needs to support with reliable production goals, procurement commitments, expedited export permits, and close coordination with Central and Eastern European partners. Within the European Union, Germany will have to take a lead on these issues. France and Italy are both bogged down by domestic issues, and their strategic interests tend to lie elsewhere. Rome could soon be governed by a far-right coalition, in which key members would be in Moscow’s pocket.

There are several factors that help explain why Scholz has moved so far away from his own rhetoric. First, Scholz must contend with his Social Democratic Party’s sizable left wing, which remains highly skeptical of any policy pivot and has yet to jettison its pacifist ideology. There is also a long history of pro-Russian sentiment in the party (even more so than in the public at large), whether out of conviction or in exchange for money from Russian entities such as the energy company Gazprom.

Scholz, a former mayor of Hamburg whose bid for chancellor was only reluctantly supported by his party’s left wing, probably knows that his party has only remained united on the war due to the German public’s strong support for Ukraine. Should this support falter—as may very well happen if the winter brings serious energy shortages—Scholz will be wary of seeing the old rifts reopen in his party.

Beyond these party-political considerations, Scholz has also slow-rolled his Zeitenwende in a belief that he can keep the door open to a renewed round of diplomatic negotiations with Russia—along the lines of the two failed Minsk accords brokered by Berlin and Paris in 2014. Recent remarks by Scholz’s National Security Advisor Jens Plötner, to the effect that Berlin should think more about future relations with Russia than weapon supplies to Ukraine, were a clear indication that Scholz hopes to place Germany in a position to broker a deal. If things do develop in this direction, Scholz, who prides himself on his measured temperament, could plausibly claim that his apparent complacency was in fact foresight and prudence. If such hopes are now guiding Scholz, however, they only show that he has not, despite his rhetoric, fully understood the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the European order. Putin, since he first attacked Ukraine in 2014, has shown no sign of wanting to negotiate in good faith and is unlikely to do so anytime soon. The aim for Germany, not least from a position of national interest, must therefore be to strengthen Ukrainian resistance to ensure that it can maintain a position from which to plausibly bargain with Russia. This, in turn, requires Berlin to regain trust with its EU and NATO partners and lead the effort to bolster NATO’s eastern flank.

With his Zeitenwende speech, Scholz was the man of the hour. Yet since then, he has done almost nothing significant to follow through. Nor has he won back German credibility lost by his predecessor Angela Merkel, whose tenure was marked by abrupt policy U-turns on migration and energy policy; lackluster support for allied missions in Libya, Syria, and Iraq; and the sustained negligence of NATO spending commitments. Scholz’s speech in February occurred under heavy domestic and international pressure. If he is to live up to his own rhetoric, he must finally walk the talk. Amid the continent’s gravest threat to peace and stability since 1945, Europe needs a reliable, serious, focused Germany—not a chancellor and policy elite who need to be pushed and dragged to move.

Lukas Paul Schmelter is a fellow in history and politics at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Bastian Matteo Scianna is a researcher in international affairs and military history at the University of Potsdam. Twitter: @BMScianna

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