RUKLA, Lithuania — When the signal came over the radio that the NATO border was under attack, German tanks fanned out from the forest to slow down the enemy’s advance. In quick succession, men in camouflage tumbled out of the tanks and took cover among the trees, assault rifles at the ready.
The battle that followed one recent afternoon near the town of Rukla in Lithuania, 60 miles from the Russian border, was just an exercise. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the NATO battlegroup’s mission in Lithuania to defend the alliance’s outer border no longer feels abstract to the soldiers and the country most of them come from.
“Threat perception in Germany changed overnight,” said Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Andrä, the commander of the 1,600-strong battle group in Lithuania. “We felt safe, in the middle of the continent, surrounded by friends. Now we have a full spectrum war in Europe and we are concerned, especially because we don’t know how far the spiral of escalation will go.”
Three days after Russia attacked Ukraine last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood in parliament and announced his country’s largest rearmament program since the end of the Cold War, pledging not only to increase its defense budget beyond NATO’s target. that Germany had failed to strike for years, but to immediately invest 100 billion euros – two full years of military expenditure – to reverse the years of underfunding of the German army.
It was a revolution in a country whose Nazi past had long hesitated to invest in military power. By the end of his 30-minute speech, Mr Scholz had lifted a ban on arms shipments to Ukraine, supported armed drones and pledged to buy new atomic bomb-dropping jets, enhancing Germany’s continued role in NATO’s sharing system. of nuclear weapons was sealed. †
“It is clear that we need to invest much more in the security of our country, to protect our freedom and our democracy,” said Mr Scholz.
When Colonel Andrä saw the news of Mr. Scholz’ pivot from his office in Rukla, he was stunned. “I didn’t believe what I heard,” he recalls. “All this would have been unthinkable four weeks ago. It was historic.”
History is never far in Europe. The last time German soldiers established a base in Lithuania was during the occupation of the country in World War II. They expelled the Soviets, collecting and killing more than 90 percent of the Jewish population before being expelled in turn by Soviet forces.
The Soviets stayed and made Lithuania a Soviet republic until the Soviet Union collapsed, a humiliation that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin wants to justify with his invasion of Ukraine.
So now it is the Germans who are back – this time at the invitation of the Lithuanians – to help protect against Russian aggression.
German soldiers in Rukla were deployed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the first part of Ukraine to be captured by the Kremlin in 2014. Along with soldiers from seven other NATO countries, they have stood guard over their portion of the alliance’s border for the past five years, welcomed by locals and officials. “We want a strong Germany,” said General Mindaugas Steponavicius, the chief of the Lithuanian Defense Staff.
For decades, Germany remained coy about security issues, content to lead economically, while holding on to a pacifist inclination forged in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. German politicians were reluctant to talk about the military; German citizens were reluctant to hear about it. Before getting started, Mr. Scholz himself has to endure fierce criticism for his apparent reluctance to harden Russia over Ukraine.
But the Russian attack on Ukraine has not only spurred the German government into action – public opinion has also changed dramatically. Two out of three Germans now support arms supplies to Ukraine and are increasing military spending. In mid-February there was still a majority against both.
“There is an awareness that military might matters,” said Claudia Major, head of the international security department at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
But if the war in Ukraine was a wake-up call, it also showed how weak the German link in NATO’s structure still is. On the morning of the Russian invasion, General Alfons Mais, the German chief of defense, posted a brutally honest assessment of where Germany’s capabilities were.
“In my 41st year of service in peace, I never thought I would have to face another war,” General Mais wrote. “And the Bundeswehr, the army that I am allowed to lead, is more or less bankrupt. The options we can offer policymakers to support the alliance are extremely limited.”
At the end of the Cold War, when West Germany was still a NATO front state on the border with the Soviet Empire, it had more than 500,000 soldiers and spent 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Today, reunited Germany has 184,000 soldiers and spends only 1.5 percent of GDP on defense.
“The German army was short of money for years because we had a strategic partnership with Russia and we didn’t believe we had to defend our territory anymore,” said Ms. Major. “Our soldiers were deployed to help others, both in Afghanistan and Mali. We fought wars of our choice. But this is about us and if we return to a paradigm of wars of necessity, the entire military must be operational.”
As the Chancellor put it in his speech last month, “We need planes that fly, ships that sail, and soldiers that are optimally equipped.”
There is a shortage of everything from protective vests to thermal underwear. Radio equipment is 30 years old. Only one in three warships is ready for deployment — so few that the navy is concerned it won’t be able to meet all of its international obligations.
Even in Rukla, the flagship of the German NATO mission that has relatively few complaints when it comes to resources, the general scarcity has been felt.
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Some of the armored vehicles are five decades old. The radios are over 30 years old. During international exercises in Lithuania, their equipment routinely made German units “the weakest link in the chain,” soldiers reported to the Parliamentary Armed Forces Commissioner on their return from tours in Rukla.
Some in Lithuania joke that they would like some “real soldiers” to protect them. In neighboring Poland, Latvia and Estonia, NATO battle groups are led by Americans, Canadians and British respectively.
“The German army is great; we are so grateful that they are here,” said Laurynas Kasciunas, Chairman of the National Security and Defense Committee in Lithuania. “But we would also like some American troops, please, combat ready and ideally permanent.”
Beyond that, the challenge, security experts say, is how to ensure that the €100 billion in special funds for the German military are spent quickly and wisely.
The government has already announced an order for as many as 35 F-35 fighter jets to replace Germany’s aging fleet of Tornado bombers. On Monday, the chancellor met with Germany’s top general to discuss what else should be prioritized on the government’s shopping list.
But it will take more than money to modernize the German military, experts and officials say. Tender procedures are cumbersome and slow. Purchases above 25 million euros must be approved separately by the parliamentary budget committee. Tenders cannot only be made in Germany, but must be sent to the entire European Union.
“We need to reform the entire purchasing bureaucracy,” said Ms. Major. “We have a lot of money now, if we don’t spend it wisely, we gain nothing.”
In Rukla, the revolution announced in Berlin last month is already being felt, Colonel Andrä said: “The few things we didn’t have or don’t have, we are now moving very quickly.”
Hundreds of containers of ammunition have arrived. In order to quickly get a reinforcement of 350 men to Rukla, the Defense Minister had reduced their deployment time from 30 days to five.
“We can act quickly if we want to,” Colonel Andrä said. “We have shown that we are willing to do more.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.