BERLIN — Chancellor Olaf Scholz surprised the world, and his own country, when he responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a $100 billion plan to arm Germany, send weapons to Ukraine and end its deep dependence on Ukraine. his land of Russian energy.
It was the biggest change in Germany’s foreign policy since the Cold War, what Mr Scholz called a “Zeitenwende” – a groundbreaking change – that garnered applause for his leadership at home and abroad.
But six weeks later, the applause has largely ceased. Even as images of atrocities emerge from Ukraine since President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Russia, Mr. Scholz ruled out an immediate oil and gas embargo, saying it would be too expensive. He is dragging his feet sending 100 armored vehicles to Ukraine and says Germany should not “rush ahead”. There are fresh debates in the ruling coalition about how to move forward with the huge task Mr Scholz has set out, let alone how soon.
Doubts are already emerging about the German government’s commitment to its own radical plans. “Zeitenwende is real, but the country is the same,” said Thomas Bagger, a senior German diplomat who will be the next ambassador to Poland. “Not everyone likes it.”
The changes Scholz announced go well beyond his commitment to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military — some €70 billion ($76 billion) a year, compared to the €41 billion ($44 billion) from France.
They go to the heart of Germany’s post-war identity as a peaceful exporting country – and to the heart of a business model that has enriched Germany and made it the largest and most powerful economy in Europe.
Now Germans are being asked to “rethink everything — our approach to business, energy policy, defense and Russia,” said Claudia Major, a defense expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “We need a change of mentality. We have to recognize that this is about us – that power politics is back and that Germany has a role to play.”
But she added: “Germany is again not leading the way, it is being dragged along.”
Real reorientation of Germans for a new world where security has its real costs – not only in terms of potentially lost lives, but also in terms of lost trade, higher energy prices, lower profits and lower economic growth – will be a major undertaking that will take time. take, even a generation, and more than an afternoon’s policy statement.
That realization is sinking in, for Germans and their frustrated European partners.
“I don’t understand how anyone in Germany can sleep at night after seeing this kind of horror without doing anything about it,” said Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s outspoken ambassador to Berlin, referring to the atrocities in Ukraine. “What does it take to make Germany act?”
Even Annalena Baerbock, the confident Green Secretary of State, expressed concern that Zeitenwende could be more temporary than fundamental. She said she feared the consensus was fragile, that Germans who favor close ties to Russia are now silent, but that they have not changed their mind.
“You can feel this,” she said in an interview. “They know they have to do it now with regard to sanctions, energy independence and arms supplies, including with regard to how we treat Russia. But actually they don’t like it.”
Since Mr Scholz presented his Zeitenwende to a special session of Parliament on February 27, several cracks have appeared in Germany’s commitment to change.
German celebrities made headlines with an appeal to the government against rearmament and the “180-degree change in German foreign policy” signed by 45,000 people to date. Green lawmakers have lobbied to allocate only a portion of the €100 billion special fund to the military, citing other needs such as “human security” and climate change. Unions and industry bosses are warning of catastrophic damage to the economy and an immediate recession if Russian gas stops.
As the CEO of German chemical giant BASF, Michael Heinz, put it last week, “Cheap Russian energy has been the foundation of our industry’s competitiveness.”
In fact, it has been the foundation of the German economy. As German companies face the possibility of going without, resistance is quietly mounting. Government ministers say they are being discreetly asked by business leaders when things will “go back to normal” – that is, when they can go back to normal.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, “business as usual” has largely meant “change through trade” — the belief that economic interdependence would change authoritarian governments like Russia and China for the better and help keep the peace. Prosperity and democracy, or so the thinking went, go hand in hand.
The link with Russia is particularly complicated by a long and complex history of the hot and cold war, including guilt over the millions of Russians murdered by the Nazis. This reinforced the belief that Europe’s security architecture should include Russia and take Russian interests into account.
It was a model that also paid off for Germany.
“We’re exporting to China and importing cheap gas from Russia, that’s the recipe for German export success,” said Ralph Bollmann, a biographer of Angela Merkel, the former German chancellor now seen as protecting the Germans from a rival rival. world. but don’t prepare them for it.
Few in Germany, including the intelligence community, predicted that Mr Putin would invade a sovereign European country. But the war has sparked a cycle of self-examination, even among prominent politicians like Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former secretary of state and now federal president.
He was a leading member of Mr Scholz’s Social Democratic Party and was a prominent supporter of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which has now been shut down, bypassing Ukraine and which Washington opposed.
“We stuck to the idea of building bridges to Russia that our partners warned us about,” said Mr. Steinmeier, after Mr. Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador, accused Mr. to enable Putin. “We have failed to build a common Europe,” said Mr Steinmeier. “We have not included Russia in our security architecture.” He added: “I was wrong.”
In the immediate aftermath of Mr Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech, the details of which he had shared with only a handful of people, the decision to act decisively seemed palpable.
The three different parties in his coalition rallied behind it and the partisan division with the conservative opposition was forgotten for a while. Public opinion reflected the shift and rewarded the new chancellor with better popularity ratings.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Russia is preparing a renewed offensive. Ukraine braces itself for a Russian attack along the eastern front, where Ukrainian officials have warned civilians still living in the region that time is running out to escape. But the road to safety is fraught with danger, with reports of Ukrainian civilians being killed while trying to flee.
But in a short space of time, the magnitude of the change Mr Scholz announced seems to have intimidated even his own three-party coalition. “The government has made some courageous decisions, but it may seem afraid of its own courage,” said Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council for Foreign Relations.
There is skepticism that the political establishment is ready to fundamentally break with Moscow, or that German voters will happily pay that much more for energy and food in the near future.
“German pacifism runs very deep,” said John Kornblum, a former US ambassador to Germany who has lived in the country occasionally since the 1960s. “The German illusions may have been shattered, but not the traumas about Russia and the war.”
That “neurotic relationship with Russia may be on hiatus for a while, but will return in full force once the shooting stops,” he said.
Nils Schmid, spokesman for foreign policy in parliament for the Social Democrats, said Germany’s soft stance towards Russia “reflects German society, and what will remain is the idea that Russia is there and part of it.” Europe, and we will have to deal with that. †
The war has spawned “shattered hopes” for a peacefully united Europe, shared by his generation from 1989, he said. But he noted that with this war, “There can be no return to normalcy,” adding, “No one really wants to go back to the old days of involvement with Russia.”
Still, he said, ‘We mustn’t overdo it. The balance will shift to more deterrence and less dialogue. But we need to engage in a dialogue.”
Mrs Puglierin has little patience with such arguments. “People need to let go of these old ideas and adapt to reality as it is, not as they want,” she said. “Russia has shown that it does not want a stable relationship with this existing security order, which is now an empty shell.”
A prominent conservative lawmaker, Norbert Röttgen, argued that Germany must make a complete and immediate break with Russia. “War has returned to Europe, one that will affect the continent’s political and security order,” he said.
Germany must also learn from its reliance on Russia for its future relationship with China’s more powerful authoritarian empire, on which key sectors of Germany’s export-driven model rely, Mr Röttgen said.
“The real Zeitenwende,” said Ms Puglierin, “will come when we reform our model for a future of competition with both Russia and China and realize that any dependence can be used against us.”