Germany’s political approach to Russia lies in ruins and its military is in miserable shape. The Russian invasion of Ukraine promises to change things, but how quickly can Berlin move?
By Melanie Amann, Markus Becker, Matthias Gebauer, Kevin Hagen, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Christoph Hickmann, Martin Knobbe, Veit Medick, Ralf Neukirch, Fidelius Schmid, Christoph Schult, Christian Teevs und Gerald Traufetter
For Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Andrä, the world has changed dramatically in recent days. He still has the same mission as before, the mandate hasn’t changed, but its importance has suddenly increased, and with it, the attention. Andrä now finds himself right in the middle of this watershed moment.
“Of course, we’re much more in the focus now,” he says over the phone on Wednesday morning. “Suddenly the issue of how NATO secures its eastern flank is of broader public interest.”
Not even 24 hours after that phone call, Russia will invade Ukraine.DER SPIEGEL 9/2022
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 9/2022 (February 25th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
Andrä, 43, took command of NATO’s multinational task force in Lithuania two weeks ago, with responsibility for a total of about 1,600 men and women, including 1,000 from Germany. The force has nine battle tanks and 25 infantry fighting vehicles, which is nothing compared to Russia’s forces, but enough to demonstrate a presence. Indeed, the mission is called Enhanced Forward Presence and it has been running for years, with NATO sending troops to the Baltic states on a rotating basis.
Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are responsible for Lithuania. Together with the Lithuanian army, it is to make its contribution to deterrence in the country. If Russia moves to attack the Baltic region, it should at least be able to delay that attack. Until recently, Germans took little notice of the mission, but that has since changed. Just this week, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, a member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), visited the troops.
“We are the sharpest sword this brigade has to offer.”
Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Andrä
“We are trained and equipped to make our contribution to the defense of the country in the event of an emergency,” says Andrä, whose unit is subordinate to a Lithuanian brigade. “We are the sharpest sword this brigade has to offer, and we can sense in every conversation how grateful they are for our contribution.”
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of NATO, and an attack on any one of them would trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, the mutual defense provision – which is why such a scenario had long been ruled out. But even as recently as a year ago, few expected a Russian attack on Ukraine. Germany has just sent 350 additional soldiers to Lithuania as reinforcements, in addition to six howitzers and heavy equipment.
“The Lithuanians have a different perception of the threat,” Andrä says. “Contributing to the sense of this threat is the fact that there are now strong Russian forces in Belarus, in the immediate vicinity.”
He pauses for a moment.
“Be prepared,” he says, that’s the motto of his mission.
A Watershed Moment
With regards to Russia, one could certainly not have said recently that Germany was well prepared. In that respect, Lieutenant Colonel Andrä could be something like the symbolic figure of a new era.
The Russian attack on Ukraine marks a watershed moment – for the world, for Europe, for German foreign policy and, specifically, for Berlin’s Russia policy. For years, Vladimir Putin was allowed to do whatever he wanted. He could ignore international borders, murder political opponents, but in Germany’s political leadership, the voices of appeasement consistently prevailed at each successive level of escalation. Talking was better than issuing threats, they said, dialogue better than sanctions. The worst-case scenario would never become reality, they insisted, since Putin is a rational actor.
They were wrong. And the Russian president has now outed himself as a man who isn’t concerned about mutual understanding, but rather about his image in the history books, about his dream of a grand empire, about revenge and retribution. Germany is now facing the ruins – politically, economically and militarily – of its Ostpolitik, its policy of detente toward Russia that dates back to the Cold War era.
Politically, the approach of bringing Russia to the negotiating table has failed.The Normandy format and the Minsk agreements were all concepts that Germans held dear right up until the very end. Putin has swept them aside with one wave of the hand. What lessons can be drawn from the events of recent days and what approaches does the German government see for preventing even worse things from happening in the future?
More on the Ukraine Crisis
- Russia’s Invasion: Putin’s Attack Is Aimed at EuropeA DER SPIEGEL Editorial by Maximilian Popp
- The Russian Invasion: Putin Settles Accounts with the West By Christina Hebel in Moscow
- “A Dark Day for Europe”: German and EU Leaders Sharply Condemn Putin’s Attack on Ukraine
- An Epochal Shift: Russia Challenges the European Peace OrderA Commentary by Maximilian Popp
Economically, Germany’s dependence on Russia for its energy supplies, particularly natural gas, is coming back to haunt the country. No matter how loudly its Eastern European neighbors warned, both Germany’s center-right Christian Democrats and the SPD stuck with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would have circumvented traditional transit pipelines in Ukraine and Eastern Europe and bring deliveries directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea. It took an attack on Ukraine and Robert Habeck, an Economics Minister with the environmentalist Green Party, to finally bring the project to a halt. But has the project really been stopped for good? What does it mean for the Germans?
And what about the military? After Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, NATO began revisiting the concept of national and alliance defense. The idea had largely been forgotten after the end of the Cold War, and the alliance instead focused on missions like the one in Afghanistan. In 2014, the German military was also supposed to return to its origins as laid out in the constitution – it was to become bigger, faster and more effective. The Bundeswehr was to be equipped with more, and more modern, tanks and the country’s warplanes replaced. The troops were to be transformed from a laughing stock into a proper army that would, at the very least, be taken seriously, perhaps even feared.
Germany’s Fear of “Saber Rattling”
Much has happened since then, but not nearly enough. The biggest problem is a lack of money. Minister Lambrecht is now calling for an increased defense budget. In the 2017 general election campaign, her party colleague Martin Schulz, the SPD candidate for chancellor that year, warned that Germany should not become a “military bull” in the heart of Europe, as this would merely serve to frighten its neighbors. But here, too, the times are changing. But what state is the Bundeswehr in eight years after the annexation of Crimea? What are its capabilities? What things does it need to relearn? What does it need?
The German government will have to find answers to all of these questions. As quickly as possible. That starts with admitting the mistakes of the past.
“This is a turning point, possibly similar to what happened after Sept. 11.”
Axel Schäfer, SPD
The SPD, for its part, has a lot of soul searching to do. The Ostpolitik rapprochement policies adopted by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt during the Cold War have long been considered one of the SPD party’s most important contributions German foreign policy. Since then, good relations with Russia have been regarded by most Social Democrats as being sacrosanct. But they usually forget that Brandt first developed a reputation as a hawk during his tenure as mayor of Berlin during the Cold War. Only then was he able to promote détente, first as foreign minister and then as chancellor. The element of toughness fell out of fashion within the SPD over the years.
Instead, even veteran SPD leaders like German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier were fond of warning against “saber rattling” toward Moscow, against to much firmness and pressure. Shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, SPD parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich seemed more interested in talking about American failures rather than Russian aggression. Given that backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that the mood at a Tuesday video conference of the SPD’s parliamentary group was rather somber. And that was before the invasion had even begun.
The Social Democrats met for about an hour, with a dozen or so members of parliament sharing their thoughts. The tone of many of the comments was: We’ve been deceived by Putin. Parliamentarian Jens Zimmermann, say sources familiar with the meeting, said the party must self-critically explore at what point in the past it turned down the wrong path.
Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin: “A president obsessed by history” Foto: Alexey Druzhinin/ Sputnik/ AFP
“We were too optimistic, we should be self-critical enough to say that,” parliamentarian Axel Schäfer said after the meeting. “We always reached out to Moscow with an olive branch – now Putin is responding with a clench, armed fist.” The party actually did act correctly after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he said, but that was obviously a “one-way street.” The current situation, he said, “is a turning point, possibly similar to what happened after Sept. 11.”
And what about parliamentary group leader Mützenich? Although he doesn’t want to declare the previous approach as categorically misguided and still considers the policy of détente to be correct, he too now sounds different than he did only recently. He now says Putin as a “president obsessed with history,” who is “increasingly resistant to advice” and acting “downright autistically.”
Champagne with an Autocrat
Chancellor Olaf Scholz is also part of the traditional pro-Russian wing of the SPD. He considers himself to be a gifted negotiator. When he traveled to Moscow in mid-February, he still thought a diplomatic solution was at least a possibility.
And didn’t it initially look that way? After meeting with Scholz, Putin said: “We are also ready to follow the negotiating track.” Following the joint press conference, he invited the chancellor for a glass of champagne, without advisers or translators. Putin speaks very good German. It likely felt, with all due skepticism, like a muted overture.
Afterward, in a discussion with ambassadors of the EU partners, Scholz even hinted that it might be possible to make a concession to Russia. He said he had told Putin that NATO was open in principle to any European country, but as far as Ukraine was concerned, he had assured him: “It isn’t going to happen.” The issue is “simply not on the agenda,” he said. Scholz said he would “not go to war” over the issue. But a few days later, Putin chose to go to war for exactly that issue.
Inside the Chancellery in Berlin, officials now view Putin’s friendliness as a bluff, a cynical act. Putin played Scholz, and Scholz allowed himself to be played.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during his visit to Moscow: Putin played Scholz, and Scholz allowed himself to be played. Foto: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV / AFP
The truth is, of course, that it was probably already too late by the time the German chancellor arrived in Moscow. Perhaps, diplomats say, they underestimated just how far the Russian president had drifted from the West. Developments this week show that all the talks of the past years and decades were all for nothing – all the phone calls Angela Merkel made to Putin, the constant exchanges between advisers in the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry with their Russian counterparts. The line of communication between the Chancellery and the Kremlin is now largely dead. What is there to talk about when Russian tanks are rumbling through Ukraine?
The decisive mistakes were made long before Scholz’s visit to Moscow. The most symbolic one is Nord Stream 2 (NS2).
A political ritual had developed around the gas pipeline in Germany in recent years. With every Russian provocation or foreign policy violation came the demand to finally stop the pipeline, but nothing ever happened. The government stuck with it, whether under Merkel or Scholz. Until this week, when the charade was finally brought to an end.
What Does the Future Hold for Nord Stream 2?
On Tuesday, one day after Putin sent initial troops into the Donbas region, Scholz announced the suspension of the certification process for the pipeline. It was late, to be sure, but it at least seemed like a halfway decent response from the chancellor. In reality, though, it came from Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Green Party.
By the time Habeck became Economics Minister at the end of last year, his ministry had been gripped for several years by two dogmas pertaining to the pipeline. First, Germany’s “supply security” would be at risk if NS2 didn’t go into operation. The term was used as an all-purpose rhetorical weapon, making people think of unheated apartments or cold stovetops. The second dogma was that Germany would have to pay significant compensation if NS2 were suspended.
Habeck had his officials look into both of those concerns, combing through policy papers and expert reports. Their finding: In terms of volume, the pipeline isn’t absolutely necessary for covering Germany’s natural gas needs. The existing connections, especially Nord Stream 1, which covers the same route from Russia to Germany, are sufficient. And if the certification process fails, the ministry believes, there will be no requirement to pay compensation. And that is precisely the trick Habeck used – he suspended the certification process. More precisely: He withdrew the necessary certification of “security of supply.” NS2 has effectively been put on ice.
Habeck made the final decision in the early hours of Monday morning. At 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning, he telephoned with Scholz and the chancellor agreed – and publicly announced the decision four hours later. The chancellor said he had asked Habeck to suspend the certification – suddenly making it sound as though it had been Scholz’s idea.
Does this mean the project is totally dead? Even though the first step has been well received, skepticism remains widespread among Germany’s partners in the European Union. “That was an important signal,” says one official in Brussels. “But the project has only been suspended, not canceled.” Only time will tell where things stand with Germany, the official says.
An Expensive Economic War
Putin’s attack has jolted the coordinates of German politics, and suddenly things are taking place that seemed impossible for years. It is likely to have drastic consequences – possibly for years or decades. The German economy is closely intertwined with the Russian economy. An economic war with Russia will be expensive and will also have tangible consequences for all Germans.
As far as energy is concerned, the European Commission sees no signs of easing any time soon. On the contrary, a confidential draft of a Commission communiqué states that there is a “growing gas crisis.” It says that energy prices will remain “volatile” and above average until at least 2023.
Many Germans are skeptical about a confrontation with Russia, anyway. Support could quickly start to dwindle if it starts to hit average Germans in their pocketbooks. In the past, a majority of Germans have also shown little interest in military rearmament. That, though, could now change.
The Defense Ministry is working overtime these days, and the Bundeswehr is taking inventory. The head of the Bundeswehr, the inspector general, has tasked planners in the command staffs with determining which units could be offered to NATO as reinforcements at short notice. The aim is to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, and initial results are now available.
The Bundeswehr’s Patriot weapon system Foto: IMAGO
The army has reported that it could immediately offer an infantry company that could remain in the field for longer than just a few months – that would be around 150 soldiers with around a dozen “Boxer” armored fighting vehicles. A second company could be added a short time later. One idea is to use this mini-package to join the French, who want to set up a NATO task force in Romania.
Already on Thursday, the Air Force dispatched three more Eurofighter jets to Romania for air surveillance. The Bundeswehr also has the potential to deploy the Patriot air defense system there or in Lithuania. In addition, there is a fleet service boat that the Navy has dispatched to the Baltic Sea. A corvette and a frigate are to be added to the German offer, but the two warships would have to be withdrawn from ongoing missions in the Mediterranean.
Relative to the Russian deployment in eastern Ukraine, this is inconsequential, at best enough to elicit an indulgent smile from Moscow’s general staff. The Bundeswehr has forgotten how to think even on a medium scale. After all, it hasn’t had to for many years.
It was German Lieutenant General Alfons Mais who summed up the situation on Thursday, shortly before the Russian invasion began. “I would not have believed in my 41st year of service in peace that I would have to experience another war,” Mais, who is the head of the Army, wrote on LinkedIn. “And the Bundeswehr, the army that I have the honor of leading, is more or less empty-handed. The options we can offer policymakers to support the Alliance are extremely limited.”
Generals usually only express themselves that openly once their careers come to an end. Mais, though, went even further: “We all saw it coming and were not able to get our arguments through, to draw the conclusions from the Crimean annexation and implement them.”
His former boss sounded even more upset.”I am so angry at us for our historic failure,” tweeted former Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of the CDU. “After Georgia, Crimea and Donbas,” nothing had been prepared “that would have really deterred Putin.”
The armed forces in almost all Western countries shrunk drastically after the end of the Cold War. As recently as 1989, the Bundeswehr still had more than 5,000 battle tanks in its inventory; today, it has fewer than 300. During the same period, the number of soldiers fell from almost 500,000 to well below 200,000. The country dropped its previous practice of compulsory military service and a lot of money was saved. Today’s generation of officers has been shaped by foreign deployments to the Balkans, Afghanistan and Mali. The idea of a great land war was considered a scenario from the previous century.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, many began to rethink the situation and came to a startling realization: Germany had gone too far with its savings measures and the Bundeswehr had been starved to the point that nothing was left but skin and bones. The troops are no longer capable of deterring anyone.
Quite a bit has been done since then. As recently as 2014, the defense budget stood at 32.4 billion euros a year; it has since risen to around 50 billion. However, this is still significantly less than the 2 percent of gross domestic product that NATO allies have agreed to spend on their militaries. In recent years, politicians focusing on the national budget and defense have been pushing regularly to get more money for the troops, but their pleas never seemed to get past the Finance Ministry. For many of those years, the finance minister was Olaf Scholz, today’s chancellor. And he’s likely to be facing uncomfortable questions soon about why he cut back on equipment for the troops.
Moreover, you can’t turn around a large organization like the Bundeswehr in one or two years. Progress comes slowly, if at all, meaning that the current escalation is hitting the troops at a delicate stage: They’re just not there yet. The goal had been to achieve the turnaround by the beginning of the next decade, but it will have to happen much faster now. The current crisis is acting as a “mental catalyst,” says one senior officer.
An internal Army paper lists the things that are still lacking. It states that many combat units still aren’t fully equipped, and the readiness of weapons systems is too low despite all efforts. The force therefore lacks the “cold-start capability” to mobilize larger units quickly in an emergency. “We can deliver on what we planned two years in advance,” says one senior officer, “anything else will be difficult.”
Even the routine promises made by Germany prior to Putin’s invasion have proven difficult for the Bundeswehr to fulfill. For this year, the force has announced 13,700 troops for the NATO Response Force, the alliance’s rapid reaction force. Since the end of last week, several thousand of them are required to be able to deploy within a week. But what if NATO demands even more, if the military leadership wants a little more deterrence for the eastern flank in addition to the strike force? Things would then get tight very quickly, according to the Bundeswehr.
Indeed, the reinforcement of Lieutenant Colonel Andrä’s unit in Lithuania with 350 soldiers and self-propelled howitzers also wasn’t exactly spontaneous. Months ago, military planners in Berlin realized that the situation in the east could come to a head – and they had begun to assemble reinforcements as a precaution. All Defense Minister Lambrecht had to do was order their deployment.
The Bundeswehr’s Math Tricks
At the moment, it is only possible to give an approximate estimate regarding the degree to which German armed forces have already been transformed and what conditions the troops are in. In any case, the official figures published by the Bundeswehr itself are embellished. For example, in the most recent “Material Readiness Report for Major Weapon Systems,” the armed forces proudly reported a readiness rate of 77 percent. But at best, that’s only half the truth.
On Tuesday of this week, the Bundeswehr’s confidential internal database listed a total inventory of 119 “Panzerhaubhitze 2000” howitzers. Exactly 56 of these were declared to be ready for deployment, less than half – yet the databases showed a readiness rate of 65.9 percent. The trick. The 34 howitzers that are currently being serviced and therefore can’t be used, simply aren’t included in the calculation.
In the case of the Puma armored fighting vehicles, one of the most problematic defense projects of recent years, the figures are even more absurd. As of Tuesday, only 137 of the 350 vehicles were operational, even though the forces reported a 57.4 percent readiness rate internally.
Given such mathematical trickery, it is quite possible that military planners themselves aren’t aware of the true condition of the German military. Still, there are indications that things may be slowly improving.
When the Bundeswehr first provided the core of NATO’s rapid response force in 2015, the armored infantrymen based in Marienberg were forced to basically conduct a large-scale plundering of the entire military to obtain 15,000 pieces of needed equipment from other units.
But when the Armored Infantry Brigade 37 takes over next year, it will be able to bring about 80 percent of the needed equipment itself. The Bundeswehr, however, will miss its official target of fully equipping an entire brigade by 2023 – even thought it made the promise to NATO that it would do so.
“NATO has to mobilize what it has now.”
Adis Ahmetovic, SPD
The pressure on the troops will now increase. At the same time, though, politicians are likely to discuss more freely than before the fact that the army needs to be properly equipped. “I don’t want war, and I don’t want rearmament,” says Jessica Rosenthal, the chair of Juso, the youth wing of the SPD. “But we also, of course, need to be asking ourselves what can be done to counter an autocrat like Putin, who seems ready to do anything, and what that means for the military dimension.”
The fact that a party leftist like Rosenthal is talking about the “military dimension” shows that there has been significant movement. Fellow party member Adis Ahmetovic says, “NATO needs to mobilize what it has now.” He says all the borders must be secured – in Poland and Slovakia, in the Baltic states, but also in the Western Balkans. “This gateway in southeastern Europe isn’t really on anyone’s radar,” says Ahmetovic, who is a member of the German parliament. “I was there a few weeks ago and there were Russian flags hanging in many places.” The foreign policy expert says that it is now time to talk about increasing the defense budget.
Former SPD leader and ex-Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is now head of the Atlantic Bridge, an organization dedicated to deepening trans-Atlantic relations, expressed similar sentiments. He said NATO will “also have to station troops and weapons systems in Eastern European member states with a border to Russia.”
The view coming from the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is also part of Scholz’s governing coalition, is similar. “In Putin’s world, concessions mean weakness,” says Michael Link, the European policy spokesman for the FDP’s parliamentary group and an expert on Russia. He argues that “all options for economic and financial sanctions by the EU and military deterrence by NATO” must now be considered.
Germany’s Leadership Role in Europe
Piotr Buras, the Germany expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, is already talking about a “major shift” in German foreign policy. “The idea that ever-closer economic economic ties and political cooperation in multilateral organizations are the best guarantee of security has failed,” he says. He argues that it’s time Germany assume its leadership role in Europe.
But what might that look like?
The only that that could now help is the “total isolation” of Russia, as one German diplomat put it, adding that there will be sanctions, financial flows will have to be shut down, assets with have to be frozen mercilessly, globally and without exceptions. But even with sanctions, there have already been disagreements among European partners.
If the EU wants to hit the Russian economy hard, it has to target oil and gas, but some EU countries are even more dependent on Russian supplies than Germany. Italy, for example, purchases almost a quarter of all liquefied natural gas exports from Russia. On Thursday, Germany drew the ire of many EU partners when it spoke out against excluding Russia from the SWIFT international banking system.
In part because they are aware of such difficulties, German diplomats are now turning their attention to China. The massive country has shown itself so far to be a loyal ally of Russia. German diplomats believe that China views the current escalation positively from a strategic point of view, since Moscow will now have to turn its economic focus completely to the East. But who wants to be seen as being close to a warmonger? The hope in Berlin is that China can thus play an important mediating role – and that the Germans would be back in the game because of their good contacts there. On Thursday, however, Beijing sided with Moscow. That could be the next hope to be dashed.
So, what other options are still on the table? The German government says it will now take a “robust” stance toward Russia, and that applies in particular to equipping the Bundeswehr in the future. Meanwhile, Economics Minister Habeck wants to move as quickly as possible to reduce Germany’s dependence of Russian natural gas.
He is planning radical steps to make that happen. Among other things, he has suggested that the rapid expansion of renewable energies could be a justified by a national emergency and thus significantly accelerated. Wind turbines would then no longer take up to seven years from planning to completion. The Economics Ministry also wants to significantly increase the supply of liquefied natural gas, including moving ahead with plans for new shipping terminals that can process the incoming gas. One of the planned terminals would float in the water and should be completed as quickly as possible.
Germany will have to adapt to the new times, become more flexible, increase its defenses and say goodbye to the illusions that many have long held about Vladimir Putin. Even within the Left Party, which has links to the former East German Communist Party, leaders of the party and the party group in parliament strongly and unequivocally condemned the invasion on Thursday. But in the chancellor’s SPD, of all places, some appear not to have truly grasped what is happening.
“Problems can’t be solved militarily,” SPD leftist Ralf Stegner tweeted the morning of the attack. He wrote that there can’t be a “new ice age with war + arms race.”
He sent out the tweet shortly after the Ukrainian government reported the first 40 deaths.