One Year Later, Germany is Still Turning After Its 'Turning Point' With Russia
The invasion of Ukraine caused Germany to change in ways never thought possible. But too often, Berlin moves at its own glacial pace.
Three days after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a stunning speech to the Bundestag. He declared: "Feb. 24, 2022, marks a historic turning point [Zeitenwende] in the history of our continent." He announced that Germany would make U-turns in its energy and military policies. It would cease reliance on Russian energy, speeding up construction of two terminals of liquified natural gas (L.N.G.). It would abandon its policy of not sending arms to conflict zones, and give weapons to Ukraine. It would modernize its much-underfunded military and spend 100 billion euros on the defense budget in 2022.
To Russian leader Vladimir Putin, this speech must have been something of a shock. Putin, who spent his formative years as a K.G.B. operative in Dresden and speaks fluent German, might have calculated that he could count on Germany folding. Over the past decade, Berlin had increased its energy links with Russia. Cheap gas helped grow the German economy out of a recession, and Berlin hoped for democratic change in Moscow, but did next to nothing when that didn't happen. Putin had cultivated German elites like former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who like many others in Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.), had a submissive attitude towards Russia.
Berlin has had remarkable success in turning away from Russian energy. (And has had the good fortune of a warm winter.) According to the Wall Street Journal, in December 2021, Scholz asked to see his government’s contingency plan if Russia stopped supplying energy and was told there was no plan. Yet, the German government filled up its natural gas storage; the new L.N.G. terminals went on line; it accelerated development of renewables; and extended the lifetime of nuclear plants. These changes did not cause a big economic crisis as some predicted; while home energy prices have risen, the German government adopted a stimulus package to cushion the increase. To discourage summer driving, all public transit across the country was accessible with a single ticket costing nine euros a month for June, July, and August.
However, Russia has very little to fear in terms of Germany's military prowess. It took 10 months for the government to earmark a euro of its 100 billion fund, and, according to the Defense Ministry, has only allocated 30 billion of the funds. Military commanders say that Germany's military is in a worse state than before the war.
Berlin took months to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, which Scholz finally agreed to last month. While Berlin scored a substantive victory for Ukraine in getting the Biden Administration to abandon its opposition to supplying its Abrams tanks, it felt like a loss as it looked like he did something that Washington had asked him to do after months of foot-dragging. (On March 3, Scholz came to Washington to meet with President Biden to discuss Western support for Kyiv.)
Part of the problem with Scholz's approach to Zeitenwende has been his tendency to look at public relations as an afterthought. His poll numbers have dropped. He has made it a virtue to ignore critics. Scholz has said that he does not "squint at poll numbers or get irritated by shrill rants." He referred to his Ukraine critics as "boys and girls." Scholz has refused to say that Ukraine can win the war, only saying that Russia must not win. Meanwhile, German public support has been robust for Ukraine, with the exceptions on the far-left and far-right.
Last fall, I saw first-hand how Scholz's team has been muddled in its strategic communications. Attending a conference in Berlin, I watched Atlantic journalist Anne Applebaum and multiple audience members press Scholz's chief of staff, Wolfgang Schmidt, over Berlin's refusal to send tanks to Ukraine. Schmidt offered his reasons, which seemed more like excuses: the supply chains would take a long time to set up; if German tanks were captured with their insignia it would be a victory for Russian propaganda; and, the United States hadn't sent tanks either. In the first two cases, the objections seemed surmountable (paint would get rid of the German insignia or figure out the supply chains), and needing to get Washington on board didn't make much sense as the U.S. tanks now won't arrive for almost two years.
After the months of wrangling, Berlin has adopted a much bolder approach to supporting Ukraine. It has become the largest supplier of tanks to Ukraine, with Poland as the only other European country also agreeing to send a sizable contingent. (France has ruled out sending any tanks.) Scholz sacked his Defense Minister, Christine Lambrecht, in January, after she was largely seen for months as not up to the job and dogged by a corruption scandal. The new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, has already said what Scholz won't: Ukraine must win. Still, Germany has been much slower in building up its own defenses against Russia and its capability to send more weapons and ammunition to Ukraine; rejuvenating its military continues to be a glacial process, hampered by pork-barrel politics and a longstanding bureaucratic aversion to doing things quickly.
Still, the question remains how much Scholz taking his time on decisions will harm Ukraine's efforts to win the war as thousands of Ukrainians die at the front and Russia mobilizes large numbers of troops. Last April, in an interview with Der Spiegel, Scholz was asked whether his poll numbers plummeting was due to an "impression that people are being massacred in Ukraine, while forms still need to be filled out in Germany." He deflected the question. Nearly a year later, the question is still open.
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