Germany in the 2022 Ukraine Crisis
Germany wants to come up with a national security strategy (NSS) by the end of 2022. The new government started out with great ambitions in security and defense policy. However, for many allies, Germany seems to be once again a weak link and an unreliable partner in European defense. Instead of focusing on security, it should focus on a strategy for action in the event of conflict. This requires to broaden the concept of security and include more policy fields, especially technology, innovation, and internal security.
Germany’s new government started out with great ambitions in security and defense policy. The first statements and foreign trips of the new government officials to France, Poland, the US, and Ukraine, were reassuring. However, after this rather ambitious start, hesitations, inconsistent action and messaging vis-à-vis allies, worries about how the German public would perceive government decisions, and irritatingly over-cautious moves towards Russia, have overshadowed initial impressions. For many allies, Germany seems to be once again a weak link and an unreliable partner in European defense.
The new government’s faltering policy has uncovered four things:
- The government came into power ill-prepared on security policy. Instead of being outward-looking, the government’s focus was on domestic issues, ranging from corona politics to climate change. In the fall of 2021, most observers had already warned that the new German government would coincide with Russia further escalating over Ukraine. Hence, it was foreseeable that the government’s first crisis to manage would be on international security. Despite this, there was little systematic preparation on this issue during the transition phase. The chancellor’s party is deeply divided over the direction of its foreign policy, which limits the policy options that Chancellor Olaf Scholz can offer to the overall three-party government, the German public, and international partners. The desire to maintain party cohesion and the stability of the government coalition limits what Scholz can openly say. The result has been a litany of vague or late statements.
- The objectives driving the current crisis policy are the same ones Germany is well-known for: avoiding war at all cost, safeguarding European unity, being a good ally, limiting the use of military force and defense exports, dialogue with Russia, and defending German economic interests. On the latter point, this includes protecting energy supplies that are important for the German economy. If the policies sound familiar, so is the reasoning, which is based on a selective interpretation of the consequences of German history, legal constraints, and the need to accommodate Russia in the European security architecture. All of these things still matter to Germany.
- Germany struggles to recognize that its objectives are interconnected, and to some extent mutually exclusive. Germany is not in full control of its destiny and cannot achieve its goals alone. It needs Russia to avoid war, NATO allies to express unity and avoid war, or even both for a security dialogue. Germany’s categorical refusal to export arms contradicts the overall goal of empowering Ukraine to defend its sovereignty and the UN Charter (Art 51).
- The ideas and strategies in Germany’s toolbox to achieve its security objectives remain limited and lack coordination. While many allies and competitors no longer define conflict along the dichotomy of war and peace, Germany still does. This way of thinking contrasts with its allies and adversaries, who think of conflict as a constant engagement and competition in which all instruments from the toolbox need to be used in a coordinated way.
The Eternal German Question and European Security 2030
These hesitancies and inconsistencies leave allies with mixed messages or very late and timid responses to pressing issues. A case in point is how late Germany confirmed that the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) project would be sacrificed in the event of Russian aggression. Unsurprisingly, some allies are tempted to interpret Germany’s current position according to a broader picture of Germany as an unreliable foreign policy partner. Germany has earned this reputation by missing NATO’s 2 percent defense investment guideline, failing to deliver promised military hardware to NATO, supporting the NS2 pipeline, and announcing that it will join the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as an observer. For some of its allies, Germany weakens the political cohesion at the core of NATO’s power.
This is not the first time Germany’s actions (or inaction) have raised concerns among allies. Some may still remember the 2011 UN Security Council vote on the intervention in Libya, where Germany found itself in one camp with China and Russia, while NATO allies sat in the other. In the wake of the 2014 Russian invasion into Ukraine, Germany was at first hesitant to recognize the increased threat to peace posed by Russia.
In fact, the current government has so far largely continued the Merkel-era policy path on Russia and Ukraine, and security policy more broadly. Perhaps that’s not much of a surprise since the social democrats had a say in shaping the Merkel government’s policies as its junior coalition partner. This also points to the fact that there are deeper historical roots to this approach than party politics.
The government’s particular way to act comes at a crucial time for European security. Not only because Russia aims to rewrite the principles of security and stability in Europe, but because Europeans are in the process of shaping their new strategic concept. The EU writes a Strategic Compass and NATO writes a Strategic Concept. Both documents aim to set the course of Europe and NATO security readiness for the next decade. To remain valid until 2030 and beyond, these documents need to deal with issues spanning from well-known structural ones, such as how to deal with Russia and the European neighborhood, and with nuclear deterrence, to ongoing developments like the US pivot to Asia, Europe’s need to take more responsibility for its own security, and technological developments. Let’s not also forget that the plans must factor in the changing nature of conflict, too. In all these questions, Germany’s position is key. But so far, it is not well-defined.
The Way Forward: Delivery and Prioritization
Despite the current disappointment at the government’s goofed-up start and murky track record, it’s not in any European country’s interest – except Russia – to see Germany isolated and inactive in defense.
The current government has only been in power for two months and it is too early to make harsh judgements. There is still hope that Germany adopts a more consistent and responsible approach. Allies can support Germany by recognizing that German politicians and the public might have different preferences to them. Yes, Germany often acts late in international crises, but when it does take action, it does the right thing. For example, in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, Germany first hesitated, but then tried to make up for its actions once it had realized what a devastating message its behavior sent for European defense and for European and transatlantic cohesion. Berlin took up a leading role within the EU by shaping the sanctions against Russia, in NATO with strong support for military and political adaptation, in other areas like the Normandy Format, and by starting to reset its defense policy.
Germany now has one short-term and a long-term task to remedy the current lack of prioritization, reliability, and clarity.
In the short-term, Berlin should define what it wants to do and deliver on those plans, instead of talking to allies about what it cannot do. Here are some actions Germany can start with:
- Germany should prioritize the delivery of its promises to NATO and on European security: The 2021 coalition agreement paves the way to procure nuclear capable aircraft, armed drones, and the next generation European aircraft. The government can prioritize and speed up these investments.
- Accordingly, Germany should also commit to increasing its general defense budget – which is set to be published in spring 2022 – to put an end to the toxic 2 percent debate. Germany has promised to become the backbone of multinational divisions to be put at NATO’s disposal. However, the implementation is still missing.
- Germany should also increase commitments to NATO allies, including by making additional deployments as part of reassurance measures.
- The government should set up an emergency fund for the shutdown of NS2. This could be used to pay fines, compensation, and retaliation costs. This would signal to allies and Russia that Germany is willing and able to increase its energy independence. Pausing NS2 immediately until there is a significant withdrawal of the Russian military build-up would send a strong signal to Russia and allies alike.
According to the coalition treaty, Germany wants to come up with a national security strategy (NSS) by the end of 2022. This would give the government an opportunity to prioritize the security policy wishlist of the coalition agreement. It will also help identify how the different security interests are linked and shape a toolbox that works by integrating different instruments.
To do this, Germany will need to take a different approach. Instead of focusing on security, the document should focus on a strategy for action in the event of conflict. The big challenge for Germany is to understand that its often binary way of classifying war and peace no longer reflects reality. The key feature of systemic competition is that conflict and contestation are continuous and happen below the threshold of war. In our current times, conflict can change forms and intensity. Comprehensive and sustainable peace is rare. But to achieve it, preventive, coordinated and comprehensive action is necessary.
Moreover, the constant nature of modern conflict requires continuous action. But Germany’s action has been neither preventive, coordinated, comprehensive, or constant.
The next option to improve on some of the criteria, or on all, would be a chapter in the NSS that outlines the new dynamics of permanent conflict and how Germany will act in a more preventive, coordinated, comprehensive and continuous way.
A chapter in the NSS that speaks to the current nature of conflict can only be aspirational. To be implemented, Germany needs more than words in a document. Powerful political engagement is necessary to bring this message to the bureaucracy and society. In essence, this would mean revisiting the comprehensive approach that Germany made a key concept of its international engagement back in 2006. However, even then it failed to forcefully implement it. Today, the need to widen the concept of security and include more policy fields, especially technology, innovation, and internal security, is pressing. And these changes will inevitably impact the current setup of authorities and political powers – which makes it so terribly difficult.
This commentary is a chapter from upcoming DGAP Report No. 3 "NATO’s 2030 Reflection Process and the New Strategic Concept".