Germany’s Zeitenwende: Too Little, Too Late?


In Europe the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era marked by absence of Realpolitik. The mere idea of war on the continent suddenly became unimaginable and the concept of military power slipped into oblivion for many European countries. Europeans soon became convinced that peace would persist and any efforts against stability would be hindered by the economic interdependence amongst states. Although they were proven wrong on multiple occasions (most remarkably in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014), they were yet not willing to accept the fact that their theory of interdependence does not hold and that military power is still of paramount importance in world politics. This was soon to change with the full-fledged war Russia would start in Ukraine on February 24. With war on their footstep, European countries were forced to come to terms with the reality that they needed military capabilities and alliances to ensure their safety. In line with this radical shift in European mindset, Finland and Sweden sought NATO membership after decades long neutrality, and the matter of neutrality also became a controversial issue in other EU countries not party to NATO.

Being a leading economic and political power in Europe, Germany was also strongly influenced by these developments and had to adjust its ‘old belief system’ to the new realities on the ground. Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany, did not wait long before calling the start of war in Ukraine “Zeitenwende” (a watershed moment) in his ‘revolutionary’ speech. Indeed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point not only for German politics but also for the public opinion in the country. Following the invasion almost a half of the population changed their opinion in favour of increasing defence spending to 2 percent of GDP. This alone stands to show how dramatically threat perceptions of Germany had changed within a few days, necessitating the formulation of new German foreign and defence policy.

During his speech on February 27, Olaf Scholz outlined the principles that were to guide German foreign and defence policy in this new “era.” According to the Chancellor, Zeitenwende meant that Germany had to leave its pacifist stance aside, supplying Ukraine with weapons, increasing its defence capabilities, and fulfilling its obligations towards NATO allies. Furthermore, Germany’s Russia policy was to undergo dramatic changes with the implementation of a wide-range of sanctions on the former ‘partner’ and reduction of dependence on Russian fossil fuels. These changes proposed by the Chancellor were quite far-reaching and gathered broad domestic and international support at the time of their announcement. However unprecedented these changes may be for Germany, they were without doubt belated. Germany had, in fact, long been called by its allies to increase its defence spending and decrease its dependence on Russian natural gas. Despite all the warnings, the German government had seen a little merit in changing its ways until the very onset of war in Ukraine. Now that Germany has finally decided to reform its foreign and defence policy, many are interested whether enough is being done by the government. This is the question I aim to examine in the following.

First and foremost, Olaf Scholz said that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine calls for “an unequivocal response” which Germany was willing to give by providing Ukraine with weapons. Even though support for Ukraine stands at the very core of the Chancellor’s 27 February speech (indeed, it is the very first action plan Olaf Scholz speaks of during his speech), Europe’s economic powerhouse lags much behind Poland and the UK as far as the delivery of weapons to Ukraine is concerned. Even when one looks into the data on general bilateral aid pledged to Ukraine by individual countries (as a share of their GDP), one notices that Germany with 0.08% of its GDP does not make it to the top 10 of the list.

Germany has been particularly reluctant in sending heavy weapons to Ukraine. Initially, Olaf Scholz stated that the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine could lead to an escalation between NATO and Russia. As other NATO countries sending weapons caused no such ‘catastrophe’ feared by the Chancellor, his argument turned out to be a mere excuse not to deliver heavy weapons. Even though Germany has now agreed to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons, it does so in a rather slow manner drawing criticism from its allies such as Poland. President Zelensky has also been discontent with the level of military support provided by Germany: “Every leader of our partner countries and naturally the Chancellor as well knows exactly what Ukraine needs. It’s just that the (weapons) deliveries from Germany are still less than they could be.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in his turn has complained of the delays in delivery of German weapons: “There are countries from which we are awaiting deliveries, and other countries for which we have grown tired of waiting. Germany belongs to the second group.”

The Chancellor is facing fierce criticism from within his government as well. Friedrich Merz, the opposition leader, for instance, denounced Scholz’s Ukraine policy, accusing him of pursuing a “hidden agenda.” Despite all the international and domestic pressure, there has been little progress in Germany’s Ukraine policy over the past six months. Not only did Germany fail to deliver on its promise to provide its allies with modern weapons in return for the Soviet arms sent to Ukraine (so-called ring exchange), but it also ramped down its direct military support for Ukraine by making no new commitments to the country during July. Most recently, Olaf Scholz pledged €500 million in military equipment to Ukraine breaking the stagnation. However significant this development may seem, it is riddled with the same problems typical to all the previous commitments made by the German government – it takes too long for Germany to actually deliver on them.

Secondly, in his Zeitenwende speech Olaf Scholz pledged the Bundeswehr a special fund in the amount of €100 billion which is supposed to be used to equip German troops with modern technology and armament and thereby increase the country’s defence capabilities. This fund is meant to ensure Germany fulfils its ‘2 percent’ commitment towards its NATO allies. The recent study conducted by the German Economic Institute, however, concludes that Germany’s defence expenditures are to remain below ‘2 percent’ target until 2027 despite the allocation of the special fund. They also fear that by 2027 the special fund will have been completely used up and Germany will be at a greater deficit as far as its ‘2 percent’ commitment is concerned. Not only does the special fund allocated for the Bundeswehr prove to be no good for Germany to keep its promise towards NATO but also this amount is to make a small contribution to the defence capabilities of the country. If one factors in high inflation rates and the fact that Germany will use a part of this special fund for financing pre-existing projects, then merely half of the initially promised sum remains for the actual procurement of military supplies. Whether Germany can equip its “more or less bare” Bundeswehr (in the words of a top German general, Alfons Mais) with the necessary military technology using €60 billion is doubtful. The defence ministry’s ‘murky past’ and bad reputation in handling its budget only add to these doubts. One thing, however, is clear: if Germany keeps moving forward at this pace, it is not soon to be the military power its allies would hope it to be. It is also questionable how Germany is going to defend its allies, to which the Chancellor vowed in his ‘historical speech’, so long as the country lacks the military means to do so.

Thirdly, in his speech Olaf Scholz stressed that energy supply is a matter of security and that his government would undertake a number of measures to reduce Germany’s dependence on individual suppliers referring to Russia. The German government aims to decrease its dependence on Russian gas mainly by importing liquid gas from other sources. In order to be able to import liquid gas, five LNG terminals are to be built in Germany, two of which (in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuettel) are expected to be operational as soon as the end of this year.

In addition, Germany now imports significantly more natural gas from Norway in an attempt to reduce its heavy dependence on Russia. Between January and April alone Norway delivered 15 bln. cubic metre gas to Germany, twice as much compared to the same time period last year. Norway is now the biggest gas exporter to Germany, supplying almost a third of the country’s gas needs.

While Germany depended on Russia for almost 55 percent of its gas imports before the Ukraine war, this number now lies at around 30 percent, which is remarkable progress. Nevertheless, it remains uncertain whether or how long Russia will keep delivering gas to Germany, which forces the government to resort to some temporary measures such as switching from gas-fired electric plants to coal-fired ones in order to save as much gas as possible for the winter. Although it’s a more long-term measure, the German government is also making significant efforts to increase the share of renewable energy and thereby reduce its reliance on fossil fuel imports. While the idea is not completely novel, this process is now being accelerated by the government. All in all, Germany has made a great leap in terms of reducing its gas dependence from Russia, but much remains to be done.

Last but not least, on February 27 the Chancellor emphasised that Russia would have to pay the price for its war in Ukraine mentioning the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia. Despite his rhetoric on this matter, Scholz’s government has been amongst the EU members opposing the Union-wide ban on Russian gas, which would perhaps be the most costly and thus the most effective sanction against Russia. Considering the German economy’s heavy reliance on Russian gas, one may understand the country’s unwillingness to impose such a ban. However, this is not the only instance in which the German government has opposed an EU-wide sanction against Russia. Recently, Scholz said that his government would not support the EU-wide ban on tourist visas for Russians, maintaining that it is Putin’s war, not Russians’. This event is followed by the controversial statement of Wolfgang Kubicki, Bundestag vice president, that Germany should activate the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as soon as possible. This behaviour displayed by the German government undermines the West’s unity and contradicts what Scholz’s Zeitenwende promised – a strong stance towards Russia.

Today, Germany’s foreign policy and military undergo dramatic changes that no one would have expected before the Ukraine war. While the German government has done a lot in the past six months, there is still a long way to go before Germany emerges as a strong geopolitical actor Scholz envisioned in his Zeitenwende speech.


*This article was originally published on September 15, 2022.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

Eltaj Rajabov is a research intern at the Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based think tank. He is currently doing his Master’s degree in International Organisations and Crisis Management program at Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany. His research interests include the contestation of International Organisations, EU-Russia relations, and German foreign policy.

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