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Germany changes tack in 'response to Putin's aggression'

February 27, 2022

In a historic parliamentary session, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced his government's decision to supply weapons to Kyiv, to support a wide range of sanctions against Russia, and to boost defense spending.

German soldiers man a Wiesel armoured fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr,
An German anti-tank weapon seen in a Bundeswehr exercise in Lithuania in 2018.Image: Getty Images

It was a special day in the German Bundestag. Never before has the parliament met on a Sunday. Ukrainian flags were hoisted on two sides of the Reichstag building. In the gallery, Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk followed Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government statement and the ensuing debate. The lawmakers greeted Melnyk standing with long applause - with the exception of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). 

It was an emotional debate. The "unscrupulousness of Putin, the blatant injustice, the pain of the Ukrainians", we are all affected by this, said Chancellor Scholz. On February 24, Russia had launched a "cold-blooded war of aggression" that was "inhumane and contrary to international law" and that marked a "turning point in the history of our continent".

"It was Putin who chose this war, not the Russian people, so we must see clearly that this is Putin's war," the chancellor said. 

Scholz: Putin 'destroying the European security structure'

On Saturday, the German government announced its decision to provide 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 surface-to-air missiles from German military stocks to Ukraine as soon as possible.

Additionally, Estonia and the Netherlands received permission from the German government to transfer German-made weapons to Ukraine, whereas previously such permission had been denied.

The moves reverse Germany's long-standing principle of not sending or selling weapons to conflict areas.

Why did Germany change its policy?

"In attacking Ukraine, Putin doesn't just want to eradicate a country from the world map, he is destroying the European security structure we have had in place since Helsinki," Scholz said, referring to Europe's long-standing security infrastructure. 

"We are not alone in defending peace," he added.

Scholz said anyone "who has read what Putin says" can have "no doubt" the Russian president wants to "create a new order in Europe and he has no qualms about using military capabilities to achieve it."

"What do we need to counter this threat now or in the future?" he added. 

"We will never resign ourselves to violence as a means of politics ... We will not rest until peace is secured in Europe," Scholz tweeted after his address. 

In announcing the policy reversal on Saturday, Scholz said that the "Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point. It threatens our entire post-war order. In this situation, it is our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our ability in its defense against Vladimir Putin's invading army."

"Germany stands closely by Ukraine's side," Scholz added. 

DW's Michaela Küfner on Chancellor Scholz' Bundestag speech

For years, Germany has refused to export any arms to war zones or allow third countries to send German-made arms to these areas. The policy is rooted in Germany's history as an aggressor during World War II. 

Boost in defense spending 

Scholz said the German government would allocate €100 billion extra for the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, in the 2022 budget. 

"From now on, more than 2% of our GDP will be invested in our defense," Scholz said. 

Germany has previously been criticized for devoting less than the 2% mark on defense spending called for by NATO agreements. 

The €100 billion will be allocated into a "special fund" for the German armed forces. 

But to do so, the government needs the opposition's cooperation, as amendments to the constitution will become necessary to take out so much debt, and a two-thirds majority in parliament is required to make such a change.

Friedrich Merz, leader of the largest opposition party, the center-right Christian Democrats, and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) came out in strong support for the rearmament of the Bundeswehr. Morals alone will not make the world a better place, he said. "Chains of lights, peace prayers, Easter marches are a beautiful thing. But ethics alone will not make the world around us peaceful."

Germany must "finally be prepared to define its interests in this world and, above all, be prepared to assert these interests. This includes not only, but also the ability to effectively protect and defend its own territory and its own population against any form of violence and coercion," Merz said to standing-ovations from conservative lawmakers.

The CDU/CSU is in a quandary on this issue. They were heading the German government from 2005 to 2021 and fielded the defense ministers. During this time, the Bundeswehr received less and less money. Only a few days ago one of the country's leading generals, Alfons Mais complained that the troops were so "strapped" for cash that he was having nightmares over it. 

German opposition MP Thomas Erndl (CSU) on Germany sending weapons to Ukraine

Criticism of turnabout

More money for the Bundeswehr and arms deliveries to a war zone - not all lawmakers want to support this.

The communist Left Party has some of the staunchest Russia-supporters in its ranks. But on Sunday its parliamentary group leader, Amira Mohamed Ali, admitted her party had long "misjudged the intentions of the Russian government. Putin is the aggressor and the Left Party stands united on the side of Ukraine. But the consequence could not now be to export weapons or to increase defense spending, she said: "We will not support big-scale rearmament and militarization."

However, many in the SPD and the Green Party also find it difficult to turn away from a purely defensive foreign and security policy. The Greens first emerged from the peace movement of the 1970s, and among the Social Democrats, there are many supporters of the "Ostpolitik" and détente policy under then-Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Green Party Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, therefore, stressed in the Bundestag that the government would "continue to exercise restraint with the deepest conviction" in its arms export policy. In view of "the brutal attack," however, Ukraine "must not be left defenseless to the aggressor who is bringing death and devastation to this country."

Germany suspends Nord Stream 2 pipeline

In her speech, Baerbock also defended the long hesitation in the now agreed exclusion of Russian banks from the international Western payment system Swift. She said that this decision had to be prepared carefully and purposefully. "We have to make sure that we don't run out of steam after three months," she said. The sanctions must "hit the Putin system at its core" - economically, financially, and on an individual level, she said.
Late confirmation for economy minister.

The special session of the Bundestag lasted three and a half hours. A "plenary debate that ten years from now will certainly be described as historic," said Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, the Green Party's Economy Minister. He had drawn flak from his own party and beyond when he suggested the delivery of "defensive" weapons last year after a visit to Ukraine.

With the about-face in foreign and security policy, Habeck should now feel vindicated.

Ukrainians in Berlin take to the street

Ukraine reactions

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed Germany's change of heart. On Twitter, he wrote, "Keep up the good work, Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Anti-war coalition in action!" 

Ukraine's ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, told Germany's DPA news agency: "We are glad that Germany has finally made this 180-degree turnaround."

Melnyk also told German newspaper Die Welt that Ukraine expects "this is only Germany's first step."

He called for "an immediate ban on the import of all Russian raw materials, without exception, not only for gas, petroleum, coal, or metals."


Germany will send weapons to Ukraine

This article was updated and expanded following its initial publication.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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