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Ukraine-Russia war triggers major German policy changes

March 1, 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in German politics. Many longstanding principles have been thrown overboard.

Brandenburg gate with protest banner reading "stop war"
Germany has gone all out in opposition to Russia's aggression in UkraineImage: Rolf Zoellner/epd/imago images

War has broken out in Europe again — and this has taken many people in Germany completely by surprise. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially the ruling parties have decided to change tack on several key policies.

Weapons exports to crisis regions

Exporting German weapons to conflict areas was long a no-go,especially for the Greens, who are the second-largest party in the new coalition government. The Green Party has its roots in the peace movement of the 1980s.

The party has supported peace missions by Germany's army, the Bundeswehr, but always advocated a very restrictive arms export policy. Now, following intense public pressure and similar promises from other countries, German weapons will be delivered to Ukraine after all, including 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 anti-aircraft missiles.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) told lawmakers in the federal parliament on Sunday that, despite all the restraint still required in arms export policy, Ukraine "must not be left defenseless to the aggressor who is bringing death and devastation to this country."

In their coalition agreement, the center-left SPD, the Greens, and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) had agreed on a restrictive arms export policy that does not allow any weapons deliveries to crisis regions — and they held on to this stance in recent weeks. The coalition agreement also states that "exceptions can only be made in justified individual cases, which must be documented in a publicly transparent manner."

Baerbock explained her U-turn in parliament on Sunday, saying: "Just a few weeks ago, I stood here and said on the subject of arms deliveries that a decision to make a 180-degree turn in foreign policy must be taken at the right moment and with full awareness. Now —  sad as it is — is the moment to do so."

Scholz announces €100 billion defense fund

Upgrading the Bundeswehr

For decades, given the country's history as an aggressor, anyone in Germany who advocated strengthening the Bundeswehr was quickly considered a warmonger. But now the military is to be upgraded, and massively so. The armed forces are to be brought up to speed with a special fund to the tune of €100 billion ($111 billion).

Military strategists are now discussing exactly where to invest. For example, they are considering the development of new tanks and combat aircraft together with European partners, especially France.

One thing seems certain: there will be a shift away from international missions. Twenty years ago, then-Defense Minister Peter Struck (SPD) famously said: "The security of the Federal Republic of Germany is also being defended at the Hindu Kush." That was the beginning of Germany's Afghanistan mission. In the following years, the Bundeswehr moved into more and more operational areas far from its own territory, as it was believed that Germany itself was safe anyway.

Now the Afghanistan mission is over, the end of the Mali mission — which started in 2013 — is also looming, while NATO territory seems to be under immediate threat and possibly even Germany itself. So it is no wonder that the issue of national defense, the original purpose of the Bundeswehr, is coming back into focus.

Budget principles are thrown overboard

The €100 billion for the armed forces is to be a one-off. But defense spending is supposed to increase permanently. For many years, NATO and the United States have been urging the Berlin government to increase defense spending. The NATO countries have set themselves the goal of spending 2% of their economic output on defense. Germany has long spent far less and only recently increased its defense spending to around 1.5% of GDP.

The SPD, the Greens, and the opposition communist Left Party, in particular, have always rejected the 2% target. Now Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced that Germany will even exceed it.

To finance the new military expenditure, the government wants to take on more debt.

Germany has already taken out very large loans to absorb the economic damage caused by the fight against the COVID pandemic.

The third coalition partner, the business-oriented Free Democrats (FDP), has curbing government spending as one of its core principles. But now FDP chairman and Finance Minister Christian Lindner sees no other option than to take on record amounts of new debt.

Germany faces 'gigantic' task meeting climate goals

Rethinking energy policy

Germany is to a large scale dependent on Russian energy supplies: Russia accounts for more than half of Germany's natural gas imports and more than 40 percent of its oil imports. They can hardly be replaced quickly.

The German government wants to significantly expand renewable energies. At the same time, it was planning to phase out coal-fired power generation and nuclear power. Hydrogen power is an option that is being developed, but not yet at a point where it can yield large-scale electricity output. When the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine, new gas-fired power plants were supposed to fill the energy gap.

To counteract dependence on Russia for gas, terminals for liquefied gas from the US are now to be built.

And the government is thinking of letting the nuclear power plants that are still operating and some coal-fired power plants run longer than originally planned. This is particularly bitter for the Greens, because they want to phase out nuclear energy and coal as early as possible. But "there are no taboos, everything is up for discussion," says Green Economy Minister Robert Habeck.

Ukrainian refugees arrive in Poland

Humanitarian issues: Refugee policy

Relatively little will change in Germany when it comes to accepting refugees. From 2015 onwards, Germany took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the civil war in Syria, although its policies also generated a great deal of resistance at home and abroad.

Now, all seem to stand united in the face of an expected refugee influx from Ukraine.

Now, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) has already agreed with her counterparts from across the EU to facilitate the admission of Ukrainian refugees. "Refugees from Ukraine do not have to go through an asylum procedure. They will receive protection in the EU for up to three years," Faeser announced.

This article was originally written in German.

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