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Ukraine: Russia's war marks turning point for Germany

February 21, 2023

The first year of Russia's major invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed German politics. But the country is having a hard time with the new status quo.

After Russian missile attack in early February: destruction in eastern Ukrainian Kramatorsk
The region of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine was hit by a Russian missile attack in early FebruaryImage: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/REUTERS

It was only three and a half days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a speech in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, that would go down in German history: It was his speech about the "Zeitenwende" — the paradigm change or turning point for Germany. 

"The world after is no longer the same as the world before," said Scholz. "At the heart of the matter is the question of whether powers may violate rights, whether we can allow Putin to turn back the clock to the time of the great powers of the 19th century, or whether we muster the strength to set limits to warmongers like Putin," the German chancellor said on February 27, 2022.

Scholz: Putin 'destroying the European security structure'

A night of despair, but Germany is asleep 

Seventy-two hours earlier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had one last time implored the Russian ambassador to the United Nations in New York to renounce a full-scale attack on Ukraine. 

In Germany, at that time, most decision-makers were already fast asleep. It was this moment in which a historic course was set for Germany, without Europe's largest economy being able to change or determine it. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his army toward Kyiv, intending to shift borders in Europe. The last time something similar happened was when Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic moved to create a Greater Serbia in the Western Balkans in the 1990s.

But now the stakes are much higher: The largest country in the world, the nuclear power Russia, has acted as an imperial power, questioning the postwar order as it had been set down in the Charter of the United Nations at the end of World War II, following the defeat of Germany's imperialist "Third Reich" under the leadership of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. 

"By invading Ukraine, Putin not only wants to wipe an independent country off the world map," Scholz said in his "Zeitenwende" speech. "He is shattering the European security order as it has stood for almost half a century since the Helsinki Final Act." Scholz was referring to the 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which ushered in the peaceful end of the Cold War in Europe. 

Its successor, today's Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe , was supposed to restore peace in Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, annexed by Russia following the pro-European Euromaidan revolution in February 2014 which overthrew then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who was loyal to Putin. 

The OSCE pulling out of Ukraine following Russia's full-scale invasion showed that Putin was "positioning himself on the sidelines of the entire international community," Scholz said.

Why Germany's military is in a bad state, and what's being done to fix it

Billions of euros for the Bundeswehr

The "turning point" meant that the German army, the Bundeswehr, was to be upgraded with a special fund worth more than €100 billion ($106 billion). One year later, however, new supplies from the German arms industry are slow to materialize. Ukraine has been supplied with weapons from Germany for a year now. It's a break with the German policy to avoid sending weapons to war zones. 

But opinion polls show that the majority of Germans are in favor of this about-turn. As the pressure on Berlin to approve the supply of German-made infantry fighting vehicles and battle tanks intensified over the course of the year, a rift emerged between those who support and others who oppose weapon deliveries. And Scholz initially had to overrule the skeptics in the left wing of his Social Democrat Party (SPD).

The chancellor relented on one condition: He would only give his approval for battle tank deliveries if the United States agreed to supply Abrams battle tanks. Last month, 50 countries making up the US-led alliance to support Ukraine met for their eighth ministerial-level meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group. A few days later, the decision was finally made to provide Ukraine with Western battle tanks. However, the German chancellor had failed to get enough countries on board to go ahead and supply Leopard 2 tanks.

Critics have said that so far, "Zeitenwende" has meant that Germany does not take the lead, but runs behind. The US, on the other hand, is forging ahead. In June 2022, the US House of Representatives approved $100 million to train Ukrainian pilots on Western fighter jets. The decision on the delivery of fighter jets is still pending. But preparations are underway, with discussions focusing on the F-16 model, the most widely available Western fighter jet since the Cold War.

Germany has no say on the issue, as the country's Air Force primarily flies the Eurofighter jet model. During a visit to the Bundeswehr in the northern German town of Münster, where Ukrainian servicemen and women are now being trained on Leopard-2 tanks, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told DW: "I can only say for the Federal Republic of Germany that all discussions are about types of fighter jets that we do not have, so from that point of view this is more a question for other countries than Germany." 

Poland and The Netherlands have offered F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine if the allies in NATO and the "Ukraine Contact Group" agree to go ahead. It appears the US is keeping its options open while Germany is lagging behind, even though it has claimed to want to take on a leadership role in Europe.

Yet the Germans have shown a lot of empathy toward the Ukrainian people. And they are generous: more than 1 million refugees from Ukraine have come to Germany. Only Poland has taken in even more.

And in 2022, Germans donated more than a billion euros in emergency aid for Ukraine.

However, economists at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy have compared Germany's performance in other wars to the year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Shrinking cities make room for refugees

According to the Kiel institute, the German government's aid to Ukraine, measured in terms of gross domestic product, amounts to one-third of the amount that Germany transferred to the United States in 1990 and 1991 in the course of the second Gulf War. 

At the time, economically powerful West Germany played but a minor role in global security policy, pursuing its interests through what was known as "checkbook diplomacy." Three decades later, German-made heavy weapons are rolling on the front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine. And Germany is having a hard time finally saying goodbye to the cherished certainty that it would remain able to enforce its interests through money alone. 

This article was originally written in German.

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