(CNN) — The past 12 months have forced European leaders to seriously rethink their approach to national security.
If the Russian invasion of Ukraine has confirmed anything, it is that peace on the continent cannot be taken for granted. The status quo—decades of low spending and defense that is not a political priority—cannot continue.
This is especially true of Germany, which for years has spent far less on its military than many of its Western allies, but is now rethinking its defense approach at home and abroad.
Days after the invasion began last February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered a shocking speech to parliament pledging to spend 100 billion euros ($108 billion) to modernize Germany’s military capabilities.
He also promised that Germany would raise its defense spending to 2% of GDP — meeting a NATO-set target that it had missed for years — and end its deep dependence on Russian energy, particularly gas.
Yet nearly a year later, critics say Scholz’s vision hasn’t come true. And Germany has been accused of procrastinating when it comes to sending its most powerful weapons to Ukraine.
Criticism has mounted in recent days as American and European leaders have pressured Berlin to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, or at least allow other countries to do so.
Experts estimate that there are around 2,000 Leopard tanks in use in 13 countries in Europe, and they are seen as increasingly vital to Ukraine’s war effort as the conflict progresses into its second year. But Berlin must give these nations approval to re-export German-made tanks to Ukraine, and has so far resisted calls to do so.
Scholz has insisted that any such plan should be fully coordinated with the entire Western alliance, and German officials have indicated they will not approve the transfer of Leopards unless the US also agrees to send some of its tanks to Kyiv.
On Friday, a key meeting of Western allies in Germany broke down without a broader agreement on sending tanks to Ukraine, after the country’s new defense minister Boris Pistorius said his government had not yet made a decision. .
Pistorius rejected claims that Germany has been “getting in the way” of a “united coalition” of countries in favor of the plan. “There are good reasons for surrender and there are good reasons against … all the pros and cons have to be weighed very carefully, and many allies explicitly share that assessment,” he added.
Germany’s decision to go deeper into tanking is likely to go down badly with its allies, both in the short and long term.
“It’s like acid eroding layer upon layer of trust,” a senior NATO diplomat told CNN on Friday. The diplomat added that Germany’s hesitation could also have a lasting impact on the rest of Europe and potentially push other members of the alliance closer to the US, even if Germany is reluctant to do so.
And the divisions in the alliance have only become more public in recent days: Earlier in the week, Poland’s prime minister described Germany as “the least proactive country in the group, to put it mildly” and suggested that his country could send Leopards to Ukraine without Berlin’s approval.
a balancing act
Despite all the criticism of Germany’s doubts about tanks, Berlin has played a crucial role in supporting Ukraine over the past year. The United States and the United Kingdom are the only two countries that have delivered more military aid to Kyiv than Germany since the invasion began, according to the Kiel Institute.
Germany’s military support for Ukraine has evolved over time. It abandoned its longstanding policy of not delivering lethal weapons to conflict zones and recently stepped up deliveries of heavier equipment to Ukraine, including armored infantry fighting vehicles and Patriot anti-missile defense systems.
The government, however, sees the tanks as a big step up from the weaponry it has delivered to Ukraine so far, and fears that authorizing the use of German tanks against Russia would be seen by Moscow as a significant escalation.
Experts say the reluctance is due in part to Berlin’s pragmatic approach to the conflict in general and a relatively timid military stance going back decades, informed by what Scholz himself has described as “the dramatic consequences of two world wars.” that originated in Germany.
“Germany has been in peacetime for years. We don’t have the procedural or procurement expertise to do anything at speed right now. The truth is that for decades, we have seen our defense budget as a gift to our allies because they thought it was important,” said Christian Mölling, deputy director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Whatever happens in the Ukraine, Germany will have to ask itself some important questions about security in the coming years. The appetite for improving Germany’s armed forces has grown significantly since the start of the war.
Last week, Christine Lambrecht resigned as defense minister amid criticism of her efforts to modernize the armed forces. Lambrecht had struggled to do anything remarkable with the 100 billion euros Scholz made available to her last year. The leader of the Christian Democrats, Germany’s main opposition party, has accused the chancellor of not taking his own speech last year seriously.
What does Germany want?
The person who can now spend that money is Pistorius, whom German officials see as a safe, up-to-the-job pair of hands. The question he and Scholz must answer is how far Germany is willing to go to be a serious military presence in Europe.
In December, Germany admitted it would fall short of Scholz’s promise to meet NATO’s requirement on defense spending in 2022, saying it would likely miss the target again in 2023.
And the combat readiness of its military is inferior to that of other European powers. Based on Rand’s cooperation, it would take Germany about a month to mobilize a fully armored brigade, while the British Army “should be able to maintain at least one armored brigade indefinitely.”
Defense experts say Germany will find it difficult to move very far or very fast in its efforts to bolster its military.
“Yes, we have committed to spending more on our security, but without a clear idea of what exactly it should be spent on or how it fits into a broader security strategy,” Mölling said.
Mölling also believes that Germany’s defense ambitions could be hampered by political will: “The races have been built on the narrative that Germany is a peace-loving nation. The public mood is changing and possibly at a tipping point, but it would be very difficult to be the leader that propelled Germany to become a leading player in European security.”
European officials and diplomats are pessimistic, thinking that the reality of German politics means that it will ultimately continue to resist serious defense reform.
a pivotal moment
It is often said in diplomatic circles that Germany’s 21st-century model of success has been built on three pillars: cheap Chinese labor, cheap Russian energy, and American security guarantees.
Many believe that this well-known preference for diplomatic pragmatism and the subsequent reluctance to choose sides will mean that any defense reform will be severely limited.
A German official told CNN that it will be difficult for traditional politicians to break free of old habits: “They have an inherent skepticism against overtly siding with the United States and a subtle hope that the relationship with Russia can be patched up.”
Berlin has lent its support to Ukraine in other ways as well, taking steps to stop using Russian gas and setting an example for the rest of Europe, which has seen its overall gas consumption decline since the start of the war. Europe’s relatively warm winter has, of course, helped, but preventing Putin from weaponizing energy has been a major factor in the Western reaction against Moscow.
But Europe’s security map has been redrawn, as have the dividing lines in international diplomacy. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of another country has shown more clearly than ever that moral values are not universal.
Germany, the richest country in Europe, has undoubtedly benefited greatly from its policy of keeping its feet in two camps. It is protected by NATO membership while maintaining economic relations with unsavory partners.
That policy has been denounced, and now Germany must decide exactly what kind of voice it wants to have in the current global security conversation. The decisions you make in the coming years could play a crucial role in defining the security of the entire European continent for decades to come.