BERLIN – On 27 February 2022, three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Olaf Scholz, the chancellor of Germany, delivered the now-famous “Zeitenwende” (turning point) speech to the Bundestag, the German parliament. Scholz announced a €100bn increase in military spending, a historic shift in a country traditionally averse to military spending and asserting hard power.
A little over a year later, though, not much has changed. “It was a lot of rhetoric – not lip service, but only a small amount has been brought to reality,” Roderich Kiesewetter, an MP for the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told me over video call from his home. Scholz’s coalition government, led by his Social Democratic Party, has been accused by international allies of being soft on Russia. It has stalled on weapons deliveries to Ukraine. In October it was reported that the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, had enough ammunition for just two days of war.
Kiesewetter, 59, is also a retired colonel in the Bundeswehr and one of his party’s leading voices on defence policy. He is a member of several parliamentary committees focusing on foreign and defence policy. According to CDU calculations, of the €100bn promised by Scholz, only €600m was spent last year. That may even be an overestimate. A recent report by Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, said that “not a cent” of the fund has yet been spent.
“The defence minister wants an additional $11bn, but it is completely unclear whether he will get his way,” Kiesewetter said. “We are still a long way from the 2 per cent goal [that Nato members are required to spend on defence].” A proposal from the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall for a €42bn investment in the armed forces received “no reaction” from Scholz’s chancellery, Kiesewetter added.
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Still, responsibility for underinvestment in the armed forces lies not only with Scholz. Previous CDU-led governments, under Angela Merkel, for example, are also at fault, Kiesewetter said. “It was a mistake of Chancellor Merkel’s reluctant policy in the last decades that we did not invest what was necessary to have powerful armed forces.”
Indeed, Merkel’s policy towards Russia after the country’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 amounted to “pure appeasement”, Kiesewetter said. Germany should have aided the arming and training of Ukrainian forces as well as supporting negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. “But this was not supported by France and Germany [and] this very necessary endeavour failed.” Instead, German mediation resulted in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk ceasefire accords between Ukraine and Russia, which froze the conflict, a prelude to the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s second invasion in February last year.
“And to top it off,” said Kiesewetter, “the German answer on the annexation of Crimea was Nord Stream 2 [the pipeline that would have brought more Russian gas to Germany]. Angela Merkel said, ‘Well, the economy wants it, and we need change by trade, and we need to convince the Russians we do not need to escalate.’ This was a pure appeasement policy.”
The Merkel government’s softness on Russia can be traced to a strain of “romanticism” regarding Russia in the party, Kiesewetter said. “There were also a lot of romanticists regarding an appeased Russia, or regarding negotiations, change by trade, trying to come to grips with Russia, and this was wrong.” The pro-Russia wing of the party was blinded by economics. It believed that with “cheap energy from Russia, cheap supply chains from China and cheap security from the US”, Germany could be prosperous and secure forever. This attitude “was wrong and ill advised. It was cheaper but it was not worth the price.”
A smaller CDU faction, more sceptical of Moscow, followed the philosophy of Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of postwar West Germany, who believed Germany “could only be reunified through integration with the West and not neutrality or appeasement with Russia”. But during the Merkel era, “the stronger voices who warned the German public were isolated [within the party]”.
Scholz’s SPD has also found it difficult to shake off its own strain of romanticism towards Moscow, Kiesewetter said. Within weeks of the Zeitenwende speech last year, when it became apparent that Ukraine would not fall within days, Germany’s neighbours, such as Poland and the Baltic states, “saw Germany come back to its old behaviour, being reluctant to invest too much and so-on”.
One of the biggest disputes between Germany and its allies took place this year, when Berlin stalled for months on delivering German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Under massive pressure, Germany eventually gave in, authorising allies to deliver the vehicles and committing to sending its own Leopard 1 and 2 models.
Scholz refused to deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine for months because he was spooked by Putin’s “nuclear threats”, Kiesewetter said. The chancellor was afraid that the move would be a “horrible escalation,” he claimed, adding that the government hindered preparation for the decision. “He forbid the armed forces from planning the refurbishment and delivery of Leopard tanks.”
Scholz, by saying that Germany would not be the first to send Western tanks to Ukraine, thought that he could avoid making a decision altogether. “Scholz believed the US would never send tanks. Why should they deliver 72-ton heavy tanks over 8,000 km? This made no sense.” But the Americans, “disturbed” by the impression that the Germans were trying to “take them hostage”, pledged M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, forcing Scholz to commit himself. The Americans, Kiesewetter concluded, “clearly understood that Scholz tried to betray them.”
Scholz may have declared a new era for Germany last year. But to Kiesewetter, the chancellor still has one foot in the pre-invasion world.