Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

It's Time for Olaf Scholz to Walk His Talk

| Aug. 09, 2022

Since announcing revolutionary changes in German defense, Berlin has been dragging its feet nonstop.

On Feb. 27, visibly shocked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine three days earlier, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stepped before an emergency session of the German Bundestag in Berlin and gave his now-famous Zeitenwende speech—outlining a "change of era" in German defense policy. In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's war of aggression, Scholz promised a decisive break with Germany's negligence of military defense and passive attitude toward foreign affairs. Scholz pledged to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense annually "from now on," provide an emergency fund of 100 billion euros (around $110 billion) to facilitate this increase, and to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine in a reversal of long-standing German arms export policies.

The speech was immediately lauded as a historic milestone—not just in Berlin, but also in Washington and other NATO capitals, where the absence of any serious German defense policy has been lamented for years. In a curious way, Scholz's thunderclap of a speech has established a narrative about a newly sober, serious Germany finally taking some responsibility for European security. The problem with this narrative is that there remains a rather large gap between Scholz's Zeitenwende rhetoric and Germany's policies since then.

For one, Scholz's promise to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense annually proved short-lived. The regular German defense budget is set to remain at around 50 billion euros (around $55 billion) until 2026, with only 8.5 billion euros (about $9 billion) of the emergency fund earmarked for 2023. Defense spending thus falls short of the 2 percent target, which would currently be around 70 billion euros (around $77 billion), and much will depend on the emergency fund's further use. None of this suggests a change of era. Given the dismal state of Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, including a lack of functioning equipment, the current steps are unlikely to measurably improve Germany's defense capabilities. Much higher spending will have to be sustained over at least a decade just to make up for past neglect—instead, Berlin is still dragging its feet. Almost half a year since Scholz's speech, his government has yet to present any serious strategy or plan for the future of the Bundeswehr, the role Germany intends to play in European collective security, or the contribution of Germany's improved military to warding off the Russian threat.

While Scholz's decision to supply heavy arms to Ukraine was a reversal of a long-standing policy not to send arms into combat zones, Berlin has been dragging its feet here as well. Germany agreed to resupply Eastern European countries with modern weapons systems in return for these countries sending their Soviet-era tanks, ammunition, and other materiel to Ukraine. This policy, too, has not been implemented as announced. Poland donated 200 of its T-72 main battle tanks to Ukraine—about one-third of its total main battle tanks. Berlin's promise to resupply the Polish armed forces with German-built Leopard 2 tanks out of Bundeswehr stocks has come to nil. When German arms manufacturers offered to step into the breach and deliver around 100 antiquated Leopard 1 tanks and 100 Marder infantry fighting vehicles, Berlin delayed approval of the deal. Meanwhile, discussions with the Czech Republic for a similar resupply are still underway. But who still has any trust in German promises, many months after they were made? Poland has now looked for more reliable partners elsewhere and ordered around 1,000 tanks, 650 artillery pieces, and dozens of combat aircraft from South Korea. Berlin's decision-making paralysis is thus not only undermining European defense in the worst security crisis since World War II but also frustrating any chance for a strategic and coordinated European defense industrial policy.

Equally corrosive for German credibility has been the handling of the few arms the country has delivered to Ukraine. A self-propelled howitzer, the Panzerhaubitze 2000, was the first major platform to be delivered, yet Berlin only freed up seven of them—and even those weren’t sent until June. (The Bundeswehr has about 100 of them and could certainly spare more.) Given the intensity of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, some of these pieces are already showing considerable wear and tear, prompting Berlin to send three more last month. Germany has also approved a Ukrainian order of 100 Panzerhaubitze 2000s from the manufacturer, yet it remains unclear how quickly they can be built. What's more, Berlin has yet to grant the necessary export permit—more red tape that, given its notorious foot-dragging, should be a red flag for Kyiv....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Schmelter, Lukas Paul and Bastian Matteo Scianna.“It's Time for Olaf Scholz to Walk His Talk.” Foreign Policy, August 9, 2022.

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