Olaf Scholz struck the right note on Friday when he reaffirmed his government’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s war of self-defence against Russia. The German chancellor has come in for considerable criticism, much of it unjustified, for the measured way in which he has shaped Berlin’s response to the Kremlin’s merciless assault on Ukrainian independence over the past 12 months. At the Munich security conference, Scholz used strong language in denouncing Russia’s “imperialist war of aggression” and reminded his audience of the need for western democracies to co-ordinate their actions. Part of that effort will require Germany to make good on its promises to strengthen its long-term contribution to European security.
One criticism of Scholz and his three-party coalition is that it has dithered over military support for Ukraine. Another is that the government has failed to follow up words with actions after announcing an ambitious plan to raise defence expenditure and upgrade Germany’s rundown armed forces. In reality, though, it remains a work in progress: Scholz deserves credit for inspiring a reassessment of Germany’s security policies with few parallels since the Federal Republic’s creation in 1949.
For one thing, Germany’s military aid to Ukraine, which amounted to €2.34bn by last November, is in absolute terms the largest of any EU country — though below that of the UK and far less than the US effort. For another, Germany’s decision to supply Ukraine with Leopard tanks was a difficult step for a country whose political leaders and society have been understandably reticent for decades about the application of German military might, even indirectly, beyond the national borders.
Germany has, however, been slow to implement the pledge of higher defence spending contained in the landmark Zeitenwende (historical turning point) speech that Scholz delivered just days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion. As a proportion of output, defence expenditure remains well below Nato’s 2 per cent target, as it has been since the end of the cold war. Tussles between the chancellery and government ministries have delayed the formal announcement of a new national security strategy. Nonetheless, Scholz remains committed to meeting Nato’s spending target. The Bundestag last year approved his proposal for a €100bn special defence fund by an overwhelming majority — a sign of strong cross-party support for the Zeitenwende.
There have been big changes in German energy policy, too. So heavy was Germany’s reliance on Russian gas that it might have seemed an impossible task to switch course. Yet Scholz’s government not only ended the Nord Stream 2 gas project but, in a radical break with decades of German energy policy, has sharply reduced imports of Russian gas. The price has been high — energy costs for German consumers soared last year, and the European Commission forecasts its economy to grow only 0.2 per cent this year — but Scholz’s government has been prepared to pay it.
A more vigorous, properly funded German defence and security policy is necessary not just because of Russia’s aggression. It is the best way to persuade politicians in Washington that Nato’s European members are not simply free-riders on the US security guarantee of the continent. Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed frustration for many years with the unjustifiably low financial and military contribution of many European countries to the alliance’s collective defence. Germany can and should take a leading role in setting matters straight, helping in this way to solidify the transatlantic security relationship for decades to come.