Two years in: an assessment of Germany’s Zeitenwende in Europe’s contested geopolitical landscape


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Tabea Schaumann
Tabea Schaumann

Programme Assistant at Friends of Europe

Three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 27 February 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered a speech to the Bundestag announcing dramatic changes in Germany’s foreign and security policy. Pledging to set up a €100bn Special Fund (Sondervermögen) to strengthen the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, and reach NATO’s 2% defence spending objective, the speech marked a historic turning point – or a Zeitenwende – in the positioning of a traditionally pacifist country.

Nearly two years in, how much has the government delivered on these pledges? How has Berlin’s policy towards Russia changed and what is Germany’s new role within Europe’s security architecture? Whether Germany has successfully implemented Zeitenwende is contingent on whether its foreign and defence policy has transformed proportionally to its threat environment. In other words, Germany needs to move from a modus operandi of reactive change driven by external pressures to pursuing preventative internal change. Assessing Zeitenwende thus requires evaluating progress made on the key commitments made by Scholz in his speech, namely changes in policy vis-à-vis Russia, including providing support to Ukraine and diversifying energy supplies, as well as bolstering Germany’s defence capacities.

At the time, these announcements were considered a caesura in Germany’s traditionally cautious defence and security policy. Two collectively held beliefs – that military power is futile and that the European security architecture had to be built through cooperation with Russia – were no longer tenable in light of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Throughout the Cold War, Germany pursued rapprochement and normalisation with the East through economic interdependence and diplomatic relations. Decades of Ostpolitik, however, resulted in heavy dependence on Russian gas and oil. Germany imported over half (55%) of its gas and a third of its crude oil from Russia pre-Zeitenwende.

Comparing Germany’s status quo to two years ago, its support for Ukraine is impressive

Following the invasion and particularly Russia’s interruption of gas supply to Europe, Germany’s vulnerability became apparent, as a result of insufficient energy diversification. The Nord Stream 2 project was terminated and Germany reached independence from Russian gas flows through Nord Stream 1 in August 2022. The government has since secured five floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, of which three are already operational, to replace a third of previous gas consumption. Projections by the Federal Association of the German Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) show that, for the first time, more than half of electricity consumption was covered by renewable sources in 2023.

It should be noted, however, that it was Moscow that forced Germany to become independent of its gas supply. Furthermore, dependency on Russian gas should not be replaced with reliance on other authoritarian states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are among some of the LNG suppliers. Nevertheless, the Zeitenwende on energy went smoothly, not least because ecological transformation was already a government priority.

Another measurable indicator of a changed policy towards Russia is the support that Germany has provided to Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion. According to the Kiel Institute for World Economy’s Ukraine Support Tracker, Germany places second among countries in terms of military, humanitarian and financial assistance. With €17bn in military aid, it is the largest military donor, second only to the United States, which has contributed €44bn in military aid. Sending weapons to a conflict zone broke a decades-old taboo. After initial hesitation and under fierce allied pressure, Germany sent heavy weapons, including Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks, Marder infantry fighting vehicles, IRIS-T SLM air defence systems, MARS II multiple rocket launch systems, as well as self-propelled Howitzer Panzerhaubitze 2000. The 2024 budget plan foresees doubling military aid to Ukraine to €8bn, demonstrating the country’s intention to sustain its long-term support.

Comparing Germany’s status quo to two years ago, its support for Ukraine is impressive. However, experts contend that it hasn’t moved at the speed of relevance, reacting only when exposed to pressure from its allies. This was particularly evident when the government was reluctant to send Leopard II tanks in early 2023. None of the 20 countries in possession of Leopard II tanks could supply them without German approval, which was only granted slowly. Moreover, parliament rejected a motion to provide Ukraine with game-changing Taurus long-range cruise missile systems in January 2024, an opportunity that Germany should not miss.

Have the political elites been able to achieve a public Zeitenwende, a revision in the collective scepticism about the utility of military power?

In addition to Germany’s support to Ukraine, Scholz’s pledge to reach the 2% defence spending target and bolster the Bundeswehr provides another test of the government’s achievements of Zeitenwende. The federal budget for 2024 foresees a €52bn regular defence budget, plus €19bn from the Special Fund. According to the ifo-Institute, this amounts to only 1.7% of GDP – €14bn short of the 2% objective in defence spending. Although the Special Fund constitutes a significant improvement in this regard, the issue of sustainable financing remains, as the fund is limited to five years. To maintain the additional capabilities and personnel beyond 2026, the regular defence budget needs to steadily increase.

In terms of how much of the Special Fund has actually been used, lethargic and inefficient procurement processes have stalled the ordering of vital equipment. While the Bundeswehr released its first new doctrine since 2011 with the revolutionary aim for Germany to “be the backbone of deterrence and collective defence in Europe” in November 2023, this is wishful thinking. The Bundeswehr has been underfunded for years and the support provided to Ukraine has further decreased its readiness. The latest annual report by the Bundestag Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Eva Högel, draws a bleak picture of a Bundeswehr that is not fully operational with severe shortages in equipment. To offset this would cost €300bn according to military experts. Reforms in procurement procedures need to be accelerated and awarding contracts eased, while bureaucracy must be reduced and simplified through digitalisation.

The Berlin coalition government’s changes to the security and defence structures raise questions about the extent to which this has also translated into a shift in public opinion. In a democracy, public opinion determines not only the scope of political possibilities but also the sustainability of political decisions. It thus constitutes the guiding element for the further development of Zeitenwende. Have the political elites been able to achieve a public Zeitenwende, a revision in the collective scepticism about the utility of military power?

Lethargic and inefficient defence structures, an only partially functional Bundeswehr and the failure to reach the annual 2% defence objective persist

Analysis of a February 2023 opinion poll by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung shows fundamental changes in the perception of Russia, the attitude towards defence spending and arms deliveries among the German public. The most drastic change was in support for the €100bn Special Fund and increased defence spending to reach the annual 2% goal. Seven months after the start of Russia’s full-scale war, there was a significant increase in approval for both across SPD, Greens, FDP and CDU supporters. The public perception of Russia as a threat also changed considerably, increasing from half to three-quarters of the population, and approval of sanctions against Russia rose from 37% to 60%.

Nevertheless, the survey does not exhibit a complete break with past public attitudes. Some long-standing tenets of German foreign policy persist, particularly the culture of caution stemming from the deeply rooted scepticism towards military interventions. Over the course of the war, rejection of military action even increased from 51% to 56%. Additionally, a broad plurality gave peace priority over justice – 41% versus 19% – when asked how the war should end, advocating for a quick diplomatic solution, even if that means territorial losses for Ukraine. Fundamental principles such as ‘never again war’ are still omnipresent and guide decision-making in Germany.

Against this background, public support for Ukraine cannot be underestimated. However, the survey results demonstrate that public opinion is lagging behind the country’s drastic political developments. The worsening domestic economic situation is also weakening public support for Ukraine. Further progress in the Zeitenwende thus hinges on the government’s willingness to communicate to the public the significance of the threat to Europe and the scale of defence investments needed to counter it, without neglecting domestic social expenditures.

Comparing the progress made in Germany’s current defence policy to pre-war times, the changes are substantial. This is particularly true of the support provided to Ukraine, which broke the long-standing taboo of exporting weapons to a conflict zone and eventually led the country to become the second-largest donor of aid worldwide. The Zeitenwende on energy was also impressive, achieving complete independence from Russian gas. However, these changes seem insufficient compared to the realities of Germany’s changed threat environment. Lethargic and inefficient defence structures, an only partially functional Bundeswehr and the failure to reach the annual 2% defence objective persist. Increasing the regular defence budget and strengthening the Bundeswehr, while effectively communicating the importance of this to the public, are pivotal to attaining a truly sustainable Zeitenwende and enabling Germany to take a fuller strategic role in Europe.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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