Watershed in Ukraine spurs Germany to become top 3 defense spender in world

Posted on : 2023-02-23 17:22 KST Modified on : 2023-02-23 17:22 KST
Germany, whose military force has long laid dormant, has now transformed into the country that spends the most money on its defense after the US and China
Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany speaks at the kick-off ceremony of the 59th Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17. (EPA/Yonhap)
Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany speaks at the kick-off ceremony of the 59th Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17. (EPA/Yonhap)

“The twenty-fourth of February 2022 marks a watershed in the history of our continent,” declared German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Feb. 27 last year, three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before.”

This now-famous “Zeitenwende” — or “watershed” — speech will surely go down in Germany’s modern history.

Standing at the podium in Berlin’s Bundestag, Scholz said the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine were “demolishing the European security order that had prevailed for almost half a century.” It was through this speech that Scholz boldly announced to the world that Germany’s military defense policy that had been in place since the end of World War II would now begin undergoing a great transformation.

Scholz specifically said that Germany would “set up a special fund for the Bundeswehr” (Germany’s armed forces) and that the “2022 federal budget will provide a one-off sum of 100 billion euro for the fund.” Regarding defense spending, the Chancellor stated, “We will now – year after year – invest more than two percent of our gross domestic product in our defence” in line with NATO policy goals.

In other words, it was a declaration of reviving the Bundeswehr, which had been largely dormant over the past 70 years.

The Munich Security Conference, which kicked off on Feb. 17 ahead of the one-year anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine, clearly showed how greatly Europe’s security landscape has changed over the course of a single year.

Scholz, who delivered a keynote at the conference, used the occasion to once again reaffirm Germany’s new role in the security arena.

“Germany is committed to living up to its responsibility for Europe’s security and that of NATO Allied territory – without any ifs or buts,” Scholz said, adding that “In order to be able to accomplish that – and more in future – we are putting an end to the neglect of the Bundeswehr.”

The chancellor also addressed those concerned about a possible second coming of a strong Germany, which, in the past, dragged the entire world into war twice.

“[I]t’s not our arms supplies which are prolonging the war,” he said. “The sooner President Putin realises that he cannot achieve his imperialist objective, the greater the chance that the war will end soon with a withdrawal of Russia’s occupying forces.”

In reality, few had expected this major shift in policy from Germany when the so-called “traffic light coalition” made up of the Social Democratic Party, Free Democratic Party, and the Greens led by Scholz formed a new government in December 2021 after Angela Merkel stepped down from her position as chancellor.

Reflecting on how it had already twice dragged the world into the ravages of war, Germany has consistently stuck with a non-military, defensive foreign and security policy after World War II.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius sits on a Leopard 2 tank during a firepower demonstration at the German Bundeswehr tank battalion training ground in North Rhine-Westphalia on Feb. 1 (local time). (EPA/Yonhap)
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius sits on a Leopard 2 tank during a firepower demonstration at the German Bundeswehr tank battalion training ground in North Rhine-Westphalia on Feb. 1 (local time). (EPA/Yonhap)

The Bundeswehr was formed in 1955, in large part due to the outbreak of the Korean War. However, the German people, who still had fresh memories of the grave mistakes made by Nazi Germany, saw the armed forces as a buttress for NATO and not as an independent German military force.

Since then, Germany has stuck with so-called checkbook diplomacy, a strategy that pursues national interests by using economic incentives to advance one’s geopolitical aims, solidifying against militarism and interventionism. Even after the end of the Cold War, Germany stuck to this policy line.

Some examples over the past few decades include Germany’s refusal to take part in the US-led war in Iraq of 2003 or its abstention from a UN Security Council vote in 2011 on establishing a no-fly zone over Libya.

Moreover, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which heads the current coalition government, also has its roots in the legacy of Ostpolitik, which dates back to the days of former Chancellor Willy Brandt (1969-1974).

The party also adopted Merkel’s balanced diplomatic policy line, which valued relations with both China and Russia. In addition, they also went ahead with the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project, refusing to be swayed by opinions from the US and others who argued that Germany should not rely on Russia for energy. The policy of maintaining investment in the defense sector at a minimum was also continued.

In fact, ever since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the German defense budget has only increased from 1.1% to 1.5% of GDP. Even up until January 2022, Germany responded in a very passive way to Ukrainian calls for weapons and only chose to send 5,000 bulletproof helmets instead of any form of lethal weapons.

However, things began to change in February 2022. Right before the Russian invasion, the new government abruptly halted the Nord Stream 2 project. Then, when the invasion took place on Feb. 24, the great transformation of Germany’s military role began in earnest.

While Germany had not allowed Estonia to send German-made weapons to Ukraine in January 2022, it changed its policy when the war broke out, declaring a “turning point” and allowing arms exports.

According to a list of military support items shared by the German government on Feb. 16, Germany has provided Ukraine with around 100 kinds of weapons and equipment, including Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAG), short-range IRIS-T missiles, and various kinds of ammunition.

After hesitating for a long time, Germany also decided to supply Ukraine with additional military support consisting of 14 Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks with ammunition, 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles with ammunition, and a Patriot air defense system with missiles.

The total amount of military aid sent by Germany to Ukraine from Jan. 1, 2022, through Feb. 13 this year totaled over 2.5 billion euros.

According to calculations by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, from the period of Jan. 24, 2022-Jan. 15, 2023, the countries that have supplied Ukraine with the most military aid have been the US (about 44.3 billion euros), the UK (about 4.9 billion euros), followed by Poland and Germany (both about 2.4 billion euros).

Last June, Germany’s Bundestag successfully passed an amendment to the country’s Basic Law to allow for the establishment of the special defense fund worth 100 billion euros which had been proposed by Scholz a few months before.

The fund would be used to purchase US-made F-35As or Eurofighter jets. In December, however, the German government went with the US option and decided to acquire 35 F-35A jets, which are capable of carrying US nuclear warheads, to replace its outdated Tornado fighter jets at a cost of 8.03 billion euros.

Going forward, Germany will also “permanently” spend 2% of its GDP (75 billion euros) annually on defense.

Germany, whose military force has long laid dormant, has now transformed into the country that spends the most money on its defense after the US and China.

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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