Reacting to the escalating Russian war in Ukraine, Germany’s new government has made a historic break with long-established foreign and security policy tenets. These tenets had defined the country’s international role since the end of the Cold War. Laying to rest German notions about a special relationship with Russia based on strong economic interdependence, Germany pledged to fulfill NATO’s 2% annual spending target on defence and committed to a special fund of €100 billion for the armed forces (roughly twice Germany’s current annual defence budget to make up for consistent underfunding.) With this move, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has upended 30 years of German policy. The era of prioritizing economics over geopolitics is over.

A seminal decision

After hesitating longer than most other NATO Allies, the German government has pushed to the forefront in confronting Putin’s Russia politically and economically. By stopping the certification of Nord Stream 2, supporting unprecedented economic and financial sanctions (albeit – for now – stopping short of cutting imports of Russian gas), seizing Russian oligarchs’ property, and supplying Ukraine with armaments, it overturned decades-old German certainties and foreign-policy taboos.

Invoking the far-reaching German word of “Zeitenwende” (turning point), Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the unexpected and unprecedented increase in defence spending in his seminal speech at the German Bundestag. He promised to set up a special fund of €100 billion for the armed forces and pledged to fulfill NATO’s 2% annual spending target on defence. This all marks a major turning point in Germany’s post-Cold War foreign and security policy.  

Strong support from the German public

This surprising 180-degree turnaround met with instant broad approval from the German public. On the same day that Scholz gave his landmark speech at the Bundestag, more than 100,000 people demonstrated in Berlin against Putin’s war of aggression and expressed their solidarity with Ukraine. This was the first major anti-war demonstration in Germany in a long, long time and the first that was not directed against an American war.

Opinion polls confirm this broad public approval for the announced policy shift. According to a survey conducted on March 3, 2022, 65% of respondents believe that the €100 billion special fund for modernizing the Bundeswehr (armed forces) is the right thing to do, and 61% approve of arms deliveries from Germany to Ukraine. To contrast this with earlier numbers, in 2017, only 42% of the German public supported higher defence expenditures.

In 2015 (shortly after the Russian annexation of the Crimea,) only 19% of Germans were in favour of arms deliveries to Ukraine, and – alarmingly – only 38% were willing to support militarily even a NATO ally in a conflict with Russia. Today, 67% of Germans support stopping Nord Stream 2 and 82% and excluding Russian banks from SWIFT. More importantly (and surprisingly), two-thirds approve of measures against Russia – even if these should lead to energy shortages, higher energy prices, a higher cost of living, or disadvantages for German companies.

Given long-term trends with the German public, one could be forgiven for doubting if these numbers will remain like this once the situation in Ukraine changes. However, the nature and scope of the German government’s political commitments in reaction to the Russian aggression underscore that Scholz has understood the need to invest significant political capital into bringing the German public along for the geopolitical re-orientation of the country.

US and European Allies certainly take the German chancellor at his word. Therefore, it is unlikely that we will see a significant watering-down of the concrete proposals made – even though a certain amount of attrition due to the systemic balancing of interests in a three-party governing coalition is to be expected.

The need for a new security strategy with strong European and transatlantic ties

The far-reaching consequences of this policy shift can hardly be overestimated. While the shock of seeing many of the underlying assumptions about the post-Cold War European security order lose all validity was maybe felt strongest in Germany, the strategic challenges arising out of the new security environment we find ourselves in apply as well to the EU. The seminal changes that the German government proposes for its defence and energy security policy will have repercussions for the strategic balance within Europe. It may turn out to be a catalyst to fulfill the EU’s aspirations to become a more sovereign geopolitical entity capable of acting independently.

However, implementing the announced measures will be politically challenging, costly, and take significant time. Most importantly, increasing defence expenditures alone will not be enough. Rather, Germany needs a genuinely new security strategy, which it should draw up not only nationally, but on a European scale, in cooperation with partners in the EU and within NATO.

It will require significant political staying power and a long-term investment in political capital for Germany to take on the role of a central pillar in a new European and transatlantic security architecture and to remember the utility of deterrence that we seem to have un-learned so thoroughly in the last 30 years. It will likewise take time and careful planning, as well as an overhaul of the famously inefficient German national armaments process, for the increased defence expenditure – even with the third-largest defence budget in the world – to turn into real military capabilities.

What are the implications for Europe and transatlantic relations?

In this process, Germany needs to ensure that becoming a leading military power in Europe, in addition to being the strongest country in political and economic terms, doesn’t lead to an unbidden return of the “German question” of the 20th century. An even greater effort will be needed to integrate German capabilities into European structures and to take (especially smaller) EU members’ interests and worries to heart.

At the same time, the transatlantic relationship, the importance of which has just been underlined in no uncertain terms, must be reinforced to play its essential role as a natural balancing factor for Europe. A good start for the necessary deliberations can be made this year as the EU is right now in the process of finishing its Strategic Compass, which will, of course, have to be heavily modified to take the new threat perception vis-à-vis Russia into account. NATO, too is set to adopt a new Strategic Concept at its Madrid summit in June 2022.

Germany needs to re-invent itself for a world that is not what it believed it to be

The Russian war in Ukraine has forced Germany to finally abandon long-cherished illusions about the security environment it finds itself in, the importance of hard power, and the willingness of revanchist countries to use military means to achieve their foreign policy imperatives.

After the annexation of the Crimea, Germany’s ex-chancellor Angela Merkel confronted Vladimir Putin with the accusation that he was using methods of the 19th and 20th centuries. Germany’s Baltic and Eastern European neighbours had been warning for a long time that these rules had never ceased to apply outside of the sheltered world of EU-Summits. Hopefully, this new reality will be reflected in the discussions at the special summit in Versailles on March 10 and 11, where the EU’s Strategic Compass will have to be significantly re-drafted.

For Germany, a country that has been exceedingly successful in adapting its foreign and economic policy to a world shaped by globalised value chains and ever closer interdependence, reacting to this latest shock to the rule-based international order will be more painful costly than for many others. However, precisely because of Germany’s comparative economic success over the last decades, it can mobilize the resources to shoulder its part of the burden and take on the responsibility of increasing European resilience in the face of the geopolitical challenges it finds itself confronting.


Mark C. Fischer is a Senior Project Manager co-heading the Project Sovereign Europe at Bertelsmann Stiftung. He is an expert on transatlatnic relations, EU and NATO Enlargement, European foreign and security policy, as well as development cooperation issues. 

Peter Walkenhorst is Senior Project Manager in Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program, where he works on transatlantic relations and European-Chinese relations. Previously, he was a member of the foundation’s Germany and Asia Program, responsible for projects on the systemic conflict with China and social cohesion in Asia. 

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Follow all of the Bertelsmann Stiftung writings on this developing situation here