The Russian war against Ukraine has overturned the familiar chessboard of the European security order and has – at least temporarily – changed the rules of the game. The phase of lightning chess moves after the invasion on 24 February 2022 is now morphing into the all-important positioning game determining the central actors and the lines of conflict for the medium term.

In the face of a potentially prolonged war, Germany must be at the forefront of efforts to preserve the unity that has characterized the EU’s political and economic response to Russia’s war against Ukraine so far – and ensure that it stays coordinated with the US in navigating the wider strategic fallout of the conflict.

European publics back the measures taken to support Ukraine. However, as the consequences of the war materialize in European economies, i.e., sharp increases in energy and commodity prices, repercussions of global shortages in grain deliveries, and additional pressures on already disrupted supply chains having led to levels of inflation not seen in more than a generation, it will take strong political leadership to keep the public on board.

Germany will have to play a central role in formulating the necessary policy responses that will define the geopolitical role of the EU in the long term. But the world will not wait for Berlin to make up its mind on whether it can finally overcome its historical reticence and take the lead in confronting Russia on its intention to fundamentally redesign the European security architecture.

A long-awaited visit

After hesitating longer than many other EU and NATO Allies, on 16 June, the leaders of the three largest EU Member States and the Romanian President arrived for a highly symbolic common visit in Kyiv. As German Chancellor Scholz, French President Macron, Italian Prime Minister Draghi, together with Romanian President Iohannis met with President Zelensky the four leaders were met with demands to increase their military support for Ukraine and help the country on the path to fulfilling its European aspirations.

The trip was weighted by expectations for concrete further support on heavy weapons deliveries and Ukraine’s bid for EU-Membership – especially for Chancellor Scholz, who, when asked why he hadn’t visited earlier, had quipped that he didn’t just want to show up for a photo-op. And indeed, all four leaders clearly voiced their support for Ukraine to be granted candidate status, maybe as early as at this week’s EU Summit.

With regard to weapons deliveries, Germany has promised the delivery of three modern multiple rocket launcher systems while France will deliver six modern howitzers – still a far cry from the additional weapons and munitions for USD 1 billion US that President Biden announced a day before the visit, maybe in hopes to motivate his European colleagues to follow suit.

On the question of whether Putin needed to be offered an “off-ramp” in order not to be humiliated, as President Macron had hinted in a controversial interview several weeks ago, all leaders underscored that they fully supported President Zelensky’s stance that territorial concessions were unacceptable as pre-conditions to a cease-fire. So, where does this leave us?

What’s at stake for Germany?

The European Union, and Germany in particular, has benefitted from the globalised rules-based order more than any other region in the world. Over the last 30 years, the country has been very efficient in shaping its export-oriented economy into a world characterized by ever closer interdependence and a trading system built on intricate and highly dispersed value chains.

This efficiency was very profitable but has also proven to be susceptible to external shocks as it relied on a seamless functioning of global trade flows. Additional building blocks of Germany’s success were modest defence expenditures, made possible by a security policy that was partly externalised to the United States, a preferred energy partnership with Russia through a dense network of energy infrastructure and close business relations, and free access to the world’s profitable export markets, particularly China and the US. To simplify – the German business model was heavily reliant on receiving cheap security from the US, cheap energy from Russia, and the export of expensive goods to China/Asia.

Economically speaking, it was good while it lasted – even though it required a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance from an entire generation of German politicians as to the real nature of Putin’s regime – but this model is now history. Already weakened by the fallout of the global pandemic, Putin’s war in Ukraine and its economic repercussions have strained the German model to the breaking point. The costs of adapting to the new geopolitical circumstances are already substantial.

The destruction of the European security order and the renewed threat perception vis-à-vis a revisionist Russia necessitate significantly increased defence spending. The German government has already reacted to this by amending the constitution to enable a Euro 100 billion spending package that provides desperately needed capabilities for the German Armed Forces.

The days of cheap Russian energy are also coming to a close with intense efforts to reduce energy dependence by finding alternative providers, such as LNG from the US or Qatar, and accelerating the move to renewable energy while Russia is reducing its deliveries. And finally, given the growing systemic rivalry of the US and the EU with China and already existing political and trade conflicts, as well as the Chinese positioning as a close partner of Putin’s Russia, it is likely that German exports will be affected too at some point.

Finding legitimate leadership for European Answers

For Germany and for the EU, this means mentally catching up to an international environment that has started to differ significantly from the rules-based game that made the inner workings of the EU complicated but predictable – and ultimately so successful. While still trying to protect and strengthen multilateral frameworks and institutions, the EU must simultaneously equip itself with the tools and capabilities to react forcefully to economic and political pressures. The proposed Anti-Coercion Instrument is a step in the right direction but needs to be paired with a comprehensive strategy to minimize critical dependencies.

Having witnessed the brutality and destruction of Russian warfare in Ukraine, it can be taken as a given that there will be no return to the status quo ante – at least for the medium term, and Europeans overwhelmingly share this view. However, the European public will most likely start to split on the severity of the EU’s responses once the economic fallout and the consequences of a potential new migration crisis become more pronounced in the autumn.

It will require significant political leadership and staying power to thoroughly adapt the EU to this new environment and build up the necessary political, economic, and military resilience. Germany will have to provide a significant part of this leadership. When taking on this responsibility, the country will not be able to solely rely on its status as the EU’s most populous and economically strongest Member State.

Germany must first prove that it is willing and able to overcome its historical reservations to lead and will then have to earn the trust and political capital to shape the wide-ranging policy responses that will define the future of the EU.

In this regard, the government of Chancellor Scholz has lost some ground since his seminal declaration of a Zeitenwende – a turning point in time – in which he announced a 180° turn on  Germany’s foreign and security policy on 27 February. In the months since then, the German government has, at times, seemed to be lethargic in responding with substantial armaments deliveries for the Ukrainian armed forces desperately fighting to defend their homeland.

While Germany can point to committing to humanitarian and economic help commensurate with its economic weight, taking in a high number of Ukrainian refugees, and using its political muscle to push for recognizing Ukraine as an EU accession candidate, it needs to understand that for a country fighting for its survival against unprovoked aggression by an enemy with vastly superior resources, the important distinction between close partners and the larger group of supporters often boils down to who delivers modern and effective military hardware quickly and in numbers.

Germany’s perceived foot-dragging on this front has led to serious doubts among allies in central and eastern Europe and – a new experience for Germany – also in northern Europe regarding whether the country is really committed to doing whatever it can to ensure that Russia suffers a strategic defeat in Ukraine. At the same time, the common position taken by the leaders of the three largest EU member states, during their visit to Kyiv, sent an important message.

However, for Berlin, the real work in rebuilding political capital will have to start by closely engaging the Central European and Baltic EU Members on how to counter Putin’s Russia. This will have to include the forthright admission that the German policy consensus on Russia has been wrong since at least 2008 and that Berlin’s reactions to the warnings it received to this effect have been tone-deaf – to say the least. Furthermore, Berlin will have to closely coordinate with the US in NATO and show its willingness to bring pressure to bear on Turkish President Erdogan on the question of Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO accessions.

While high-ranking representatives of the Biden administration have been at pains to stress the close cooperation between the US and Germany, Secretary Blinken even cited Germany as the “closest friend” of the US. Off the record, US politicians echo the verdict of security and defence experts – that Berlin must become significantly more proactive and take a position at the forefront of Europe’s response to this conflict.

About the author

Mark 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.

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