BERLIN — It took the invasion of a nearby sovereign country, threats of nuclear attack, images of civilians clashing with Russian tanks and a wave of shame from allies for Germany to shake its confidence of decades in an anti-military foreign policy that was born out of the crimes of the Third Reich.
But once Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided to act, the country’s about-face was swift.
“February 24, 2022 marks a historic turning point in the history of our continent,” Scholz said in an address to a special session of parliament on Sunday, citing the date President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the Russian forces to launch an unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
He announced that Germany would increase its military spending to more than 2% of the country’s economic output, starting immediately with a one-time amount of 100 billion euros, or $113 billion, to invest in the armed forces terribly under-equipped in the country. He added that Germany would accelerate the construction of two terminals to receive liquefied natural gas, or LNG, as part of efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on Russian energy.
“At the heart of the problem is the question of whether power can break the law,” Mr. Scholz said. “If we allow Putin to go back in time to the great power era of the 19th century. Or if we find the strength within ourselves to set limits on a warmonger like Putin.
The events of the past week have shocked typically pacifist-looking countries, as well as those closer to Russia. Both found the invasion impossible to watch quietly. Viktor Orban, the pro-Russian and anti-immigrant Hungarian Prime Minister, who only a few weeks ago denounced the sanctions against Russia, reconsidered his position this weekend. And Japan, which was reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia in 2014, strongly condemned last week’s invasion.
In Germany, the Chancellor’s speech capped a week that saw the country abandon more than 30 years of efforts to balance its Western alliances with strong economic ties with Russia. Beginning with Tuesday’s decision to scrap an $11 billion gas pipeline, the German government’s actions since, prompted by the horror of Mr Putin’s attack on the citizens of a democratic European country and sovereign, mark a fundamental shift not only in foreign and defense policy, but its relationship with Russia.
“He just strategically repositioned Germany,” Daniela Schwarzer, executive director for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, said of Mr. Scholz’s speech.
Germany, and in particular Mr Scholz’s centre-left Social Democratic Party, has long favored an inclusive approach to Russia, arguing the danger of excluding Moscow from Europe. But images of Ukrainians fleeing the invasion have rekindled memories of older Germans fleeing the advancing Red Army during World War II, and sparked outrage among a younger generation fueled by the promise of a peaceful and unified Europe.
On Sunday, several hundred thousand Germans marched through the heart of Berlin in a demonstration of support for Ukraine, waving signs reading “Stop Putin” and “No war”.
Appealing to Germans’ commitment to European unity and deep cultural and economic ties that go back centuries, Mr. Scholz blamed Russian aggression on Mr. Putin, not the Russian people. But he left no doubt that Germany would no longer sit idly by and depend on other countries to supply its natural gas or military security.
“The narrative that Scholz used today is here to stay,” Ms. Schwarzer said. “He spoke about responsibility towards Europe, about what it takes to ensure democracy, freedom and security. He leaves no doubt that it has to happen.
The country’s firm repudiation of its horrific Nazi past meant that it had long since adopted a foreign policy of diplomacy and deterrence. But since the Russian invasion, many of Germany’s allies have accused it of not doing enough to fortify itself and for Europe.
Germany pledged in 2014 to increase military spending to 2% of overall economic output – the target set for NATO member states – a decade away, but projections had shown that the government was not on track to meet this target, even as the deadline approached. The subject has long been a source of conflict between Berlin and Washington, which devotes more than 3% of its GDP to defense. The debate intensified under former President Donald J. Trump, who regularly chastised the German government for failing to weigh in on the alliance.
In his speech, Mr. Scholz proposed that military spending be anchored in the country’s constitution. This would ensure, he said, that the country would no longer be left with a military force of soldiers with guns that misfire, planes that cannot fly and ships that cannot navigate. And he made it clear that doubling the defense was for the good of Germany.
“We do it for ourselves too, for our own safety,” he said.
On Saturday, the German government dropped its resistance to two other measures the country’s allies in Europe and the United States were seeking: cutting major Russian banks from the money transfer network known as SWIFT and sending arms to Ukraine.
This follows a warning from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who flew to Berlin to “shake Germany’s conscience” on how to respond to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “Today there is no time for selfishness,” Morawiecki said, announcing his visit on Twitter.
Understanding the Russian attack on Ukraine
What is behind this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine in its natural sphere of influence, and it has become unnerved by Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of the country joining NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is not part of either, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
Germany has had a policy of refusing to send arms to conflict zones, although it has a regular business selling them to countries in the Middle East. But after the meeting with Mr Morawiecki – who was joined by President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania – the government announced it would send 1,000 shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine.
He also lifted his objections to sending German-made weapons held by the Dutch and Estonian governments to Ukraine, allowing transfers he had blocked for months.
Just weeks ago, the German government was pilloried for what critics called its lukewarm response to Russian troop reinforcements, after announcing it would send Ukraine 5,000 helmets and a hospital for campaign to help the country defend itself.
“In the space of a week, political taboos on military spending in relations with Russia have fallen by the wayside,” said Sudha David-Wilp, transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Germany is putting money in its mouth to build up its defense capabilities and preparing to isolate Russia, even at the expense of its own economy.”
Mr Scholz last week also bowed to pressure from abroad to drop a disputed gas pipeline that would link Russia directly to Germany, Nord Stream 2, as his economy minister said the country will would move away from its dependence on Russia, which currently supplies more than half of its natural gas needs.
Going forward, Germany will ensure there are strategic reserves of coal and natural gas, Scholz said, similar to those the country holds for oil. In the long term, Germany would like to radically transform its energy sector to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, but the process will take time and in the short term, Germans will feel the pinch of rising energy prices and other goods.
The Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin, whose requests for German weapons for months had apparently fallen on deaf ears, listened to Mr Scholz’s speech on Sunday from the visitors’ balcony and received a standing ovation for a minute by lawmakers from all parties, even the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
His lawmakers, who routinely use their positions to draw attention and loudly oppose government rhetoric, instead applauded some elements of Mr Scholz’s remarks, which the largest opposition party, the Christian Democrats, accepted. support.
“The mainstream political parties in Germany realize this is a moment from 1939 and seem ready to support this new government to meet the challenge ahead,” Ms David-Wilp said.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed report.