Germans at ease with 'paradigm shift' in defence spending during Russia-Ukraine war

Chancellor Olaf Scholz announces €100 billion to modernise the military and has committed to spending two per cent of GDP on defence

With well more than 125,000 refugees arriving across its borders since Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany is faced — for the second time in a decade — with having to provide shelter to large numbers of people fleeing turmoil.

While the influx of refugees from Syria and other countries in 2015 created a major shift in Germany’s internal demographics, events surrounding the latest surge in arrivals appear to be changing how the country projects power externally.

The bold decision by Chancellor Olaf Scholz — a man who until recently was sometimes branded as “boring” — to massively increase defence spending represents what some see as a seismic change in Germany’s post-Cold War foreign policy.

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For the first time, at least since reunification, a German government, from the top, [has placed] a high importance on armed forces which are good quality and deployable
Prof Carlo Masala, Bundeswehr University Munich

By also deciding to send Ukraine anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, Mr Scholz cast off the country’s official reticence to send arms to war zones.

“It’s a paradigm shift. For the first time, at least since reunification, a German government, from the top, [has placed] a high importance on armed forces which are good quality and deployable,” said Prof Carlo Masala, professor of international politics at the Bundeswehr University in Munich.

Although Germany has officially been cautious to send arms to conflict zones — before the Russian invasion it declined Ukraine’s pleas for armaments — it is “a very substantial arms exporter”, said Prof Benjamin Ziemann, professor of modern German history at the University of Sheffield in the UK.

“They do not want to ship weapons to conflict zones, but there have been ways of navigating around this,” Prof Ziemann said.

Last year alone Germany sent billions of dollars' worth of weapons to Egypt, for example, even though the country has current military engagements, such as in Yemen and Libya.

Limited opposition

Protesters demonstrate with letters forming the word 'peace' in support of Ukraine in Berlin. EPA

With anger widespread over what is regarded in Germany as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine, Mr Scholz’s move to increase defence spending — and, as a result, the German arms industry — has faced limited political or public opposition.

“The scale is obviously huge and there’s no reservations about this,” Prof Ziemann said.

“At this point, there’s only marginal fringe groups who still think Russia could say that western policy over the past 15 to 20 years, particularly Ukraine policy, has been aggressive.”

Polling indicates that more than two thirds of Germans approve of the increase in spending, and support was not difficult to find on the streets of Berlin.

The German capital has hosted major demonstrations against the war, Ukrainian flags hang from many windows, numerous buildings are lit up at night in blue and yellow, and the phrase “We stand with Ukraine” — in English — is often seen in shop windows or on noticeboards.

Amid an outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine, many Germans view this as the time to turn the page on their own country’s reluctance to be regarded as a military power, an approach that resulted from its 20th-century history and the horrors of the Nazi regime.

“It was many years ago; now the time’s changed. We should look forward to the future,” said Christine Wagner, 39, who runs a website in the German capital.

“It’s OK to spend a lot of money on defence. We’re going more to stand for ourselves and not live too much in our history.”

Underfunded

Bernhard Vestel said the German armed forces are in need of an upgrade. Daniel Bardsley for The National

Bernhard Vestel, 65, a retired architect in Berlin, said the German armed forces are in need of an upgrade.

“A lot of the weapons systems and things soldiers need are not in a great situation,” he said.

Analysts have described the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, as underfunded for decades and lacking cutting-edge equipment. Budget increases since Russia’s attacks on Ukraine in 2014 are not felt to have plugged the gaps.

Now, with Mr Scholz announcing a €100 billion (Dh110.3bn) modernisation fund and committing to spending two per cent of gross domestic product on defence, in line with the Nato target, this is set to change. With such large sums available, a concern now is ensuring that funds are not wasted.

Even though the Bundeswehr’s coffers will to be full to bursting, neither the German public nor experts expect the country to throw caution to the wind when it comes to overseas military engagements.

Germany’s biggest overseas military deployment is in Mali, where it has about 1,000 soldiers operating as part of a UN peacekeeping mission, Minusma. Another 300 are involved in an EU training mission.

The deployment began in 2013 and there have been questions over whether it will be extended by the German parliament when the mandate expires at the end of May.

Désirée, 35, a government employee in Berlin who declined to give her full name, said Germany would continue to act only within the remits of multilateral institutions.

“We’re members of Nato and the EU, so we’re not going to go alone,” she said.

“That’s part of why we’re doing this, because we’re part of alliances. We’re not going to have go-it-alone operations. We’re not the US.”

Likewise, Prof Masala said the increase in defence spending was not about Germany becoming militaristic, but about shouldering “the responsibility as the EU’s biggest continental power”.

“It’s [about having] armed forces that fit our international standing,” he said.

“The German armed forces are deployed by the German Bundestag (parliament). There will be reluctance to send them on missions that aren’t in Germany’s interest. Germany is focused on territorial defence.

“There used to be always quite a nice contradiction in German public opinion on the Bundeswehr. It’s highly regarded in every poll. People want a fully equipped Bundeswehr [but] they’re extremely reluctant to deploy them.”

Germany is, he said, “not going to become more trigger happy”.

Updated: March 18, 2022, 6:40 PM
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