German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Sunday announced a major increase in the country’s defense spending, marking one of the most significant changes in decades to the country’s post-World War II approach to security and possibly upending European defense policy.
German lawmakers were still debating the plans as over 100,000 protesters assembled just a few meters away in front of the Brandenburg Gate to rally for peace. The scale of the protest – one of the largest in years – took authorities by surprise, and provided a visible display of just how deeply Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken Germans this week.
Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and the most populous nation in the E.U., had long frustrated the United States and allies across the continent with its hesitation to invest more in its military. Its stance obstructed numerous attempts to formulate a more ambitious European security strategy, including repeated efforts from French President Emmanuel Macron to form a European army.
The dramatic escalation in Europe’s response has been cheered by European foreign policy hawks who had long advocated that the continent get serious in its response to the Russian threat. But reactions have been tinged by deep regret that the toughened stance didn’t come sooner.
“What has happened in the last few days has been a serious wake up call for Europe, a serious wake up call for the NATO alliance and, tragically and very sadly for Ukraine, a wake up call too late in the day,” said Richard Dannatt, a retired general and former British army chief. “We should have seen what Vladimir Putin has been up to.”
Speaking in the German parliament on Sunday, Scholz called Russia’s attack on Ukraine “a turning point in the history of our continent” and announced a set of new measures. The German military will receive a one-off additional payment of over $110 billion, he said – about twice the amount of Germany’s defense budget last year.
“Better and more modern equipment, more staff, that costs a lot of money,” Scholz told lawmakers in a special session.
Scholz’s plans are unlikely to have an immediate impact on the current crisis in Ukraine. Germany won’t be sending troops to the country, and neither will any other members of the NATO alliance, which have been wary of being drawn into a direct confrontation with nuclear weapons-armed Russia. But the German plans could have profound ripple effects within the European Union and NATO, which Ukraine is not a member of.
NATO’s stance on Ukraine has long, in essence, been that membership has its privileges: While the alliance may be willing to offer support – both lethal and nonlethal – it won’t get directly involved in sending troops to defend Ukraine from outside attack, as it would with any NATO member.
Russia’s invasion hasn’t changed that calculus – much to the frustration of Ukrainians who have been seeking NATO membership for years, including Zelensky.
“We were left by ourselves. Who is ready to go to war for us? Honestly, I don’t see anybody. Who is ready to give Ukraine guarantees of NATO membership?” asked Zelensky in a speech after Russia invaded.
Scholz committed to exceeding the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP “from now on, every year.” Last year Germany spent an estimated 1.53 percent of its annual economic output on defense, well below the 2 percent NATO target.
“We are not only striving for this goal because we have promised our friends and allies that we will increase our defense spending to 2 percent of our economic output by 2024, but we do this for ourselves, too, for our own safety,” Scholz said.
The plans will still need to be approved by lawmakers, but there appeared to be widespread support for them on Sunday.
“There has been an awakening, not just by the political class, but also by ordinary voters,” said Marcel Dirsus, a German political scientist and fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University.
During prior crises, including after the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia, Germany had hesitated to swing more directly into confrontation with a country that helped defeat the Nazis. Germany’s deep economic relationship with Russia is decades old and, many critics say, has led to a foreign policy orthodoxy that long held back Europe from sharper criticism of the Kremlin.
The German army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais, said last week that “the army that I am allowed to lead, is more or less powerless” against Russia amid the current crisis. Defense associations have warned the German military is underfunded and lacks crucial equipment.
Germany’s lagging defense spending had long been defended across the German political spectrum, even as its international allies voiced discontent. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party was among core opponents of a major increase in spending.
The first signs of a substantial break in tradition came on Saturday, when Germany announced that it would deliver extensive weaponry to Ukraine and embraced broad restrictions on Russian banks that it had previously rebuffed. Scholz said he would rush 1,000 antitank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to Ukraine.
“This is the last door being closed on the Kremlin,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who served as commander of the U.S. Army Europe during the Obama and Trump administrations.
“It is going to be a sea change because all of Europe is looking at this in a different way,” he said. “The E.U. has discovered its heart and spine.”
Hodges suggested that Europe’s attitude changed because of Putin’s “flat-out lying” about the invasion. Senior officials who “really wanted to believe that you could negotiate with them” have been “humiliated,” he said, “and they are very angry about it.”
The move also opened up Europe’s weapons-packed armories to Ukraine, since Berlin retained a veto power over how German-manufactured armaments were used even after they were sold elsewhere.
Berlin greenlighted a shipment of 400 Dutch-owned (but German made) rocket-propelled grenade launchers and several Estonian-owned howitzers to Ukraine, three European officials said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic arms transfer agreements that were still receiving their final approvals.
It came just days after Scholz froze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project bringing Russian gas to Western Europe – another decision that weeks ago seemed inconceivable.