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Will Germany’s Zeitenwende last?

By Sigurd Neubauer


In a wide-ranging interview, Professor Stefan Fröhlich of the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg discusses Germany’s evolving defense policy, domestic politics, its economy and objective to diversify the country’s energy independence from Russia. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Germany to dramatically reconsider its defense policies, including its role within Europe as the era of great power competition is upending the country’s post-World War II consensus rooted in pacificism.

Whether or not this new era, which Chancellor Olaf Scholz described as “Zeitenwende” in an address before the Bundestag (Parliament) on February 27 – three days after the Russian invasion – is sustainable for Germany is, of course, at this point, unknown. 

But what has become clear is that Germany is changing as it is adopting to a new geopolitical reality, even if assumptions surrounding its defense policies – both vis-à-vis NATO and its preferred modus operandi towards Russia centering on “engagement” and “dialogue” are no longer attainable.

In his historic February 27 address, the Chancellor not only asserted: “We all share the same goal: Ukraine must survive,” but even pledged that his government would allocate €100 billion extra for the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr for the 2022 budget.

“From now on, more than two percent of our GDP will be invested in our defense,” Scholz added as he referenced NATO’s target for defense spending for member states.

Germany has long been criticized for not meeting its NATO-spending obligations, including by various US administrations.

This time, Scholz also appealed to “all parliamentary groups” within the Bundestag to pass a constitutional amendment so that the “special fund” of €100 billion could be secured.

Olaf Scholz succeeded Angela Merkel as Germany's Chancellor in 2021. Image credit: German Chancellery

A decision to increase defense spending is not easy for any German chancellor because of its World War II legacy. For Scholz, who has personally come a long way given how his own Social Democratic Party (SPD) has historically prioritized pragmatic and even friendly relations with Russia, it was particularly difficult.

Scholz who succeeded Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as chancellor in 2021, inevitably had to factor in the views of the immediate chancellor before Merkel: SPD’s very own Gerhard Schröder.

Schröder, who governed from 1998–2005, enjoys a long-standing friendship with Putin. The former chancellor until recently even served as chair of the board of Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil giant. His refusal to distance himself from Moscow over the Ukraine war has generated controversy in Germany and became a complicating factor for Scholz’s decision-making.

Schröder has since been ousted from the SPD. “He’s fully isolated as all prominent political leaders have distanced themselves from him,” says Stefan Fröhlich, a professor of international relations and political economics at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg.

These dynamics set the stage for why it has been particularly difficult for the SPD to change its posture towards Moscow.

The SPD’s de-facto foreign policy doctrine towards Russia and the Soviet Union was introduced in 1969 by Chancellor Willy Brandt who sought to normalize diplomatic relations between his own Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic during the height of the Cold War.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Germany to reconsider its defense policies. Image credit: State Emergency Service of Ukraine

Formally known as Brandt’s “Neue Ostpolitik,” which also sought to break away from the conservative Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) anti-communist policies of the 1950s and 1960s, his approach towards the Soviet Union was both ideological and pragmatic.

“From the era of Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the SPD has always had sympathy for Russia as it is part of its history which originates in the party’s socialist roots,” Fröhlich explains.

While there is “overwhelming support” for Germany’s paradigm shift, which Zeitenwende represents, among the country’s political parties and the public as indicated by various polls, “We have so many ‘Russland Versteher,’” says Fröhlich.

The term often refers to those sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his narrative on Ukraine. “These contrarians – who often include anti-vaxxers – represent many groups falling under the ‘Russland Versteher’ umbrella spanning the right-left axis of the political spectrum who all oppose the general direction taken by the German government. But these views are in the minority,” he adds citing recent polls.

“The political elites and the general population have learned their lesson from Putin’s war as they understand its gravity,” Fröhlich argues.

This shift in German policy, “would not have happened without the war as the external shock and crisis represent a ‘wake-up’ call for a country which is now sending weapons to Ukraine while strengthening its own military,” the professor asserts.

Fröhlich said it was US President Joe Biden who set the West's policy towards Russia. Image credit: The White House

For Scholz, “it took a while to get out of this thinking,” explains Fröhlich in reference to the new approach within the SPD. “Germany was the very last European country to step forward,” Fröhlich adds as he attributes the “turnaround” to the heavy pressure applied on Berlin from within the NATO alliance and from Washington in particular.

While German public opinion and society at large was ready and willing to be more supportive of Ukraine, Scholz’s crisis management suffered in the polls, Fröhlich says.

It was the combination of pressure from NATO allies, Germany’s changing public perception, and from within his own governing coalition, the Alliance 90/The Greens (often referred to as the Green Party) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which ultimately forced his hand to chart a new course.

Fröhlich, however, is not convinced that Scholtz won’t change course sometime in the future.

“He was extremely reluctant to embark on this path to begin with,” he explains.

Domestic politics

“It is astonishing to see that most of the opposition against the government’s new stance towards Russia, including its decision to arm Ukraine, come from within the SPD,” he says.

The Greens, for their part, are supporting the change and of arming Ukraine, especially on the leadership level.

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and Olaf Scholz stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Image credit: German Chancellery

“They are the most determined,” the professor explains as their party ideology – which was already there before the Ukraine war – puts a great emphasis on protecting democracy, equality and justice. “The Greens were pushing against Russia and China against human rights abuses. In the past they shied away from using power but now have undergone a social paradigm shift,” Fröhlich says.

The Free Democrats (FDP), which is also part of the governing coalition, is supportive of the position against Russia. The SPD is the weakest part in the coalition, the professor adds.

The CDU supports the government’s position on Russia.

Since Scholz wanted to arm the Bundeswehr through a constitutional amendment, so that increased defense spending would have a lasting impact, he was able to secure a cross-party consensus for his Zeitenwende policy.

“We now need to make sure that the two percent for NATO will be allocated for the next 10 years, which is a bit controversial,” Fröhlich says, but concedes that Germany “is on the right path”.

What’s next?

“It is not enough to respond to the Russian aggression, which Germany is doing now,” Fröhlich says as he argues that the key challenge is what comes next.

“In the age of social media and image-driven media coverage which generate emotionally and fickle public opinion, Germany needs a leadership that tells its people what is at stake,” the professor says.

A decision to increase defense spending is not easy for Germany due to its WWII legacy. Image credit: The US Army

“Politically, leaders will have to develop the mental and oral strength to explain the threats facing Germany,” he says while emphasizing the need for fresh thinking.

“Whether we’re prepared mentally for the new reality is the question as Western governments need to give serious considerations to scenarios where Russia could attack a NATO country. Our political leaders need to prepare its people for such a scenario.”

“Next, how we deal with China will be crucial. The challenges that Russia and China pose to German and European interests are very clear,” Fröhlich adds.

In the event China support Russia in Ukraine, it will be a direct threat to Europe and transatlantic security.

In the meantime, Fröhlich argues that it was President Joe Biden’s leadership that set the course for Western policy towards Russia. “It wasn’t French President Emmanuel Macron or Scholz traveling to Russia for ‘dialogue’ with Putin that unified NATO and the West but the president of the United States,” he emphasizes.

Russian gas to Germany/Nord Stream II

Due to Scholz’s strategic decision to cancel the Nord Stream II pipeline, Germany needs to develop alternative energy sources.

Fröhlich believes that if the German energy system is adapted quickly, the loss of Russian natural gas exports could be compensated for in the course of 2022 and energy supplies could be secured in the coming winter.

Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked WWII to justify the invasion of Ukraine Image credit: Kremlin. ru

There are several conditions for this, the professor argues, which are: Germany needs to expand gas imports from traditional supplier countries; Germany also needs to fill up existing storage facilities 80 to 90 percent before the start of the heating period in the winter of 2022/2023; make more efficient use of the German and European natural gas pipeline systems and use it to link Germany to Southern Europe.

“While the additional supply is inadequate to replace all of Russia’s natural gas imports to date, in combination with declining natural gas consumption, Germany’s energy supply can be secured. The construction of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) import terminals on the coast does not make sense due to the long construction times and the sharp decline in natural gas demand in the medium term, and there are considerable risks of losses, known as stranded investments,” Fröhlich argues.

Whether or not Germany and Europe at large face an impending recession because of the robust sanctions’ regime imposed on Russia and the energy crisis it has triggered, Fröhlich sees that as distinct a possibility, although he thinks that much would depend on how the war pans out.

“So far, Germany is not even in a ‘technical recession.’ If gas supplies from Russia are suddenly cut off, it’s very likely according to most economic institutes’ forecasts. The conflict in Ukraine poses ‘substantial risks’ for both Europe and Germany – Europe’s largest economy. Apart from the war, we’re facing several other challenges closely related to it: supply chain interruptions; weakening of the Chinese economy and the COVID pandemic.

Stefan Fröhlich is a professor of international relations and political economics at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg

A sudden halt in Russian energy supplies – an adverse scenario and not the institutes’ baseline expectation – would slow economic growth to 1.9 percent this year and result in a contraction of 2.2 percent in 2023. The cumulative loss of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022 and 2023 in the event of a such supply freeze would likely be around 220 billion euros ($238 billion), or more than 6.5 percent of annual economic output.

Finally, Fröhlich argues that Germany has staked out a “tough position” when it comes to the proposed oil embargo on Russia, saying that Berlin supports it, which is also backed by the remaining EU members but stresses the need to secure Hungary’s consent, which will carry significant political costs for the EU.

[ Fröhlich’s fitness routine ]

Fitness is important for Fröhlich who was a professional track and fielder runner prior to his academic career was (short distance; 400 meters); “Sports has always been part of my everyday life,” which now includes running, biking and going to the gym.

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