When Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany painfully realized that its business-oriented approach to geopolitics and Moscow had failed. Decades-long criticism of Germany’s energy ties with Russia, and its failure to meet the 2 percent gross domestic product (GDP) defense target for NATO members, had come to a head. Against this backdrop, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech to the German Bundestag on February 27, 2022 — three days after the invasion — was a political Produnova: an inherent admission of failure, countered by a forward somersault on policy. He announced a one hundred billion euro special defense fund and vowed to exceed NATO’s annual spending goal, send arms exports to Ukraine, and reduce energy imports from Russia.
A year ago, commenting on this policy shift, I wondered: “When the dust settles, and the adrenaline and euphoria dissipate… Will this change last?”
Undoubtedly, Germany has come a long way. It has cut its Russian natural gas imports, is a significant contributor of military aid to Ukraine, has approved the purchase of F-35 fighter jets from the United States, and is now sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine. However, these have arguably been tactical responses to political pressure and situational developments. Doubts remain about whether the Zeitenwende is a structural and mentality change in foreign and security policy.
Even if the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. That is hampering the implementation of key Zeitenwende elements.
First, Germany’s bureaucratic procurement processes are likely to wear the special defense fund down. Meanwhile, inflation has eaten into it — one hundred billion euros already has been reduced to roughly eighty-seven billion.
Second, Germany remains unlikely to meet the 2 percent NATO spending target. It is expected to come in just below 2 percent until 2027, after which defense spending is expected to fall back to around 1.2 percent of GDP. In order to really modernize its military, Berlin needs a long-term fix. Yet unlike Japan, which intends to increase defense spending via taxation, Germany has no structural solution for a permanent increase of the defense budget. Without this, the special defense fund would be nothing more than a flash in the pan.