Germany’s U-Turn on Defense and Security

By Robbin Laird


During my 2018 trip to Germany to focus on how Germany was addressing the new era of European direct defense, I had a chance to discuss the challenges with Dr. Andrew Denison.

As the German government has announced a significant U-turn on their defense policy in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I talked with Denison about his take on the new German position and shaping a way ahead.

Dr. Denison: “In the late 1940s, the United States learned to deal with the new threats posed by the Soviet Union and China. Germany is now faces something akin to the United States in 1949 with the Soviet atom bomb and the Chinese revolution. Germany needs to learn to use military power to contain and deter, while strengthening its ability to compete on a multiplying number of non-military fronts.

“Germany is the richest and most technologically advanced country in Europe and central to European geo-politics. Germans are now seeing that there will not be an adequate European response to Putin’s aggressive designs without Germany playing a much larger role.

“I have argued for some time that Germany’s relative absence from European deterrence and defense was not only an expression of weakness, but an invitation to Putin to think he could use force with impunity and break Germany off from its European partners –  who have taken the Russian challenge much more seriously, notably Poland, the Baltics and the Nordics.

“Now things have changed. In addition to a one-time $110 billion dollar supplement, Germany will spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, an increase from $55 billion in 2021 to at least $90 billion annually. More money is important, but not sufficient. Now Germany needs to rethink its strategy.

“Germany has been very good at building bridges, networking with the Europeans, and reacting to crises. But Germany has not been very good at getting out ahead of crises, taking the initiative and being dynamic. Germany needs to develop its strengths, take advantage of its opponents’ weaknesses, and truly understand the other side as an opponent.

“The foreign policy chapter of the coalition agreement used the word “cooperation” 29 times, “competition” once. Germany needs a new language of competition, and it needs to develop the best strategic thinkers in Europe. Without a German strategy, there’s no European strategy.

“The coalition agreement calls for a “strategically sovereign Europe”, other European leaders have called for an autonomous Europe. Everyone wants a more powerful Europe. Few are ready to acknowledge that without a more powerful Germany, Europe will not be very powerful.”

Denison underscored how the brutality and shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is creating a broad a social movement against Russian aggression and for freedom.

He argued that the Berlin government can no longer claim that the German public will not accept Germany playing a stronger military role in Europe.

Denison put the challenge very clearly: “Germany needs to help win the competition with the autocrats of our age.

“The German government has often hidden behind the notion that the German public does not want to get in a fight with anyone.

“The situation has now changed dramatically. As the Chancellor Scholz announced higher military spending in the Bundestag, almost half a million marched in front of the Brandenburg Gate in solidarity with Ukraine. The new government must lead by channeling this energy, explaining how security and defense programs can counter the Russian and Chinese threats.

“German leaders need to openly admit that change is necessary – also to make up for past mistakes. Indeed, rarely have German leaders expressed such contrition and self-criticism as they have on Berlin´s past policy toward Russia. Europe is now surrounded by challenges that European governments long ignored.

“Germany needs to employ strategic thinking to maximize its advantages in an increasingly existential competition with Eurasia’s autocratic, hostile, nuclear-armed giants.  ”

“Germany must leverage its comparative advantages, mobilizing its own tech giants to contribute to European security, from IT and energy to chemicals, engineering, and logistics.

Denison argued that the German government needed to start by repairing and recapitalizing the hollowed-out German military, fulfilling the goals set out in existing “capability profile” documents.

“Equipment needs to be functional, maintainable and sustainable. Germany must focus on relearning homeland defense.

“Germany needs armed resilience to resist blackmail and protect NATO´s primary lines of communication with the East.

“Assuring air superiority and information dominance for Germany and NATO is the first step. On the ground, Germany must be able to defend itself from attacking tank columns, even though the Bundeswehr has gone from 7000 main battle tanks in 1989 to 245 in 2022. Germany´s large defense industry must step up to this challenge, leveraging its missile-making skills to counter the armored threat from Belarus and Kaliningrad.

“German planners must learn to think in terms of countering Russian military options – in concert with NATO and non-NATO partners.

I argued that the relearning of military art is really about how to deal with the 21st century authoritarians and is not simply a repeat of what was done in the Cold War. It is about innovation and change, and as the United States itself is struggling to break the shackles of a 20-year approach to war in the Middle East, it is not the dispenser of wisdom in the new warfare context.

This means that much of the learning which has been going on in Europe since 2014 from the Ukraine to Poland, the Baltics, France, the Nordics, and Pacific powers like Australia, could provide significant opportunities to shape innovations.

And to do so in ways that can provide not such military and security capabilities but global supply chains and defense industrial working relationships as well. At the same time, those parts of the U.S. military which are providing innovative solution sets to the kind of warfighting challenges the 21st century authoritarians pose provide significant partnerships as well.

Denison commented: “He with the most friends wins. Being able to attract the world´s best and brightest into collaboration on defense and security technologies is the West´s trump card.

“With thoughtful strategic direction, German technological and production prowess can make a significant contribution to global security and defense. There is a new budget and a new market. Low-hanging fruit abounds.”

He cited the Bracken comment made in an earlier piece that Putin has already used nuclear weapons in terms of nuclear head games.

Germany needs to understand this issue and re-engage with NATO and France on these issues. The short-term acquisition of the F-35 as the Tornado replacement can be part of such a re-learning and re-connecting process. Whichever combination of systems is chosen, Germany ´s role in supporting NATO nuclear deterrence will need to expand – and be better explained.

A core concept for the new strategic environment is clearly about building resilient societies, not just an arms buildup in a classic sense.

Denison argued that “Germans need to take a whole of society and whole of government approach to the 21st century security and defense challenges. We are talking about security of infrastructure, cyber and energy security, sustainability in terms of enduring conflicts, and reshaping our world view. Getting off fossil fuels is now good Green geostrategy, not just climate protection.”

He argued as well that Europe and Germany needed to understand the Pacific side of all of this.

“Like the United States, Germany must think of itself as an Atlantic and a Pacific power. A rising China has profound consequences for Europe. Chinas emissions are bad enough, its aggressive rhetoric and military buildup also pose a growing threat to Europe. No policy to defeat Putinism in Russia is complete without a clear sense of how China fits into the Eurasian dispensation.

“In short, we are at a tipping point, a new phase in Germany´s relations with the world. Germany did not want this fight; Germany´s neutralism might have even made the Putin´s aggression more likely. Now things are different. Todays Germany can rise to the occasion and use its influence to help ensure that the ultimate settlement with Russia and China is on Western terms.”

Recently, prior to the Russian invasion Denison published a piece which highlighted some of his thinking about Germany and the defense challenges facing Europe:

Averting War in Ukraine: Germany is Needed

Strengthening military deterrence in Europe is the surest way to avert war—or at least to minimize the damage Putin’s armies can do and their prospect for success. But without significant German military support, deterrence and damage-limitation are more challenging, Western credibility is weaker, and Putin’s leverage is stronger. Instead of reassuring Russia, Germany’s reluctance could well motivate Russia to try to use Ukraine to split Germany from America and NATO—and in Putin’s grand plan for Europe, little is more important.

The German people increasingly understand that Putin will find a pretext for invasion, no matter how deferential Berlin is. Yet the Scholz government is slow in adjusting to the new reality.

Germany’s new government must push back and put its strength behind the principles that undergird the European Peace. Few countries have benefited as much from national sovereignty, open alliances, and collective self-defense as the Federal Republic. Germany has proven itself in its role as mediator and bridge builder, and in the process has become the most prosperous, if not the most powerful country in Europe.

Germany Must Do More

Germany must do more to maintain the strategic balance in Europe. Germany needs to contribute to military deterrence in Europe commensurate with its size, wealth, and geopolitical importance. Germany should not only “continue to support Ukraine in restoring full territorial integrity and sovereignty,” as stated in the new SPD-Green-FDP government’s coalition agreement but also do more to strengthen military deterrence in Europe and Ukraine.

The German government should use the leverage at hand and agree to the Ukrainian requests for military equipment, including defensive weapons. “It is primarily about German warships, which are among the best in the world, which we urgently need for the robust defense of the long coastline in the Black and Azov Seas,” Ukrainian Ambassador in Berlin, Andriy Melnyk, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur on January 19. “There is the same huge need for state-of-the-art air defense systems, which German defense companies are producing right now,” the diplomat added. The Ukrainians know best what they need, but possibilities abound. Available anti-tank weapons include Panzerfaust 3, Spike LR, Milan; man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) include Stinger 2 and Mistral. Explosives and demolitions would also be important to slow the movement of heavy Russian forces.

Germany needs to contribute to military deterrence in Europe commensurate with its size, wealth, and geopolitical importance.

In signaling resolve, the German government needs to commit, publicly and emphatically, to the significance of military deterrence and Ukraine’s legal right to international support for its self-defense. In doing so, the Scholz government should make clear that these arms deliveries will be increased if Russia attacks Ukraine. The government should not underestimate the German public’s willingness to support such measures if clearly told what is at stake.

At the same time, Germany should prepare for the consequences of a major war in Europe. Russia could stop supplying its gas. Cyber-attacks will surely increase. 43 million Ukrainians could face a humanitarian catastrophe the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II. It is not too early to prepare for a wave of (weaponized) refugees numbering even larger than what Europe faced in 2015. Germany’s corona-affected hospitals could be lifesavers for war-wounded from Ukraine. Resilience and preparation have their own deterrent power. If war comes, few countries will be able to help as much as Germany.

Putin Expects German Weakness

Putin thinks the new German government is weak and inexperienced and that he can use this to his advantage. Perhaps Putin believes he can blackmail the Germans into closing their territory to arms shipments to Ukraine. Chancellor Scholz must counter this impression by taking a leadership role in strengthening military deterrence in Ukraine. Germany has an arsenal and a defense industry like few others in the world. Arms exports in 2021 set a new record at 9.3 billion euros, the world’s fourth-largest. Sadly, sending 5,000 combat helmets to Ukraine only makes Germany look weak.

German Support for NATO Air Superiority

A more pronounced German role in supplying effective defensive weapons to Ukraine is necessary but not sufficient. If the Russian invasion were to falter—and there are many reasons to believe it could—the Russians would also have to know that it would make no sense to escalate militarily, for example, by trying to use force to prevent the delivery of Western weapons, or worse, the evacuation of Western nationals.

The United States and some NATO countries are now countering just such Russian options. Not wanting to offer the Russians an open eastern flank, NATO aircraft are rotating through Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. Germany should support this NATO deterrence by fulfilling its important role as a secure operating base, but also by sending German Eurofighters, reconnaissance Tornados, and Patriot air defense to Romania or Bulgaria, along with mobile ground support to operate from smaller airports. Germany should follow France’s example in sending ground troops to Romania.

If Germany is not prepared to contribute more to European military deterrence, then Germany is once again endangering European peace.

The danger posed by Russian missile forces should move the German government to step up cooperation with NATO to reduce the vulnerability of airfields and harbors such as Ramstein, Frankfurt, Bremerhaven. Russia should not be tempted to threaten Germany if its offensive in Ukraine were about to fail.

Finally, and most existentially, Putin must be convinced that any use of nuclear weapons would only make things worse for him. He must hear this not only from Washington, London, and Paris but also and especially from Berlin. While controversial, for the government to conceal Germany’s own important nuclear deterrent role would be worse. Moscow must know that little is to be gained by threatening nuclear escalation—or trying to split Germany from the Alliance on this question.

Rise to the Occasion

The new government must reinforce Germans’ emerging recognition that the European Peace is not self-sustaining, that Russia’s interests are now largely incompatible with those of Europe, and that Europe cannot deter Russian aggression without the commitment and leadership of Europe’s largest country.

The German people are not immune to the argument that Germany, as the wealthiest and most influential EU member, has a special responsibility to strengthen military deterrence in Europe—and not to hide behind Germany’s past. They can understand the danger Putin poses to European solidarity.

Germany should rise to the occasion and take a leadership role in preventing war and keeping the peace in Europe. If Germany is not prepared to contribute more to European military deterrence—and to do so in proportion to Germany’s geostrategic importance—then Germany is once again endangering European peace, albeit unintentionally.

Featured Graphic: Credit: Bigstock

See also the following:

Time for a Competitive Germany

The Return of Direct European Defense: The German Challenge

For our assessment of the way ahead for the direct defense of Europe which underscored the need for the broader approach which Denison is highlighting, see the following:

The book can be bought through our website in both e-book or paperback format.

We are offering a 30% discount if you use the code Putin.