Ukraine War Pushes Germans to Change. They Are Wavering.

BERLIN — Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz shocked the world and his own country when he responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a €100 billion plan to arm Germany, send weapons to Ukraine and end his country’s deep dependence on Russian energy.

It was Germany’s biggest foreign policy shift since the Cold War, what Scholz called a “Zeitenwende,” an epochal turnaround, that won plaudits for its leadership at home and abroad.

But six weeks later, the applause has largely died down. Even as images emerge of atrocities in Ukraine since President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Russia, Scholz has ruled out an immediate oil and gas embargo, saying it would be too costly. He is holding back on sending 100 armored vehicles to Ukraine, saying Germany must not “rush ahead.” There are new debates in the ruling coalition about how to proceed with the huge task that Scholz has set out, let alone how quickly.

Doubts are already mounting about the German government’s commitment to its own radical plans. “Zeitenwende is real, but the country is the same,” said Thomas Bagger, a senior German diplomat who will be the next ambassador to Poland. “Not everyone likes it.”

The changes Scholz announced go well beyond his commitment to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military: some 70 billion euros ($76 billion) a year, compared with 41 billion euros from France ($44 billion).

They go to the heart of Germany’s postwar identity as a peaceful exporting nation, and to the heart of a business model that has enriched Germany and made it Europe’s largest and most powerful economy.

Germans are now being asked to “reconsider everything: our approach to doing business, energy policy, defense and Russia,” said Claudia Major, a defense expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “We need a change of mentality. We need to recognize that this is about us, that power politics is back and that Germany has a role to play.”

But he added: “Once again, Germany is not leading, it is being dragged along.”

Truly reorienting Germans to a new world where security has its real costs, not only in terms of potential loss of life, but lost trade, higher energy prices, lower profits, and lower economic growth, will be an effort. heartbreaking that it will take time. even a generation, and more than one political pronouncement in the afternoon.

That realization is dawning, for the Germans and their frustrated European partners.

“I don’t understand how someone in Germany can sleep at night after seeing horrors like this without doing anything about it,” said Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin, referring to the atrocities in Ukraine. “What does it take for Germany to act?”

Even Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ self-confident foreign minister, expressed concern that the Zeitenwende may be more temporary than fundamental. She said she was worried that the consensus was fragile, that Germans who favor close ties with Russia would be silent now, but they did not change their minds.

“You can feel this,” he said in an interview. “They know they have to do it right now with regard to sanctions, energy independence and arms deliveries, also with regard to how we treat Russia. But really, they don’t like it.”

Since Scholz presented his Zeitenwende to a special session of Parliament on February 27, multiple cracks in Germany’s commitment to change have already begun to appear.

German celebrities made headlines with an appeal to the government against rearmament and the “180-degree change in German foreign policy” that has so far been signed by 45,000 people. Green lawmakers have pushed to spend only part of the €100bn special fund on the military, citing other needs such as “human security” and climate change. Unions and industry bosses are warning of catastrophic damage to the economy and an immediate recession if Russian gas stops flowing.

As the CEO of German chemical giant BASF, Michael Heinz, said last week: “Cheap Russian energy has been the basis of our industry’s competitiveness.”

In fact, it has been the basis of the German economy. Now that German companies face the prospect of being asked to do without it, resistance is quietly mounting. Government ministers say business leaders quietly ask them when things will “go back to normal” — that is, when they can get back to normal.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, business as usual has largely meant “change through trade,” the conviction that economic interdependence would change authoritarian governments like Russia and China for the better and help maintain peace. Prosperity and democracy, said the thought, go hand in hand.

The link with Russia is particularly complicated by a long and complex history of hot and cold war, including blame for the millions of Russians murdered by the Nazis. This reinforced the belief that Europe’s security architecture had to include Russia and take Russian interests into account.

It was a model that also paid off for Germany.

“We export to China and we import cheap gasoline from Russia, that has been the recipe for successful German exports,” said Ralph Bollmann, biographer of Angela Merkel, the former German chancellor who is now seen as shielding Germans from a rival world. but without preparing them for it.

Few in Germany, including its intelligence services, predicted that Putin would invade a sovereign European country. But the war has triggered a cycle of soul-searching, even among prominent politicians like Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a former foreign minister and now federal president.

A senior member of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party, he was a prominent supporter of the now-detained Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which bypassed Ukraine and was opposed by Washington.

“We were clinging to the idea of ​​building bridges to Russia that our partners warned us about,” Steinmeier said, after Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador, accused him of allowing Putin. “We failed to build a common Europe,” Steinmeier said. “We failed to incorporate Russia into our security architecture.” And he added: “I was wrong.”

Immediately after Mr. Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech, the details of which he shared with only a handful of people, the determination to act decisively seemed palpable.

The three diverse parties in his coalition rallied behind him and partisan divisions with the Conservative opposition were also briefly forgotten. Public opinion reflected the change and rewarded the new chancellor with higher popularity ratings.

But before long, the breadth of the change announced by Scholz seems to have intimidated even his own tripartite coalition. “The government has made some brave decisions, but it may seem fearful of its own worth,” said Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

There is skepticism that the political establishment is ready to fundamentally break with Moscow, or that German voters will happily pay much more for energy and food for the foreseeable future.

“German pacifism runs very deep,” said John Kornblum, a former US ambassador to Germany who has lived in the country on and off since the 1960s. “German illusions may have been shattered, but not their traumas about Russia and the war. ”.

That “neurotic relationship with Russia may be on hold for the time being, but it will be back in full force as soon as the shooting stops,” he said.

Nils Schmid, spokesman for foreign policy in the Social Democrats’ parliament, said Germany’s soft stance towards Russia “reflects German society, and what will remain is this idea that Russia is there and is part of Europe, and we will have to deal with it. ”

The war has produced “disappointed hopes” for a united and peaceful Europe, shared by his generation of 1989, he said. But he noted that with this war, “there can be no return to business as usual,” adding: “No one really wants to go back to the old days of engaging with Russia.”

Still, he said, “We shouldn’t exaggerate. The balance will shift to more deterrence and less dialogue. But we must have some dialogue.”

Mrs. Puglierin has little patience for such arguments. “People need to let go of these old ideas and adapt to reality as it is, and not as they want it to be,” she said. “Russia has shown that it does not want a stable relationship in this existing security order, which is now an empty shell.”

A prominent conservative lawmaker, Norbert Röttgen, argued that Germany must immediately and completely break with Russia. “War has returned to Europe, one that will affect the political and security order of the continent,” he said.

Germany must also draw the lessons of its dependence on Russia for its future relationship with China’s most powerful authoritarian kingdom, on which key sectors of Germany’s export-driven model are based, Röttgen said.

“The real Zeitenwende,” Ms Puglierin said, “will come when we remake our model for a future of competition with both Russia and China and realize that every dependency can be used against us.”

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