Germany minister talks bigger budgets in face of Russia’s Ukraine invasion

Germany minister talks bigger budgets in face of Russia’s Ukraine invasion

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought about a complete sea change in German policy, a shift Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a Feb. 28 address called a “zeitenwende” — the dawn of a new era. The country long condemned as a laggard in NATO for its skimpy defense budgets and cautious foreign policy suddenly was earmarking some $110 billion for the armed forces within weeks and pledged it would meet the NATO defense spending target of 2% of GDP.

The captain of the ship for the sea change is Christine Lambrecht, a veteran of Mr. Scholz’s center-left Social Democratic Party who was appointed defense minister in December. In her first visit to Washington since the revolution in German defense policy was announced, she pledged Tuesday that her ministry will turn rhetoric into action. Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, is as close to Berlin as Chicago is to the White House, she said during an online discussion sponsored by the Atlantic Council think tank.

Germany, long the economic engine of Europe, now appears determined to hold its security obligations as well. Prodded by the shock of Russia‘s invasion, the left-leaning new government has made security and spending commitments on defense that would have been unthinkable just a year ago under then-Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“For us as Germans, these are days of shock,” Ms. Lambrecht said. “This new reality is now very clear to Germany. There are more than 200,000 Ukrainians who fled to Germany in fear for their lives.”

Within hours of the first Russian tank rolling across the border into Ukraine, Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais, chief of the German Army, complained on social media that the military — known as the Bundeswehr — had been neglected for years. Only 40 out of 350 of the Army’s Puma combat vehicles were considered combat-ready and the other services didn’t fare much better. Fewer than 30% of German warships were considered fully operational and many of the nation’s jet fighters weren’t airworthy, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Analysts say Germany completely reversed its post-Cold War foreign policy within days of the invasion, vowing to beef up its woefully underfunded armed forces and radically scale back commercial and energy ties to Moscow. Mr. Scholz’s government also announced it would halt the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, a project both the Trump and Biden administrations had looked on with suspicion.

“Germany also supports the unprecedented tough sanctions imposed on Russia,” Ms. Lambrecht said. “Germany supports NATO when it comes to strengthening the eastern flank.”

She cited the decision to purchase up to 35 U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets to replace Germany’s aging fleet of Tornado aircraft. The decision means it will have a fighter capable of carrying U.S.-made nuclear weapons stored in Germany. 

“We will actively assume this new role in close cooperation with our American and European allies and partners,” she said. “We fully take on that responsibility and we are serious about it.”

Germany’s postwar governments tended to focus on detente and diplomacy, relying on the U.S. military to shield them from the Soviet Union or other threats. The invasion of Ukraine, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has changed the equation in Europe. 

“We do need the [NATO] alliance and we do need the strength of the United States,” said Ms. Lambrecht, who will meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and lawmakers on Capitol Hill on her visit this week.

Helping to provide security for Europe will pay off for the security of the U.S., she said.

“It strengthens the freedoms and values here in the U.S. because these values are also our values,” Ms. Lambrecht said. “It is those shared American and European values that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is attacking with his greed for more power.”