Germany breaks four decades-old taboos after invading Ukraine | International
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The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has shaken the foundations of the conception of the world and of the place that Germany believed to occupy in it. The war at the gates of the European Union has suddenly awakened a country that for years trusted that diplomacy and good economic relations were enough to maintain peace and spread democracy. The shock it has been of such magnitude that Germany has already broken or questions taboos that have defined its foreign, defense and energy policies for decades.
The country that categorically refused to send weapons to conflict regions, turning against allies such as the United States and its European partners, now supplies missiles to the Ukrainian Army. The country with underfunded armed forces and that shunned everything that smacked of warmongering is about to inject 100,000 million euros into defense to create one of the most powerful armies in the world. It is also discussed whether compulsory military service should return. Even the sacrosanct freedom to travel on German motorways without speed limits is in question. The Germany of no to nuclear It is now proposed to extend the life of the last three reactors in operation. And all this in a month.
The German Chancellor, the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, called him Zeitenwende, something like a turning point in history, in a speech in February of great depth and harshness that disrupted the pillars of the defense policies of his predecessors. “The entire conception of the world that Germany had since the 1990s has collapsed,” summarizes Jacob Kirkegaard, senior analyst at the German Marshall Fund (GMF). The country thought that it could trade and invest in other states “regardless of how wicked they were because it believed that democracy would triumph in the end.” But Russia has turned out to be an “aggressive nuclear-armed empire on the doorstep of the EU” and that “leads to a fundamentally different world that Germany was not ready for,” he argues.
1. Historical investment in defense
This slap in the face of reality has forced taboos to be broken that, Rafael Loss, an expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), also believes, needed to be broken down. Senior military commanders, both in the reserves and on active duty, have publicly lamented the battered state of the German Army, which, they say, would not be in a position to defend the country in the event of an attack.
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Scholz announced, on the Sunday after the invasion of Ukraine, a special item of 100,000 million euros to improve the Bundeswehr as soon as possible, and the increase in annual investment in defense to exceed 2% of gross domestic product, a request reiterated by NATO and that successive German governments had ignored until today. Currently, defense spending is around 1.5% of GDP. The purchase of 35 American-made F-35 aircraft is the first concrete step in this reshaping of the armed forces.
2. Weapons in conflict zones
The decision to send lethal weapons to Ukraine represents another paradigm shift. For decades, Berlin had alluded to its turbulent 20th-century history to even ban the re-export of German-made weapons from third countries. The announcement of the shipment of 5,000 protective helmets to kyiv when the allies were already sending missiles provoked a reaction that mixed criticism and sarcasm. Scholz’s historic February 27 speech put an end to that pillar of foreign policy: “The Russian invasion marks a turning point. It threatens our entire postwar order. It is our duty to do everything possible to help Ukraine defend itself from the invading army of Vladimir Putin.”
Turning Berlin “is going to take a lot of leadership,” says Loss, because offsetting 30 years of budget cuts is about more than just putting a lot of money on the table all at once. The same applies to energy policy. Undoing now decades of consciously reinforcing dependence on Russian oil and gas is a very difficult task. Not only because you have to ensure an alternative supply; also because the population has to be aware that it is going to affect their pockets.
3. Extend the life of nuclear
Cutting energy ties with Putin has become the top priority of the German government, which looks to break the taboo on nuclear energy. Germany is extremely dependent on Russian gas to run its industry and heat its homes, and it was also hoping to use this source of energy – quite cheap until a few months ago – as a bridge to further development of renewables. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put an end to those plans. Even the goal of carbon neutrality by 2045 is in jeopardy.
Given this situation, extending the useful life of the last three nuclear power plants in operation has returned to public debate and even a minister from the Greens has been open to studying it. The last three reactors on German soil should close on December 31 this year, in accordance with the nuclear blackout ordered by former Chancellor Angela Merkel in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
Citizens massively supported Merkel’s decision and until a little over a month ago no one considered backing down. Now, Robert Habeck, the green Minister of Economy and Climate, does not rule out any solution, despite the fact that his party has declared no to nuclear power since its foundation. Another green baron, Winfried Kretschmann, president of Baden-Württemberg, even talks about continuing to burn coal beyond 2030, the objective that the Greens had imposed on the tripartite in the government coalition agreement.
For now the Executive is not for the job. When weighing arguments for and against, a first evaluation has determined that the contribution to energy supply from nuclear would be too small for the economic, legal and security risks that it would entail. “It would not be sensible or justifiable,” said the Minister of the Environment, the green Steffi Lemke. “It can even make us more vulnerable,” she added. Nuclear provided almost 12% of electricity generation last year, but there were six reactors in operation and now only three remain.
4. Is the ‘mili’ back?
The shift in defense policy after the invasion of Ukraine has put on the table the possibility of reinstating compulsory military service. The discussion has crept into gatherings, opinion articles and also into the speeches of political leaders who have wondered if it might not be the moment to recover the milli, which ceased to exist in Germany just over a decade ago. It is not the first time that it has been raised, generally by some conservative politician, but very far from the repercussion that it is having now.
The Christian Democrat Daniel Günther, president of Schleswig-Holstein, claimed to be in favor of compulsory military service in a recent interview in Der Spiegel. But also from the left some voices arise in this sense. Bodo Ramelow, president of Thuringia and member of Die Linke (The Left), has written on his blog that, unlike his party, he is in favor of a well-equipped Bundeswehr and of regaining the milli.
Given the reactivation of the debate, the Ministry of Defense has had to pronounce itself. “It’s not on the agenda,” he says in a statement. The department recalls that one of the reasons for ending military service in 2011 was doubts about the constitutionality of forcing only men to do it. In addition, he considers that in the current situation the new recruits would not be of much help. What is needed are well-trained troops, consider the high-ranking military commanders who have given their opinion.
Roderich Kiesewetter, a defense expert for the conservative CDU, points to a further problem. “We don’t even have barracks anymore,” he said in an interview on public television. Defense assures that it is not considering calling the reservists either, thousands of men and women with military training who would be available in case of need.
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