14.06.23 Review

Berlin's Zeitenwende: Germany has adopted its first National Security Concept, and experts advise preparing for worst-case scenarios with Russia

Germany's adoption of its first National Security Concept marks the most radical shift in German foreign policy since the late 1960s. The decision to drastically increase defence spending and completely reassess the principles of its relationship with Russia is a direct consequence of Putin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Within Germany's expert community, there are now calls to prepare for the worst, envisioning the persistence of a harsh and aggressive Russian regime even after the end of the current war. Scenarios including the possibilities of a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO, or even a Russian nuclear strike, are being considered. Experts also advise against relying too heavily on Washington, whose foreign policy is seen as unpredictable due to America’s domestic uncertainties and upcoming elections. Moreover, they suggest increasing Russia’s economic isolation and severing all ties, even if this brings additional economic costs in the short term.

The German government has approved its first-ever National Security Strategy, marking a significant step in the reevaluation of Germany's foreign policy doctrine and ideology. This move comes as a direct response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz highlighting Russia as the primary threat to Germany’s security.

The German Language Society's choice for the word of the year for 2022 was Zeitenwende, which translates to 'epochal shift' or 'transition to a new era.' In terms of foreign policy, Zeitenwende implies the need to reconfigure strategic thinking in order to effectively prepare for future challenges. To this end, Germany is currently developing a series of strategic documents, including a strategy for its relations with China. In addition, Germany requires a similar document covering its relationship with Russia, one that aligns with the new strategic framework of German foreign policy and takes into account the mistakes made by Berlin in its past Russian policy, as outlined in a report by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Germany's decision to supply weapons to Kyiv has demonstrated that the country has fundamentally reassessed its role in European security in the wake of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Berlin has committed itself to allocating significantly more resources to security and defence (the signed Strategy includes a pledge to allocate 2% of GDP to these objectives), completely restructuring its energy policy, joining strict anti-Russian sanctions, and scaling back numerous forms of political and social dialogue with Russia. Experts believe that the next step will be the integration of the measures which have already been adopted or implemented into a comprehensive new policy concerning Russia.

In a recently published report, the contours of Germany's new policy towards Russia are outlined based on two assumptions. First, regardless of whether Putin retains power or not, the report suggests that the Russian regime will remain authoritarian or even totalitarian, continuing to pursue an aggressive foreign policy. This does not exclude potential scenarios of a direct attack on Western countries or even the use of tactical nuclear weapons, advocated by some Russian foreign policy experts. Second, it is assumed that Russia will not disintegrate, although further instability as a result of separatist tendencies within the country is possible.

A key element of Germany's new approach is to focus on the military deterrence of Russia. This entails increasing defence spending, streamlining bureaucratic procedures, boosting production within the defence industry, and implementing effective mechanisms for strategic planning. Increases in defence spending will be funded either by reductions in funding for other sectors or by higher taxes. Moreover, the report proposes reinforcing the presence of German troops in Lithuania to ensure security on NATO's eastern flank, resolving disagreements in German-French security relations, as France is the largest military power in Europe and the only EU country with nuclear weapons. Germany is also advised to strengthen its role in maintaining security in the Black Sea region, whether through an expanded NATO presence or infrastructure development along the Danube.

The report stresses that NATO remains the most important security structure in Europe and the transatlantic region. Germany's security strategy should be embedded within NATO cooperation (as also highlighted in the recently adopted Strategy), as well as cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom. However, given the existing political divisions in the US today, which create a high degree of uncertainty regarding American foreign policy, the report suggests that Germany and the EU should strive for greater autonomy and self-sufficiency in the field of security. Support for Ukraine must continue and, if possible, even expand regardless of the evolving situation.

The actions of the Russian regime have demonstrated that the concept of rapprochement through economic interdependence was misguided. The construction of the ‘Nord Stream’ pipelines was the result of a flawed policy based on misguided assumptions about Russia's intentions and the German authorities' inability to consider the interests of its neighbours and allies. Therefore, Germany will need to continue its course of economic disengagement from Russia and accept that the sanctions imposed on Russia will be long-term or even require further expansion. German economic policy should incentivise any remaining German companies to withdraw from the Russian market gradually. This involves gradually reducing the remaining trade flows, severing ties with Russian banks, excluding Russia from planned projects, and strengthening the economic resilience of the EU within the framework of the common market.

In the energy sector, Germany's goal is to fully transition to other energy suppliers while continuing to accelerate the shift to renewable sources. The report advises German authorities to actively prepare the public for the likelihood that citizens may face an additional financial burden as a result of Berlin's new energy policy. According to polling, at the end of the summer of 2022, the majority of German citizens supported sanctions against Russia and were willing to endure the associated inconveniences. However, by the beginning of 2023, 48% had already expressed doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions.

Russia’s escalating economic isolation will contribute to the formation of two blocs: the West on one side, and a group centred around China and Russia on the other, according to the report. This will lead to additional economic and political challenges for Germany and the EU. Such bipolarity will force both blocs to seek support from countries in the global South, thereby enhancing their political significance on the world stage.

The report suggests that Germany should support those from the Russian diaspora who are attempting to promote the transformation of Russia into a democratic state governed by the rule-of-law. However, a regime change can only occur as a result of internal processes within Russia, and a necessary condition for this is the collective recognition of the criminal nature of the Putin regime by Russian society. Germany underwent a similar phase of transition after the end of World War II. It is important to avoid using the concept of 'collective guilt,' which imposes equal responsibility on all Russian citizens.