Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has begun warning Germans that they should prepare for decades of confrontation with Russia and that they should quickly rebuild the country’s military in case Vladimir V. Putin does not consider to stop at the border with Ukraine.
The Russian army, he said in a series of recent interviews with German media, is entirely occupied by Ukraine. But if there is a truce and Mr. Putin, the Russian president, has a few years to reassess, he believes the Russian leader will consider testing NATO unity.
“No one knows how or if it will last,” Mr. Pistorius said of the current war, arguing for a rapid strengthening of the size of the German army and a replenishment of its arsenal.
Mr. Pistorius’ public warnings reflect a significant change at the highest levels of leadership in a country that has avoided a strong military since the end of the Cold War. The alarm is growing louder, but German public opinion is still not convinced that the security of Germany and Europe is fundamentally threatened by a newly aggressive Russia.
The post of defense minister in Germany is often a political dead end. But Mr. Pistorius’s status as one of the country’s most popular politicians has given him a freedom of speech that others, including his boss, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, do not enjoy.
As Mr. Scholz prepares to meet with President Biden at the White House on Friday, many in the German government say it is not possible to return to the status quo with Mr. Putin’s Russia, which they anticipate little progress this year in Ukraine and they fear the consequences if Mr. Putin wins.
Those fears are now intertwined with discussions about what will happen to NATO if former President Donald J. Trump is elected and given a second chance to act on his instincts to remove the United States from the alliance.
The prospect of Mr. Trump being re-elected has German officials and many of their NATO counterparts informally discussing whether the nearly 75-year-old alliance structure they plan to celebrate in Washington this year can survive without the United States at its center. . Many German officials say Mr. Putin’s best strategic hope is the fracturing of NATO.
For Germans in particular, this is a stunning reversal of thinking. Barely a year ago, NATO was celebrating a new purpose and unity, and many were confidently predicting that Mr. Putin was on the run.
But today, with an unreliable America, an aggressive Russia and a rising China, as well as a seemingly stalemated war in Ukraine and a deeply unpopular conflict in Gaza, German officials are starting to talk about emergence of a new, complicated and disturbing world. , with serious consequences for European and transatlantic security.
Their immediate concern is growing pessimism that the United States will continue to finance Ukraine’s struggle, just as Germany, the second-largest contributor, has agreed to double its contribution this year to approximately $8.5 billion.
Now some of Mr Pistorius’s colleagues are warning that if US funding dries up and Russia wins, his next target will be closer to Berlin.
“If Ukraine were forced to surrender, it would not satisfy Russia’s thirst for power,” German intelligence chief Bruno Kahl said last week. “If the West does not show a clear willingness to defend itself, Putin will have no reason not to attack NATO again. »
But when pressed about possible conflict with Russia or the future of NATO, German politicians speak with caution.
In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Germans have become accustomed to the idea that the country’s security would be ensured by working with Russia, not against it, and that China is a necessary partner with a critical market for German automobiles and equipment. .
Even today, Mr. Scholz, a Social Democrat whose party traditionally seeks decent ties with Moscow, appears reluctant to discuss the far more confrontational future with Russia or China than Germany’s defense and security chiefs. information describe so clearly.
With the exception of Mr. Pistorius, little known before being appointed head of the Defense Ministry a year ago, few politicians will address the subject in public. Mr. Scholz is particularly cautious, tending to Germany’s relations with the United States and wary of pushing Russia and its unpredictable president too hard.
Two years ago, he declared a new era for Germany – a “Zeitenwende,” or historic turning point, in German security policy, one that he said would be marked by a significant shift in spending and strategic thinking. He kept his promise to allocate an additional 100 billion euros to military spending over four years.
This year, for the first time, Germany will spend 2% of its gross domestic product on the military, meeting the target agreed by all NATO countries in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russia, but which most experts now consider too weak. . And Germany has pledged to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank against Russia by promising to permanently station a brigade in Lithuania by 2027.
Yet in other respects Mr. Scholz acted with great caution. He opposed – as did Mr Biden – the establishment of a timetable for Ukraine’s possible entry into the alliance.
The most striking example of its caution is its continued refusal to supply Ukraine with a long-range air-launched cruise missile called the Taurus.
Last year, Britain and France gave Ukraine their closest equivalent, the Storm Shadow/SCALP, and it was used to devastate Russian ships in Crimean ports – and to force the Russia to withdraw its fleet. Mr. Biden reluctantly agreed to provide ATACMS, a similar missile but with a limited range of around 100 miles, towards Ukraine in the fall.
The Taurus has a range of more than 300 miles, meaning Ukraine could use it to strike deep into Russia. And Mr. Scholz is unwilling to take that risk, nor is the country’s Bundestag, which voted against a resolution calling for the transfer. While the decision appears to be in line with German opinion, Mr Scholz wants to avoid the subject.
But if he remains reluctant to push Mr. Putin too hard, it is a caution that the Germans share.
Polls show that Germans want to see a more competent German army. But only 38 percent of respondents said they wanted their country to be more involved in international crises, the lowest figure since this question began to be asked in 2017, according to the Körber Foundation, which conducted the survey. Among this group, 76 percent said engagement should be primarily diplomatic, and 71 percent were against a military leadership role for Germany in Europe.
German military officials recently sparked an outcry by suggesting that the country needed to be prepared for “kriegstüchtig,” which roughly translates to the ability to fight and win a war.
Norbert Röttgen, an opposition lawmaker and foreign policy expert in the Christian Democratic Party, said the term was seen as “rhetorical overreach” and was quickly abandoned.
“Scholz always said that ‘Ukraine must not lose but Russia must not win,’ which indicates that he always thought of a stalemate that would lead to a diplomatic process,” Röttgen said. “He sees Russia as more important than all the countries that stand between us and them, and he lacks the sense of Europe and his possible role as a European leader.”
Mr. Röttgen and other critics of Mr. Scholz believe he is losing a historic opportunity to lead the creation of a European defense capability far less dependent on American military and nuclear deterrence.
But Mr. Scholz clearly feels more comfortable leaning heavily on Washington, and senior German officials say he is particularly wary of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who has argued for a ” European strategic autonomy. Mr. Macron has found few followers on the continent.
Even Mr. Scholz’s main European defense initiative, a coordinated ground-based air defense against ballistic missiles known as Sky Shield, depends on a mix of American, American-Israeli and German missile systems. This angered the French, Italians, Spanish and Poles, who did not join, arguing that an Italian-French system should have been used.
Mr. Scholz’s ambitions are also crippled by his increasingly weak economy. It fell by 0.3% last year, and it is expected to be about the same in 2024. The cost of the war in Ukraine and China’s economic problems – which have hit most severely the automotive and manufacturing sectors – have exacerbated the problem.
Although Mr. Scholz acknowledges that the world has changed, “he is not saying that we must change with it,” said Ulrich Speck, a German analyst.
“He says the world has changed and we will protect you,” Mr. Speck said.
But this could well require much greater military spending – up to 3% of Germany’s gross domestic product. For now, few members of Mr. Scholz’s party dare suggest going that far.
Germans, and even social democrats, “have realized that Germany lives in the real world and that hard power matters,” said Charles A. Kupchan, a Europe expert at Georgetown University.
“At the same time,” he said, “there is always this hope that this is all a bad dream and that the Germans will wake up and return to the old world.”