How Russia’s invasion changed German foreign policy

Bernhard Blumenau explains the significance of Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Interview
5 minute READ

Isabel Muttreja

Former Marketing Manager, International Affairs, Communications and Publishing

Bernhard Blumenau

Lecturer in International Relations, University of St Andrews

In February 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a surprise speech to the German parliament. He said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a turning point (Zeitenwende) for Europe and announced a radical shift in German policy as a result.

In this interview, Bernhard Blumenau draws on his article in International Affairs to explore the impact of Zeitenwende and recent events for Germany’s traditional foreign policy pillars, its relations with Russia, NATO, and China, and the long-term implications of this watershed moment.

What was the Zeitenwende speech?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a speech in February 2022 to announce his government’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With a highly unusual decision to address Germany’s parliament on a Sunday (27 February), Scholz presented – and surprised – MPs with his new foreign policy objectives.

He said that Russia’s invasion constituted a turning point (Zeitenwende) in European history as he detailed plans for a radical break with Germany’s traditional Russia policy (Ostpolitik). He also announced a massive increase in defence spending, breaking with post-Cold War tradition of underfunding the military (in comparison to the NATO two per cent target).

The Zeitenwende speech was one of the most important recalibrations of German foreign policy since unification in 1990.  

As important as the declaration of changes was, however, Scholz also made a strong commitment to uphold other German foreign policy traditions such as support for European integration, NATO, international cooperation and an international order based on rules, not power politics.

Still, the Zeitenwende speech was one of the most important recalibrations of German foreign policy since unification in 1990. It marked Germany’s waking up to the geopolitical realities of 2022.

Why was the speech so significant?

The speech was significant because of the policy announcements it entailed, but also because of the government that introduced them. Zeitenwende breaks with some key traditions that had underpinned German foreign affairs. Certainly, Scholz maintained Germany’s commitment to many important pillars of foreign policy, such as Germany being anchored in the West and the EU as well as NATO, upholding international law and multilateralism.

Scholz acknowledged that the thinking so prevalent in German policy circles after the Cold War was an illusion: war was not banished from Europe, and the Cold War peace dividend was used up.

However, one rupture in particular was noteworthy: the commitment to set up a special fund of 100 billion euros and to invest heavily in the military, as well as the acknowledgment that military strength and capabilities were vital for Germany’s security and Europe’s future.

This was a difficult policy to announce for an SPD chancellor, whose party had strong pacifist tendencies. But the Green party was probably the coalition partner most affected by this rupture as it had evolved out of the peace movement of the 1980s.

With this speech, Scholz acknowledged that the thinking so prevalent in German policy circles after the Cold War was an illusion: war was not banished from Europe, and the Cold War peace dividend was used up. Germany had long hoped to outsource its security to others – mostly the US – and underspent on its own military. The Russian invasion of Ukraine laid bare the flaws of this approach, and Scholz acknowledged this in his speech.

What were German relations like with Russia before the invasion?

Since Chancellor of West Germany Willy Brandt embarked on Ostpolitik in the early 1970s, having close relations with Russia was a constant in German foreign policy. Successive governments considered a good, cooperative relationship with Russia a necessity for peace in Europe. This was underpinned by the notion that close contacts would – over time – lead to a more democratic Russia and to Moscow’s commitment to maintaining peace and stability on the continent.

To accompany this process, Germany also embarked on a mission to intensify economic links with Russia. This notion of change through trade (Wandel durch Handel) was based on the assumption that as Russia’s economy was to become ever more closely intertwined with that of Germany and Europe, Moscow would not risk these connections by hostile policies that would upset the status quo (and thus, its profits). However, the flipside of this was that Germany, too, became ever more dependent on Russia, and especially its gas.

Ostpolitik and Wandel durch Handel went through a first, small crisis – or reality check – with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 but, in essence, both policies remained intact. It took the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 to completely discredit both policies. To date, Berlin has not developed a new Russia policy and is struggling with how to adapt Wandel durch Handel vis-à-vis another – more important – economic partner: China.

What are the implications for German relations within NATO and in Europe?

Scholz finally acknowledged that Germany’s Bundeswehr (armed forces) were chronically underfunded and not up to the challenges it would face. His promise to dramatically increase defence spending was good news for NATO as was his promise to secure Europe’s freedom. Moreover, Scholz’s government agreed to send weapons to a crisis region – Ukraine – which was another major U-turn in traditional German policy.

As for Europe, he underlined Germany’s continuing support for the EU and professed that ‘Europe is our framework for action’. This was certainly as much a message to Europeans as it was to Vladimir Putin that he would not succeed in driving a wedge between EU members.

Yet Scholz did not offer any concrete proposals for how to strengthen the EU, and how to drive forward integration. And despite subsequent speeches – such as in Prague on 29 August 2022 – Germany has thus far been reluctant to assume a strong leadership role and to reveal detailed plans.

What are the long-term implications of this shift in foreign policy beyond Russia?

The discrediting of Wandel durch Handel is significant as it was not only a policy applied towards Russia but also underpins Germany’s dealings with other countries, such as China. As Germany’s economic ties with China are even closer than with Russia, this is a serious headache for Berlin; especially as there is a chance that Beijing might pursue a more aggressive policy towards Taiwan.

Current infighting within the government – and the coalition more broadly – shows that Scholz’s government has not yet come up with an answer to the question how Germany’s China policy will be affected and revisited in light of the disastrous collapse of its Ostpolitik and Wandel durch Handel.

Scholz Beijing trip cont.

Scholz’s one-day trip to Beijing in early November, and the controversy it caused in Germany, further underlined this issue. Scholz could present China’s condemnation of the potential use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war as a success of his trip, but the basic dilemma of how Zeitenwende will affect Germany’s China policy remains.

As Germany’s economic ties with China are even closer than with Russia, this is a serious headache for Berlin.

With Russia having cut off gas supplies to Germany, the government had to quickly find other suppliers, some of them in Middle Eastern countries with a rather questionable human rights or democratic track record. Until recently, Wandel durch Handel had served as a justification for doing business with such states but it is now so damaged that it will not serve as a fig leaf anymore. This is a massive problem for an export-oriented trading nation like Germany.

How can Germany use this turning point to its advantage?

While Zeitenwende was generally welcomed in Germany and amongst Berlin’s partners, the ensuing hesitation and slow pace of change frustrated many. With its previous hesitation to adequately fund its armed forces, its Russia policy now completely discredited, and its China policy still very undecided, Germany lost a great deal of credibility amongst its partners. A determined implementation of Zeitenwende can repair Germany’s image.

However, the lack of Russian gas on top of the economic fallout from the pandemic and a decade of cheap money, poses serious problems for Germany’s economy and society as the country is heading towards a recession. This is not a consequence of Zeitenwende, but it is the challenging background against which the new policies will be developed and implemented.

If Germany is willing to lead, to propose new visions based on its traditional and successful pillars of foreign policy, and to help see them through, Germany’s prestige and influence might well grow as a result of Zeitenwende.

The long-term impact of Scholz’ speech will ultimately depend not only on the policies that derive from it, but also on Germany overcoming another traditional trait in its foreign policy: the reluctance to assume leadership within Europe or globally.

If Germany is willing to lead, to propose new visions based on its traditional and successful pillars of foreign policy (such as multilateralism, European integration, and a rules-based international order), and to help see them through, Germany’s prestige and influence might well grow as a result of Zeitenwende. But first, the Germans themselves have to decide if they are prepared to break with this tradition.

Bernhard Blumenau’s article ‘Breaking with convention? Zeitenwende and the traditional pillars of German foreign policy’ is in the November 2022 issue of International Affairs. It is free to access.

International Affairs was started at Chatham House in 1922 to communicate research to members who could not attend in person. Over the last 100 years it has transformed into a journal that publishes academically rigorous and policy relevant research. It is published for Chatham House by Oxford University Press. Read the latest issue.