Germany is preparing for decades of confrontation with Russia

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has begun warning Germans that they must prepare for decades of confrontation with Russia – and that they must quickly rebuild the country’s army in case Vladimir Putin does not plan to stop at the border with Ukraine.

In a series of recent interviews with German media, he said that the Russian military is fully occupied with Ukraine. But if there is a truce, and Mr. Putin, the Russian president, has a few years to recalibrate, he believes the Russian leader will consider testing NATO unity.

“No one knows how or whether this will continue,” Pistorius said of the current war, calling for a rapid increase in the size of the German army and a restocking of its arsenal.

Mr. Pistorius’s public warnings reflect a major shift at the highest levels of leadership in a country that has shunned a powerful military since the end of the Cold War. Now the alarm is getting louder, but German public opinion remains unconvinced that the security of Germany and Europe is fundamentally threatened by a new aggressive Russia.

The position 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 to speak 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 there will be no return to business as usual with Mr. Putin’s Russia, that they expect little progress this year in Ukraine and that they fear the consequences if Putin prevails there.

These concerns have now been mixed with discussions about what would happen to NATO if former President Donald J. Trump were elected and given a second chance to act on his instinct to withdraw the United States from the alliance.

The prospect of Mr. Trump’s re-election has German officials and many of their NATO counterparts informally discussing whether the structure of the nearly 75-year-old alliance that they plan to celebrate in Washington this year can continue without the United States at its center. . Many German officials say Putin’s best strategic hope is the breakup of NATO.

For Germans in particular, this represents a stunning reversal of thinking. Just a year ago, NATO was celebrating a new sense of purpose and unity, and many were confidently predicting that Putin was on the run.

But now, with an unreliable America, an aggressive Russia, and a combative China, as well as a seemingly stalemate war in Ukraine and a deeply unpopular conflict in Gaza, German officials are beginning to talk about the emergence of a new, complex and exciting world. To worry. With dire consequences for European and transatlantic security.

Their immediate concern is growing pessimism about the United States continuing to fund the Ukraine conflict, just as Germany, the second-largest contributor, agreed to double its contribution this year, to about $8.5 billion.

Now, some of Mr. Pistorius’s colleagues warn that if American funding dries up and Russia wins, its next target will be closer to Berlin.

“If Ukraine is forced to surrender, it will not satisfy Russia’s thirst for power,” Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s intelligence service, said last week. “If the West does not show a clear willingness to defend, Putin will have no reason not to attack NATO anymore.”

But when under pressure about a potential conflict with Russia, or the future of NATO, German politicians speak cautiously.

In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Germans have become accustomed to the idea that the country’s security will be guaranteed if it works with Russia, not against it, and that China is a necessary partner in a crucial market for German cars and equipment. .

Even today, Mr. Schulz, a Social Democrat whose party has traditionally sought good relations with Moscow, appears reluctant to discuss the more confrontational future with Russia or China, which German defense and intelligence leaders are clearly describing.

With the exception of Pistorius, who was little-known before he was chosen to run the Ministry of Defense a year ago, few politicians will address the issue publicly. Mr. Schulz is particularly cautious, concerned about Germany’s relationship with the United States and wary of putting too much pressure on Russia and its unpredictable president.

Two years ago, he announced a new era for Germany – a “historic turning point” in German security policy, an era that he said would be marked by a major shift in spending and strategic thinking. He made good on his promise to allocate an additional €100 billion 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 upon by all NATO countries in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but a target that most experts warn is now too low. . Germany has committed to strengthening NATO’s eastern flank against Russia by promising to permanently deploy a brigade in Lithuania by 2027.

However, on the other hand, Mr. Schultz moved very cautiously. He has opposed — along with Mr. Biden — setting a timetable for Ukraine’s eventual entry into the alliance.

The most striking example of his caution is his continued refusal to supply Ukraine with a long-range air-launched cruise missile called “Taurus.”

Last year, Britain and France gave Ukraine its closest counterpart, Storm Shadow/SCALP, and it has been used to destroy Russian ships in Crimean ports – forcing Russia to withdraw its fleet. Mr. Biden reluctantly agreed to provide ATACMS, Similar missile Although its range is limited to about 100 miles, it reaches Ukraine in the fall.

The Taurus missile has a range of more than 300 miles, meaning Ukraine could use it to strike deep into Russia. Mr. Schulz is not willing to take that chance — nor is the country’s Bundestag, which voted against a resolution calling for the transfer. While the decision appears to fit German opinion, Mr. Schulz wants to avoid the topic.

But if he remains reluctant to press Putin too hard, this is a warning shared by the Germans.

Opinion polls show that Germans want to see a more capable German army. but Only 38 percent Those surveyed said they wanted their country to be more involved in international crises, the lowest number since this question began being asked in 2017, according to the Korber Foundation, which conducted the survey. Among this group, 76% said engagement should be primarily diplomatic, and 71% opposed Germany’s military leadership role in Europe.

German military officials recently caused a bit of a stir when they suggested that the country should 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 with the Christian Democrats, said the term was seen as a “rhetorical overreach” and was quickly dropped.

“Schulz has always said that Ukraine should not lose but that Russia should not win,” Mr. Röttgen said, suggesting that he had always believed that an impasse could lead to a diplomatic process. “He believes that Russia is more important than “All countries are between us and them, and he lacks European sense and his potential role as a European leader.”

Mr. Röttgen and other critics of Mr. Schulz believe he is losing a historic opportunity to lead the creation of a European defense capability less dependent on the U.S. military and nuclear deterrence.

But Mr. Schulz clearly feels more comfortable relying heavily on Washington, and senior German officials say he does not particularly trust Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who has called for European “strategic autonomy.” Macron found only a few followers on the continent.

Even Mr. Schulz’s major European defense initiative, a coordinated air-to-ground defense against ballistic missiles known as Sky Shield, relies 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 the Italo-French system should have been used.

Mr. Schulz’s ambitions have also been hampered by his increasingly weak economy. It contracted by 0.3% last year, and about the same is expected to happen in 2024. The cost of the Ukrainian war and China’s economic problems – which have hit the auto and manufacturing sectors hard – have exacerbated the problem.

While Mr. Schulz acknowledges that the world has changed, he “is not saying that we should change with it,” said Ulrich Speck, a German analyst.

“It says the world has changed and we will protect you,” Mr. Speck said.

But doing so would require much larger military spending – more than 3% of Germany’s GDP. At present, only a few members of Mr. Schulz’s party dare suggest going that far.

Charles A. said: Kupchan, the Europe expert at Georgetown University, said the Germans, and even the Social Democrats, “realized that Germany lived in the real world and that hard power was important.”

“At the same time, there is still hope that all this is just a bad dream, and that the Germans will wake up and return to the old world,” he said.

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