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How Much Has the Ukraine War Changed Germany?

Germany faces no shortage of crises, from the Russian security threat and political instability among Western allies to democratic backsliding and a looming economic crisis within the European Union. But, overall, the current government has proven surprisingly adept at managing the situation.

BERLIN – It has now been more than six months since German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood before a special session of the Bundestag to address Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. “We are living through a watershed era. And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before,” he observed. “The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law ... Or whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in check. That requires strength of our own. Yes, we fully intend to secure our freedom, our democracy, and our prosperity.”

Scholz’s speech proclaiming a Zeitenwende, or historic turning point, came at a moment of deep shock in Germany. The country was witnessing a total collapse of strategic principles that went back to the late 1960s, with then-Foreign Minister Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik (“Eastern Policy”) and its central premise of Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”). The hope was that commercial, cultural, and other forms of engagement with actual and potential adversaries would eventually bring about rapprochement. After 1989, the peaceful political transitions in many Central and Eastern European countries became the expected norm for how the world ought to work.

But Putin’s war of aggression shattered these assumptions, leading Scholz to announce some of the most drastic policy reversals in postwar German history. Among other things, his government would invest significantly more in the armed forces, with a new €100 billion ($99 billion) special fund for that purpose; provide military support for the Ukrainian army; push for a joint EU sanctions regime against Russia; radically overhaul Germany’s energy policy; and conduct a review of the country’s trade policies with autocratic regimes (especially China), to avoid future dependencies.