The Baltic States Would Wish Germany’s New Government to Step Up in Defence and Step Back from Russia
Germany is among Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania’s most important allies. It is unquestionably a committed member of the transatlantic security community, sharing the same values and working towards the same strategic goals as its fellow liberal democracies. Yet, Germany often treads a different path towards these goals and acts in ways that are difficult for the Baltic states. As the Ukraine crisis unfolded, for example, Germany prevented Estonia from sending howitzers of German origin to Ukraine while UK military flights transporting weapons there avoided German airspace. It was accused, not for the first time, of damaging NATO solidarity.
Germany’s international posture has deep roots. In 1985, Richard von Weizsäcker, president of the Federal Republic of Germany and later the reunified Germany between 1984 and 1994, declared the 8th of May 1945 to have been a “day of liberation” for Germany, and urged all Germans to accept their country’s responsibility for the crimes of Nazism. The German people’s collective war guilt—Kollektivschuld—and their gratitude for Germany’s rehabilitation after the end of the Second World War have been key factors shaping Germany’s approach to international affairs. Germany seeks to act through multilateral fora rather than on its own, it advocates ever deeper European integration, it pursues diplomatic solutions and shies away from confrontation, and it is suspicious of the role of military power, keeping its armed forces weaker than its size and economic strength might justify.
Defence: Walking a Tightrope …
Prevented from having armed forces until it joined NATO in 1955, Germany rapidly built, in the Bundeswehr, one of the strongest components of the Alliance’s Cold War military structures, including 12 heavily equipped army divisions and more than one thousand combat aircraft. But once the Cold War ended, Germany cut its defence spending substantially, and maintained low defence budgets even as Europe’s security environment deteriorated. It was not until around 2017 that the Bundeswehr began to see a meaningful upturn in spending. Still today, Germany, NATO Europe’s largest economy, is among the bottom third of Allies in terms of its defence spending as a share of GDP (as too, though with much less attention, are Italy and Spain, respectively NATO Europe’s fourth and fifth largest economies). Germany will not meet the 2014 NATO Defence Investment Pledge, through which NATO leaders agreed to reach by 2024 defence spending of 2% of GDP and does not expect to reach this target until 2031. This is deeply disappointing to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, among NATO Europe’s smallest economies, but three of the ten Allies that already exceed the NATO target.
As a result of this low level of spending, Germany walks a tightrope when it comes to its military contribution to Europe’s security, including to the security of the Baltic region. On the one hand, it has been the most frequent contributor to NATO’s Baltic air policing mission, completing 13 rotations since 2005. It is the framework nation for NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania, where it leads a seven-nation battlegroup and itself provides around 500 troops. It has twice led NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and will next take on this role in 2023. The task force, permanently available to move within days to defend any Ally, comprises a 5 000 personnel-strong land brigade plus maritime, air and special forces components.
Germany is also the framework nation for two new NATO force structure headquarters that are critical for Baltic security – the Baltic Maritime Component Command in Rostock, and the Joint Support Enabling Command in Ulm. Furthermore, through the Framework Nations Concept, Germany is building multinational military formations around nuclei of German units with the aims of encouraging capability development in close alignment with NATO’s defence planning process and enhancing interoperability and readiness. Although all three Baltic states take part, Lithuania’s participation, through the affiliation of its Iron Wolf mechanised brigade with a German Army division, is the most advanced.
Many of these initiatives were at least partly in response to Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea. They demonstrate Germany’s increased commitment to the strengthening of the Bundeswehr and to NATO, in particular to collective defence. Germany’s promised contribution to this core mission—including three modern army divisions, several fighter-wings, and naval assets for transatlantic convoy escort and Baltic Sea confined and shallow waters operations—would be by some measure the largest of any of the European allies.
… Without a Safety Net
Unfortunately, these defence promises and, with them, the credibility of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture, are threatened by slow progress in modernising the Bundeswehr. One of the consequences of the Bundeswehr’s special status as a parliamentary army—Parlamentsheer—is an admirable level of transparency to the public regarding its condition. As part of the routine scrutiny of defence spending and its outcomes, and in her role as an advocate for armed forces personnel, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, currently Eva Högl, publishes an annual report, which is also translated into English and made widely available.
The 2020 edition (published in February 2021), like many before it, is a sobering read. The Commissioner welcomes defence budget increases, but notes that the allocation for procurement remains modest, and laments the slow and bureaucratic defence procurement process that has delayed most large acquisition programmes. She notes across the board personnel shortages above the junior ranks of around 18%, with some specialisations—for example, jet and helicopter pilots—experiencing shortages of around 50%. She reports that the operational readiness of major equipment has plateaued at a low level of around 70% according to Ministry of Defence calculations and no more than 50% according to the Bundeswehr Association, meaning that what is required for operations must be scraped together with much effort and shortfalls accepted elsewhere, including in training for operational deployments.
While there are bright spots, the picture the Commissioner paints is mostly bleak. These are deep-seated and longstanding problems that will not be easily fixed without substantial increases in defence spending. Unfortunately, most forecasts indicate that defence spending in coming years will fall far short of the figure that the Ministry of Defence estimates is needed to meet Germany’s defence commitments. Germany’s aim of producing three modern, fully-equipped army divisions is unlikely to be met—German defence analysts believe that the most that can be achieved by 2031 is a single division—with negative consequences for NATO’s defence and deterrence posture in north-east Europe.
Germany’s inclination towards multilateralism and integration has made it the essential EU Member State. It has been a driving force in the Union’s development, with Angela Merkel’s personal stamp highly visible on landmark policies such as the rescue of the Eurozone and the 2015 migration crisis. Indeed, Merkel’s reputation as a pragmatist, but not a visionary, might be a good fit for the EU as whole. Germany has seen the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy as a vital tool to raise Europe’s international profile, but until recently has shied away from taking an active role in shaping the Common Security and Defence Policy, the development of which has for the past twenty years proceeded—or mostly not proceeded—according to the opposing positions of France and the UK.
After Brexit, Germany, no longer able to count on the UK to apply the brakes to EU defence policy, began to show more active leadership in this area too. Reflecting longstanding views regarding the centrality of NATO in defence, and the importance of the EU as a necessary political framework, Germany has pushed for defence policies that emphasise civilian over military operations, put less ambitious military requirements on the Member States, and are inclusive, not just available to the more militarily capable. This approach, pro-transatlantic, smaller-scale, and allowing all Member States a seat at the table, is broadly in line with what Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are prepared to accept, even if the Baltic states worry that the very existence of an EU defence dimension risks squandering precious defence resources, alienating the US and undermining NATO. Despite the Baltic-German policy connection, the different sizes and capacities of their defence industries place practical limitations on the aspect of EU defence that the Baltic states are most positive about—its use as a vehicle for collaboratively developing European military capability.
Germany’s position on the much-debated question of Europe’s standing in the world in relation to other major actors is also closer to those of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Its concept of ‘strategic sovereignty’ is less of a rhetorical poke in the eye than the ‘European strategic autonomy’ promoted by France, and is substantively broader, also encompassing ideas of reducing dependency in energy and technology.
Germany is a central player in Europe’s relations with Russia. The connections between the two countries are broad and deep and Germany’s approach is not always in tune with that of its partners. Its dealings with Russia, influenced by the war guilt that Moscow gladly plays upon, is seen by the Baltic states and others as too soft and accommodating. Ostpolitik, the 1970s policy through which West Germany, under Chancellor Willy Brandt, sought rapprochement rather than confrontation with the German Democratic Republic and other states to its east, was at least in tune with the wider West’s policy of détente, pursued notably by President Richard Nixon. But Germany has continued to pursue dealings and dialogue with Russia, even at times when its allies have regarded such attempts as naïve, fruitless, playing into Russia’s hands, or, when Germany’s commercial interests are threatened, opportunistic.
For example, Angela Merkel may have been firm in her condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, telling the Bundestag in March 2014 that the G8 was dead and that she would join the rest of the EU in imposing sanctions. But this did not prevent Joe Kaeser, the Chief Executive of Siemens, from talking up the German-Russian special economic relationship in a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow a week later.
The gas pipeline projects, Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2, have become emblematic of Germany’s apparent readiness to seek a positive relationship with Russia, even as allies despair that it is hurting its own and their security interests. More than half of Germany’s gas, which in turn makes up more than a quarter of Germany’s primary energy consumption, is imported from Russia. This level of dependency, which dates to agreements signed between Russia and the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s, is not just an economic vulnerability. As Leonid Brezhnev told the communist party in 1971, “The key is in our hands. Gas hither—hard currency thither. This is a big economic and political question.”
Nord Stream is a triumph of Russian foreign policy, not only because of its economic importance to Moscow, but also because of the division it has sown among western countries. Bitterly opposed by many allies, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, sanctioned by Trump but eventually after skilful German lobbying condoned by Joe Biden’s administration, it was perhaps inevitable that Nord Stream 2 would become, in the face of some resistance from Germany, a focal point in the discussions about possible sanctions in response to the Ukraine crisis—and so, a major test for Germany’s new government.
Olaf Scholz assumed the chancellorship of Germany in December 2021, presiding over a federal government coalition of his own Social Democratic Party, the Greens, and the Free Democratic Party. While the coalition has promised a far-reaching programme of domestic modernisation, analysts tend to agree that from the outside, Scholz’s government is unlikely to look very different from that of its predecessor. While there is much to welcome in Germany’s continued steadiness, this prospect will be something of a disappointment—but not a surprise—to the Baltic states. They would wish Germany’s new government to step up in defence and step back from Russia.
Reassuringly, Germany will retain its strong transatlantic approach and its commitment to defence through NATO. Fears that anti-nuclear voices in the coalition would cause Germany to withdraw from NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, through which nuclear weapons are hosted on the territories of and delivered by aircraft belonging to non-nuclear allies, will likely not be realised—although the government will still have to take unpopular decisions regarding the replacement of the aging dual-capable Tornado aircraft fleet to preserve this capability. There is even talk of increased defence spending—in line with a proposal by Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, the coalition pledged to spend 3% of GDP on defence, development, and diplomacy, but did not specify how this would be divided. However, any defence spending increase will likely be too little and come too late to reverse the decline in the Bundeswehr and allow Germany to deliver, in full and on time, its promised contributions to NATO collective defence. Clearly, this will not be welcome to the Baltic states, who see Germany’s defence modernisation as a vital element in bolstering deterrence and defence in north-east Europe. It may be that the best they can hope for is that Germany’s commitments to the security of the Baltic region do not weaken. In this regard, the national security strategy, promised in the new government’s first year, will be a key document for policymakers and analysts.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will also keep a close eye on the new government’s approach to European defence, in particular during the first half of 2022 when France holds the Presidency of the EU Council and will look to the Scholz government to reaffirm the centrality of Europe’s Franco-German motor. The coalition has been keen to stress the importance of strengthening Europe and of increasing its strategic sovereignty, as well as reforming and building crisis management structures in the EU. These statements stand in contrast with those of Merkel’s last defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a strong critic of European strategic autonomy.
But the biggest test of the new government in the eyes of its Baltic allies will be its dealings with Russia during and after the Ukraine crisis. With Nord Stream 2, Germany holds substantial leverage over Russia, while its position on the scale and scope of possible sanctions will greatly influence any package that might be agreed in the EU. If Ukraine 2014 was a wake-up call for Germans, reminding them that geopolitics and military power can still be instrumental in shaping the European continent and must be met with a robust response, then Ukraine 2022 ought to be a fire alarm. The Baltic states and others will surely judge Germany’s reliability as an ally, not just in the bad times but in the good ones too. They will look to see whether it is ready to stand up more to Russia’s recalcitrance even when this threatens its economic interests, or whether it will seek a rapid return to business as usual. The coalition has promised a new approach, but fundamentally Germany appears to see no contradiction between strong support for its Baltic allies and a relationship with Russia that rests heavily on dialogue and interdependence—these are two sides of the same security coin. The Baltic states, for their part, might place more faith in Germany’s approach. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania can expect Germany to continue to be a staunch defender of their security, but their and Germany’s different perspectives will likely continue to be sources of misunderstanding and frustration.
Tony Lawrence is the head of the defence policy and strategy programme at ICDS. He is grateful to Toms Rostoks, Justinas Juozaitis, Margarita Šešelgytė, Emilė Indrašiūtė, Marko Mihkelson and Kalev Stoicescu, the authors of a series of ICDS briefs concerning Germany’s role in Baltic security upon which this article is based.