Old German habits of bureaucratic and political incompetence die slowly

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 5 April 2022

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is how Germany’s foreign and defence policy appears these days.

Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz threw out three decades’ worth of German policy dogmas.

During a Sunday morning special sitting of Parliament, Scholz proposed a Zeitenwende (a turning point). Not just any turning point, it was literally the turning of the times.

Everything in Germany was meant to change: the previous non-proliferation of weapons into conflict zones. The meagre funding of the armed forces. Russian gas and oil imports. The pace and direction of the country’s energy transition.

Scholz’s speech to the Bundestag on 27 February seemed to free the country from its rash of policy mistakes. Merkel’s holy cows were all buried.

Five weeks have since passed, and the turning of the times has become stuck in old habits.

Perhaps it was naive to expect anything else. Perhaps miracles do take longer. Perhaps we had forgotten Germany’s tendency to overthink even spontaneity.

Still, the situation is sobering. Not least because Germany’s slow speed of change raises the question of how serious Scholz’s government had been. Or how capable.

The most urgent issue facing Germany right now is Ukraine’s requests for military assistance. The even more challenging mid-term problem is ending the country’s dependence on Russian gas. The developments of the past weeks raise questions about Scholz’s Zeitenwende in each instance. 

Ukraine had begged Germany for arms weeks, months, even years before the current invasion. A possible Russian aggression against the rest of the country (not just Crimea and the Donbas region) made it necessary for Kyiv to acquire as many defensive weapons as possible.

Germany’s response had been a polite but firm Nein. Even in the face of 150,000 Russian troops standing at Ukraine’s border, that position did not change. When Ukraine’s embassy in Berlin sent the German government an urgent wish list on 3 February, it did not receive a reply – not even after Putin’s invasion on 24 February.

Berlin only promised anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine after international pressure on 26 February. Some of these weapons were old stock from the former East German army, so they are more than 30 years old. This meant, at least, that the Ukrainian military was familiar with them.

The problems with these deliveries occurred later. Only a fraction of the weapons promised to Ukraine made it there despite Germany’s announcements. It was not clear why and where the hold-ups occurred: neither when journalists asked questions, nor when the opposition raised the issue in parliament.

In addition, Ukraine’s defence needs changed as the war progressed. Initially, Ukrainians needed weapons to stop Russian planes and tanks encroaching on Ukrainian cities.

However, as that Russian offensive faltered and Putin’s troops turned to long-distance shelling, Ukraine may have needed different weapons systems to defend itself. In fact, Ukraine still hadn’t received many of the previously promised weapons.

A newspaper investigation revealed that German arms exports were likely held up by the defence bureaucracy. It must have had difficulty releasing more weapons, not least because the German army’s own depots are empty.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainians are now ordering what they need directly from German arms manufacturers. That seems to go smoothly, according to reports. Most of all, this is thanks to the Green economics minister Robert Habeck, who is quicker than his social-democratic colleagues to rise to the task.

While the weapons export saga illustrates a mixture of bureaucratic and political incompetence, phasing out Russian gas imports is more concerning.

It is almost impossible for Germany to get out of its dependence on Russian gas, given how dependent it has become over the years. Or at least it cannot get out without serious disruption.

If all that was needed was a couple of jumpers to survive in colder weather, maybe that would be doable. Unfortunately, Germany’s gas dependence goes much deeper.

If Germany boycotted Russian gas immediately, or if Putin cut Germany off overnight, the results would be disastrous. Domestic heating would be the least worry. And not all uses of gas can be substituted with electricity. So letting nuclear power stations run longer, for example, would help but only so far.

Germany is an industrial, manufacturing powerhouse. Many industries need a constant supply of gas, from chemistry to car parts and even to porcelain manufacturing. Until alternative sources are found, the economy could fall off a cliff. And alternatives will take years.

Gas cut-offs could thus lead to dystopian scenes not too unlike prolonged blackouts of electricity. No wonder most German politicians are unwilling to see what this would look like in practice.

But the flip side of this blackout fear is the continuation of Germany’s dependence on Russia. Never mind that Putin receives about €200 million (NZ$315m) from Germany for Russian gas – each day.

Germany’s economy still has not recovered to its pre-Covid level. Inflation is at its highest level in four decades. Supply-chain problems are present in most industries.

In these circumstances, politicians are hesitant to add a gas-induced economic crisis to the mix. That is understandable, but it means that nothing will change too quickly. Unless Putin himself cuts Germany off from his deliveries. That is a possibility, but then again if Putin wanted to inflict maximum damage, he may want to wait until winter.

This is where Germany stands right now. Its previous strategic positioning is untenable. That is just what Chancellor Scholz had said in the Bundestag.

And yet, taking actual steps out of its long-standing policies is difficult and potentially painful. No one – not the government, or industries or consumers – wants to bear the pain of the adjustments, which are necessary and, eventually, unavoidable.

Announcing a turning of the times was the easy part for Scholz and his government. The hard part will be to implement it with all the pain, the costs and the uncertainty this will inflict on the country.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Okay. But the longer the Germans wait, the harder the eventual change will be. And no matter how they go about it, Germany will be a poorer and weaker country.

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