After the watershed

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An article by the Federal Chancellor After the watershed

Putin’s attack on Ukraine has created a new reality – Much cannot remain as it is, even in Germany and the European Union.

11 min reading time


Olaf Scholz

Photo:öhler & Imo

By Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz

Policy begins with a close look at reality. Particularly when we do not like that reality. Part of the new reality is that imperialism is back in Europe. Many had hoped that close economic integration and mutual dependence would also ensure stability and security. With his war against Ukraine, Putin has now visibly crushed that hope for everyone. The Russian missiles have not only caused massive destruction in Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson, but also shattered the European and international peaceful order of the past few decades.

What is more, the state of our Bundeswehr and civil defence structures, as well as our over-dependence on Russian energy, suggest that we were basking in false security after the end of the Cold War. Government, business and large sections of our society were only too happy to draw far‑reaching conclusions from the dictum of a former German defence minister, who declared that Germany was surrounded only by friends.

That was a delusion.

Following the watershed that was Putin’s attack, nothing remains as it was. And for that reason things cannot remain as they are! However, ascertaining a watershed moment is not in itself the same as setting an agenda. This watershed is a call to action – to our country, to Europe, to the international community. We must make Germany more secure and more resilient, the European Union more sovereign and the international order more fit for the future.

The new reality includes the100 billion euro special fund agreed for the Bundeswehr. This sum marks the biggest turnaround in security policy in the Federal Republic of Germany’s history. We are giving our soldiers the equipment and skills they need to rigorously defend our country and our alliance partners in this new era. We are simplifying and accelerating the all too ponderous procurement processes. We are supporting Ukraine – and will do so for as long as necessary – in economic, humanitarian and financial terms and by delivering weapons. At the same time, we are ensuring that NATO does not become a party to the war. Finally, we are ending our dependence on Russian energy supplies. We have already succeeded in doing so when it comes to coal. We want to stop importing Russian oil before the end of the year. In terms of gas, the proportion of imports from Russia has already fallen from 55 to 30 per cent.

This is not an easy road, not even for such a strong, prosperous country as Germany. We will need stamina. Already, many people are suffering because of the war’s repercussions, particularly the high prices for petrol and foodstuffs. Many are worried about their next electricity, oil or gas bills. The Federal Government has therefore launched financial assistance totalling well over 30 billion euro to help. The various measures are now starting to have an effect.

Nonetheless, it is true that the global economy is facing challenges it has not seen for decades. Interrupted supply chains, scarce resources, the uncertainty on the energy markets caused by the war – all this is driving prices up all over the world. No country in the world can overcome such developments on its own. We must stand united and join forces, as we have done here with the concerted action agreed upon between employers, trade unions, science and political decision-makers. If we do so, I am convinced that we will emerge from the crisis stronger and more independent than we were at its outset. That is our goal.

When we took over in government, we decided early on to shake off our dependence on Russian energy as soon as at all possible. Last December, so two months before the start of the war, we looked at how we could secure our country’s energy supply in the worst case scenario. When Putin unleashed his war in February, we were able to act. The plans, to diversify suppliers or build LNG terminals, for example, were already on the table. They are now being vigorously implemented. Temporarily and with a heavy heart, however, we will have to restart coal‑fired power plants. We have stipulated minimum fill levels for gas stores – strangely, no such rules were already in place. Today the gas storage facilities are much fuller than they were this time last year. At the same time, current developments make us even more determined to expand renewable energies much faster than hitherto. That is why the Federal Government has considerably sped up planning procedures, for solar installations and wind turbines, for instance. And it is also true that the more energy we can save in the months ahead, the better. This applies to all of us – industry, private households, cities and municipalities.

We are not alone in this situation. We are united in the European Union, and within NATO part of a strong military alliance. And we are acting out of firm beliefs: out of solidarity with Ukraine, whose very existence is at stake, but also to protect our own security. If Putin cuts back the gas supply, he is using energy as a weapon, including against us. Not even the Soviet Union did that in the Cold War.

If we do not counter Putin’s aggression now, he could go further. We have already seen it: he marched into Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea in 2014, then attacked eastern Ukraine and finally, in February this year, extended the war against the whole country. Letting Putin get away with it would mean that violence can break the law practically without any consequences. In the end our own freedom and security, too, would be in jeopardy.

“We cannot discount the possibility of an attack against Allies’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.” This sentence appears in NATO’s New Strategic Concept, which was adopted by the 30 Allies at their Summit in Madrid at the end of June. We are taking it seriously and acting accordingly. Germany will significantly increase its presence in the Alliance’s eastern territory – in Lithuania, Slovakia, the Baltic Sea. We will do so in order to deter Russia from attacking our Alliance. And, at the same time, we are making it clear that yes, we are prepared to defend every part of Alliance territory, just as we are our own country. This is our pledge. Equally, we can rely on each and every one of our Allies making the same pledge.

Another aspect of the new reality is that the European Union, too, has become more united over the past few months. It responded with great unity to Russia’s aggression, imposing unprecedentedly tough sanctions. And they are biting, a little more each day. Putin should not deceive himself: it was clear to us from the outset that we might have to keep our sanctions in place for a long time. It is also clear to us that not a single one of these sanctions will be lifted with a victor’s peace dictated by Russia. For Russia there is no way round an agreement with Ukraine that can be accepted by the people of Ukraine.

Putin wants to divide our continent into zones of influence, great powers and vassal states. We know what disasters that brought for us Europeans in times gone by. So, at the most recent European Council, we gave an unequivocal response, A response that will change the face of Europe forever: we granted Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova candidate status and reaffirmed Georgia’s European perspective. And we made it clear that the prospect of accession must at last become a reality for all six countries of the Western Balkans. This pledge remains. These countries are part of our European family. We want them in the European Union. Of course, their path to the EU is conditional on many things. It is important to state this openly, because nothing would be worse than to give millions of citizens false hope. But the way is open and the goal is clear!

In the past few years, there have been calls, and rightly so, for the EU to become a geopolitical actor. An ambitious goal, but a correct one! With the historic decisions of recent months, the European Union has taken a big step in this direction. We have said, with unprecedented resolve and unity, that Putin’s neo-imperialism must not be allowed to succeed. But we must not be content with that. Our aim must be to reach unity in all areas where we in Europe have been struggling for too long to find solutions: migration policy, for example, or the evolution of European defence, or technological sovereignty and democratic resilience. Germany will make concrete proposals on these issues in the next few months.

We are very much aware of the consequences of our decision in favour of a geopolitical European Union. The European Union is the practical antithesis to imperialism and autocracy. That is why it is a thorn in the side of political strongmen like Putin. Constant disagreement and constant dissension among the member states weaken us. For this reason, Europe’s most important response to this watershed moment is this: unity. We must preserve and deepen our unity. In my view, that means there must be an end to individual member states egotistically blocking European decisions. And an end to nations going it alone and thus damaging Europe as a whole. We simply can no longer afford national vetos – in foreign policy, for example – if we want our voice still to be heard in a world of competing great powers.

At global level, too, the watershed is magnifying existing problems, such as poverty, hunger, disrupted supply chains and energy scarcity, as well as brutally highlighting the consequences of an imperialist and revanchist power play. Putin’s treatment of Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe bears neo-colonialist hallmarks. His dream, which he doesn’t conceal, is to build a new empire along the lines of the Soviet Union or Tsarist Russia.

The world’s autocrats are watching very closely to see whether he succeeds. What holds sway in the 21st century – the law of the strong or the strength of the law? In our multipolar world, is a multilateral global order being replaced by lawlessness? These are questions directly facing us.

From talks with our partners in the Global South, I know that many of them see the danger. Despite this, the war in Europe is, for many of them, very distant, even though they are feeling its direct impact. In this situation, it is worth looking at what unites us with many countries of the Global South: A commitment to democracy, different as it may look in our countries, to the Charter of the United Nations, the rule of law, fundamental values of freedom, equality and solidarity, the dignity of every individual. These values are not tied to the West as a geographical space. We share them with people all around the world. In order to defend these values against autocracy and authoritarianism, we need a new form of global cooperation among democracies – going beyond the traditional West.

For this to succeed, we must make the Global South’s concerns our concerns, avoid double standards and keep our promises to these countries. Too often have we claimed to be speaking as equals, but were not really. We need to change that, not least because many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, measured against their population and economic strength, have long been equal with us. I very deliberately invited my colleagues from India, South Africa, Indonesia, Senegal and Argentina to the recent G7 Summit in Germany. We are working with them and with many other democratic countries to develop solutions to the problems of our age – the food crisis, climate change or the pandemic. We made tangible progress in all these areas at the G7 Summit. This progress produces trust, including trust in our country.

We can build on this when Germany takes on responsibility for Europe and in the world in these difficult times. Leading can only mean leading together – in both senses. By working together with others to find solutions and by not going it alone. And, as a country at the centre of Europe, a country that lay on both sides of the Iron Curtain, by leading East and West, North and South, together in Europe.

Germany and Europe are ossified in self‑confident saturation, post‑heroic societies, unable to defend their values against resistance – so runs Putin’s propaganda. A view shared by some observers here, too, just a short while ago. In the past few months, we have experienced a different, a new reality.

The European Union is more attractive than it has ever been; it is opening up to new members and will at the same time reform itself. NATO has rarely been as lively, and in Sweden and Finland is admitting two strong friends. Around the world, democratic countries are standing together, and new alliances are emerging.

Germany, too, is changing in the wake of this watershed: we have become more conscious of how precious democracy and freedom are, and of the value of defending them. That releases new strength. Strength that we will need in the coming months. Strength with which we can together shape the future. Strength that lies within our country – in reality.