Auf dem Truppenübungsplatz, mit einem Soldaten beim Erläutern der Panzerhaubitze 2000

A Year after Germany’s “Sea Change,” Policy Change Remains Elusive

Nine days before Russian President Vladimir Putin began his war of conquest in Ukraine, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Moscow. He summed up his meetings by repeating a phrase made famous by Egon Bahr, West Germany’s emissary to Moscow in the 1970s: “Without Russia, a peace order in Europe is not possible.” This line was conceived when Bahr launched Germany’s plans for Ostpolitik under the direction of then-Chancellor Willy Brandt. Typically translated as “new eastern policy,” Ostpolitik prioritized political accommodation and featured slogans like “change through trade.” It sought to produce good will and collaboration, first with East Germany and the Soviet Union and later with the Russian Federation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this accommodation often came at the direct expense of Germany’s less-powerful neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Just days after Russia’s invasion, Scholz seemed to repudiate nearly five decades of Social Democratic Party policy. In a special session of the Bundestag, the chancellor declared a “Zeitenwende,” or “sea change.” This shift would reverse a half-century of restraint, he proclaimed, by overhauling a bereft Bundeswehr, sending Ukraine arms, and ending Germany’s energy dependence on Russia. It also implied a pivot toward the concerns of the emerging Eastern European democracies that had long struggled under Moscow’s thumb. Most recently, Scholz touted his belated decision to send tanks as the latest evidence of this revolution. With the Leopard 2 added to a bulging list of materiel authorized for Ukraine’s war effort, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that Germany had “stepped up.” In the space of a year, Berlin has abandoned its insistence on sending helmets alone, becoming the second-largest supplier of weapons and munitions to aid Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy’s defenses. During Scholz’s first visit to the White House since the invasion, which occurred last week, Biden commended Germany’s “profound support on Ukraine.”

Yet certain awkward realities persist. Despite the Chancellor Scholz’s rhetorical commitment to condemning Russia’s actions, Germany still sends less assistance to Ukraine on a per capita basis than countries lacking its economic might. This reality colors its vaunted status as the second-highest contributor to Ukraine’s war effort (if one counts its contributions through the European Union as well as independent contributions). The 100 billion euros Scholz vowed to spend on military modernization remains something of an illusion. Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, claimed recently to have inherited an army in worse shape than it was before Scholz’s pledge. A few weeks earlier, Eva Högl, a military commissioner and political ally of Scholz, publicly insisted that “it would take 300 billion euros to make significant changes in the Bundeswehr.”

One year after his Zeitenwende speech, the chancellor has yet to deliver on the radical change he promised. Instead, he seems to be more intent on waiting when it comes to altering Germany’s strategic calculus. Given these circumstances, it appears Ostpolitik is being quietly repackaged for a new era, with regrettable consequences for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. 

A ‘Russia First’ Policy

Beginning in the 1970s, Brandt and his chief strategist, Bahr, both of the Social Democratic Party, sought to bring the people of the Eastern Bloc closer through overtures that began with the recognition of East German statehood. The policy they advanced, Ostpolitik, sparked controversy from the start. Brandt’s belief that “genuine coexistence is the only alternative to atomic war and universal suicide” led him to dismiss Western criticism of Soviet crackdowns as “ersatz heroism.” But debate over Ostpolitik’s first formulation remains a question largely confined to Europe’s Cold War past. Its true legacy now comes from what historian Timothy Garton Ash refers to as “the second thirty years” of the policy — the era from German reunification to Russia’s incursions in 2022. During this period, Ostpolitik evolved from a means to ease East-West tensions to an assemblage of disjointed initiatives promoted under a banner of constructive relations with the Russian Federation. It could now be resurrected once again, serving as a malleable framework for Berlin’s interests.

Speaking to former officials who were active during this period reveals why it is so difficult for Berlin to truly disentangle itself from Moscow and stop neglecting its former subjects in the ex-Soviet bloc. While these officials come from many political traditions, they all emphasize the deep historical roots of the Ostpolitik tradition. Some offer biting criticism. Others argue that history has vindicated the policy, even amid the ongoing conflict. These continued defenses, in particular, hint at why Ostpolitik may well survive the invasion of Ukraine.

Read the full article at War on the Rocks.

George Bogden is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute. His interviews for this article were completed while he was in residence in Berlin as the German Marshall Fund’s Helmut Schmidt Fellow.

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