Germany must become Europe’s leading military power, the country’s defence minister has said, as the government prepares a new national security strategy based on a significantly beefed-up role for Berlin in the western alliance.
The comments by Christine Lambrecht underscore the revolution in German strategic thinking triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has increased pressure on Berlin to assume a bigger role in Europe’s security architecture.
The new role came almost by default, she said in a keynote speech at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. “It has to do with our size, our geographical location, our economic power, in short with our heft,” she said. “That makes us a leading power whether we like it or not — in the military sense, too.”
It built on the speech delivered by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the Bundestag, just days after Russian troops marched into Ukraine in February, in which he broke with a decades-long policy of military restraint, announcing a huge increase in defence spending and a €100bn investment fund for the country’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr.
Describing the invasion as a “Zeitenwende” or “turning point”, Scholz also vowed to send weapons to Ukraine and promised to wean the country off its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Echoing Scholz’s speech, Lambrecht said Germany must meet the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence “over the long term”, not just for the next couple of years.
“We must avoid a situation where, in a few years, we cannot afford to maintain the equipment we are purchasing now,” she said. Lambrecht also reiterated plans for Germany to set up three combat-ready army divisions by the early 2030s, “fully equipped, each with three brigades, plus additional troops”.
Lambrecht also called for strict rules on military exports to be relaxed to allow it to take part in European defence projects. “What partner is going to co-invest with us in projects when he or she will always worry that we’ll prevent the export [of the weapons]?”
But some sceptical voices at the DGAP event said the strategic shift was not as profound as ministers had suggested, in particular echoing accusations from some allies that Berlin’s support for Kyiv was less than wholehearted.
Claudia Major, a military analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said many in central and eastern Europe felt the aid provided by Berlin to Ukraine was “too slow, hesitant and small-scale”. There was a feeling, she said, that “we have squandered their trust”.
Lambrecht dismissed the charge while reiterating that Berlin had no intention of acceding to a request from Kyiv for battle tanks. “No country has delivered western-built infantry fighting vehicles or main battle tanks so far,” she said.
Lambrecht said the US would remain Europe’s main protector but the rise in tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan meant that “we are called on to do more than before for Europe”, adding: “Germany is prepared to make a decisive contribution to fair burden-sharing.”
She was speaking less than two weeks after Scholz’s cabinet formally announced the start of work on a national security strategy, the first in Germany’s history, which will redefine its foreign and defence policy.
She said the west must “draw the necessary conclusions” from Ukraine’s war with Russia — that “we ourselves need strong, combat-ready troops so we can defend ourselves and our alliance if we have to”.
Lambrecht acknowledged that Germany’s Nazi-era crimes and the “war of destruction” waged by its army in Europe between 1939 and 1945 had turned “scepticism about the military into a kind of virtue”.
But she said Germany could only guarantee peace and freedom for its people if it abandoned its “old self-image” and defined security as “the central task of this country”.
She said Germans had got used to seeing the Bundeswehr as a kind of disaster relief agency that helped with pandemics, floods and forest fires and took part in missions to places such as Afghanistan and Mali. “But those times are over,” she said.
“The Bundeswehr is not just an item in the budget — in conceptual terms, it’s a primary institution for our security.”