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The Russian Bear, German Leopards and the role of experts at times of crisis

17 April 2023, 15:00 (CET)


The day Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022 the chief General of the German army stated that “The Bundeswehr, the army that I am allowed to lead, is more or less depleted.” In fact, the German Army has ammunition to defend itself for only two days. The war in Ukraine has dramatically exposed the weaknesses of European security, something experts have warned about for many years. We were happy to welcome Jana Puglierin She is the director of the political think thank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in Berlin and has been one of the most renown experts on German and European foreign, security, and defence policy. In September 2022 together with other experts, she published the influential article “The Leopard plan: How European tanks can help Ukraine take back its territory.” The full-scale Russian war of aggression has dramatically changed the European security landscape. Many European capitals took unprecedented steps, supported Ukraine with weapons and tanks, imposed sanctions on Russia and revoked their neutrality status by joining NATO. How did experts shape the German political debate on supporting Ukraine? What impact did they have? To what extent was security expertise ignored in Europe in the past? And, what needs to happen to guarantee European security over the next decade… in Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltics? Jana Puglierin has been influencing public debate for the last year, providing answers and input for policymakers.

Summary of the debate

Please note that this is not a transcript of the discussion, but a paraphrasation of Jana Puglierin’s replies.

Europe, and Germany in particular, was not ready for the war in Ukraine, Jana argues. There was a wide-spread believe that traditional warfare was a thing of the past. Even experts like Jana (or Dr. Puglierin) herself thought the scenario of a full-scale conventional land-war far fetched as recently as a couple months ahead of its outbreak. On top of that, Jana pointed out, the dominant line of thinking in France and Germany was that European security needs to be organised with Russia together and that the era of deterrence and defense was over. Emblematic of this was when the (then) German Minister of Defense von Guttenberg voluntarily cut the German defense budget by 8 billion Euros because “we no longer needed it”. But the German mantra that “there are no military solutions” overlooked that other countries, such as Putin’s Russia, do deem military action as a viable option to achieve their goals (See Russia’s military involvement in Syria to keep Assad in power, for example).

“German soldiers on the ground — changing things for the better — is still not a very natural thought too many in Germany, though I believe that they do have contributed to international stability in some instances since 1945.”

Was this shift away from military power a European trend or did Germany stand out alone in these assumptions? While this holds true for much in Europe, Jana argues, Germany was indeed in a way an outlier. While other countries also cut their defense spending, Germany epitomised this trend, in part because since 1945, it never had a comfortable relationship with military power. Germany simply does not have a positive memory of use of military support — except of their own defeat! As former empire states, the United Kingdom and France have a very different strategic approach to geopolitics, in which military power has long been considered an important tool. In England you can study War Studies, in Germany, it has long only been Peace and Conflict Studies.

Eastern European countries too have historically been very aware of a potential Russian threat. Finland, for instance, has a very similar mindset to Germany, she argues. Neither naturally think in terms of “big power politics”. Both countries are very interested in rule-based international order, multilateralism and are very committed to finding peaceful solutions. But in Finland, that didn’t come at the expense of the other pillar — hard security and military readiness. They stayed prepared.

Has something changed in Germany over the course of the past year? Yes it has, she says. We have come a long way from “5000 helmets to Ukraine” to now sending Leopard 2 tanks. Still, Germany has a long way to go. We still need to see a long-term shift in mindset. In her eyes, a massive policy change like this needs to win at least one election, meaning a commitment to more German defense has to be implemented by more than one German government.

The real questions, Jana says, are still ahead of us! Thus far, every problem has been attempted to be solved by spending more money. But we are running out of money! So there will be a need to prioritise. The defense budget needs to rise — but with there being a limited amount of money in the pot, something else has to give — she is not sure if the German people are ready for that yet. (She draws a comparison to our Germany’s current China policy, and doesn’t think we actually have learned our lesson yet.)

“We state that we (Germany) want to become a more strategically capable actor, but the costs of this new outlook have not been felt yet.”

Is there a realistic plan of what has to happen in the next 10 years? Experts, and the German military has plenty of highly qualified people, do have a good idea of what is needed and what has to happen. But we do need an idea. A mission statement for the German armed forces has to be formulated. Scholz said that territorial defense is what it's all about and that Germany should become a guarantor of such a defense for Europe. She finds Scholz’s statement encouraging and welcomes the renewed emphasis on a more balanced military. However, she cautions that despite an admittedly bad track record (e.g. Afghanistan), we should not neglect our ability to conduct out-of-area missions as that would severely hamper our ability to conduct crisis management.

“In the past, we always wanted a “full-spectrum army” — an army that is designed for all fighting scenarios — but (since the 1990s) we had actually shifted away a lot from territorial defense”

Will the EU be able to establish a common European military? Jana says she is sure, we won’t see a European Army any time soon. The EU simply will not be a significant actor in territorial defense as long as NATO exists. She sees the role for the EU elsewhere instead. Europeans need to get better at coordinating their defense efforts. Here, the EU can play a very important role in the member state’s capability development and joined procurement.

Generally, she finds the current over reliance on NATO dangerous. The US has made it clear that it wants to turn its attention away from Europe towards Asia, so there might only be a limited amount of time Europe can still count on the US for its security. Even until then, we are entirely dependent on US election outcomes and can only hope that they are favourable for Europe. Another Trump election or someone who shares his views that the old alliances are not worth it, would be disastrous. The current renewed US involvement in Europes security thus creates a false sense of security.

“Trump was a wake-up call — Biden is a sleeping pill”

However, there are two camps regarding European autonomy. France and some others on the other hand find that we need to be more able to do things by ourselves. The northern and eastern states, however, are adamant that we cannot do without the US. Given that they have no trust in Germany and France being able to lead on European security, the choice between the US and European autonomy is simple for them. Indeed they make a concerted effort to get a greater US commitment for Europe. Clearly, one cannot build strategic autonomy against the US. Instead, Jana argues that we have to build a stronger pillar in the NATO alliance which also would build hedges against Trump-like figures.

Tying back to her point earlier, we therefore should not build EU defense but make the EU an enabler for a better European defense. In conflict with this long-term strategy is the current reality. Many countries like Germany want to fill their deficiencies quickly — they therefore buy off-the-shelve products (US, Israeli and South Korean made) and thus create decades of new dependencies.

What is your advice for somebody that wants to follow your footsteps and to become an analyst? The European and German think tank landscape differs from the one of the US as there is not as much of a revolving door policy, which makes it more difficult to get into the think tank space.

Her advice: Do not start off as a think tanker. Go work at parliament, the ministry or even at a private company to build your expertise. Generally, try to not stick too much in academia or the think tank world. Instead, talk to practitioners. They have often a very unique perspective, especially on what is actually possible.

Furthermore, create networks! Connect with people and each other. She herself credits getting two of her jobs through people she met at Young Leader programs. Also, do not expect your writings to make an impact. There is a right time and a right place to place ideas in the public debate and its rare to gain traction.

European Youth Event
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