Germany outlines aim to become Europe’s leading military force

Germany must become Europe’s leading military power, the country’s defence minister has said, underscoring how Russia’s war in Ukraine has transformed Berlin’s strategic thinking.

Christine Lambrecht made her comments as Ukraine pressed on with its counter-offensive in the east of the country and Russia vowed to continue with the invasion until all its military goals are met.

The war has increased pressure on Germany to assume a bigger role in the western alliance and Lambrecht argued Berlin was doing so for reasons “to do with our size, our geographical location, our economic power, in short with our heft”.

In comments to the German Council on Foreign Relations she added: “That makes us a leading power whether we like it or not — in the military sense, too.”

Lambrecht said the US would remain Europe’s main protector and there could be “no substitute for the American nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future”.

But she argued the rise in tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan and a US pivot to the Asia-Pacific region meant “we are called on to do more than before for Europe”. She added: “Germany is prepared to make a decisive contribution to fair burden-sharing.”

Echoing a landmark speech this year by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the defence minister said Germany had to 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, reiterating plans to set up three combat-ready army divisions by the early 2030s.

The success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which has reclaimed more than 3,000 square kilometres of terrain in the east, has also increased expectations the west will step up weapons deliveries to Kyiv. Ukraine’s southern operations command on Monday said it had also liberated about 500 sq km of territory from Russia’s forces.

“The tone has shifted, without a doubt,” said a senior European diplomat. “You won’t really hear anyone talking against more weapons now, just a chorus of supporters and one or two staying silent.”

But some allies accuse Berlin of less than wholehearted support for Kyiv.

Claudia Major, a military analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said many in central and eastern Europe felt Berlin’s aid to date had been “too slow, hesitant and small-scale”.

Lambrecht rejected such accusations while reiterating that Berlin had no intention of acceding to a request from Kyiv for battle tanks. She added no country had so far “delivered western-built infantry fighting vehicles or main battle tanks”.

The defence minister also called for strict rules on military exports to be relaxed to allow Germany 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]?”

Her speech came 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.

Lambrecht said the west must “draw the necessary conclusions” from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — that “we ourselves need strong, combat-ready troops so we can defend ourselves and our alliance if we have to”.

She 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 become accustomed 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 added.

“The Bundeswehr is not just an item in the budget — in conceptual terms, it’s a primary institution for our security.”

Additional reporting by Henry Foy and Polina Ivanova

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