Germany is now back in the Baltic Sea—in a big way. After the Cold War, Germany took a relatively reserved approach to its neighbors on the Baltic shores. Germany supported the Baltic states in their bid to join the EU and then, in 2004, NATO. However, when this was achieved, Germany considered the region’s security problem to be solved. The crisis caused by Russia’s occupation of Crimea has prompted Germany to change this approach, but the crisis has not been the sole factor. Germany’s foreign, defence and security policies have also gone through radical changes since the mid-1990s.
During the Cold War, West German security policy depended on a set of interlinked principles developed in response to Germany’s role in both world wars. These principles implied that Germany always should work together with others and preferably within the framework of the UN, the EU, or NATO, to resolve issues via diplomacy and economic means. The use of military means was limited to NATO’s Article V, which provides for collective defence if any alliance members are attacked. These restrictions held Germany back from identifying its national interests beyond the area of international trade. Since the mid-1990s, however, Germany’s leaders have gradually moved beyond these limitations.
At the same time, Germany has begun to build trust among its NATO allies in the area of security. By taking part in military operations in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and by supporting Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, Germany has moved its security policy into the global arena and showed its willingness to use force if needed. Germany has also reshaped its armed forces, the Bundeswehr, for international operations. The road to this change has, however, had some challenges. The German armed forces and government lacked experience with international operations and the rapid and consistent decision making such missions require. About half the German population feels uncomfortable deploying troops abroad. These factors have caused Germany’s allies in NATO to mistrust Germany’s willingness to provide rapid assistance in a time of crisis.
Changes in German security and defence policies have been codified in the new German “White Paper 2016 on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr,” published in summer 2016. This White Paper, which is an official foreign policy doctrine, identifies a new direction for German security policy, in which Germany’s strong economic position implies responsibility and in which national interests, such as security, have a role alongside values as motivation for behavior on the international stage. The White Paper also states that Germany in the future will not only participate in international operations, but also lead and initiate them. As the continent’s largest economy and as one of the driving forces behind increased EU integration, Germany has also taken the lead in solving Europe’s economic crisis and the current migration crisis. At the same time, Europe’s traditional diplomatic and military powers, the UK and France, have been preoccupied with other challenges. This has made Germany the prime partner for the United States in Europe.
Germany has also strived for good relations with Russia. Based on Germany’s Cold War experiences, Berlin long sought to use trade to build confidence and promote democratic development in Russia after the Cold War. However, starting around 2007, five major economic and political setbacks led German policymakers to re-evaluate these policies. First, the rigged presidential and Duma elections in Russia 2006 and 2011 and the decline in political freedom demonstrated that Germany had failed to promote democracy in Russia. Second, the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 changed the German understanding of Russia as a reliable partner in international relations. Third, the increased corruption and state meddling in the Russian economy deterred German investors. Fourth, at the same time, Europe’s economic crisis after 2007 turned Berlin’s attention toward to the multilateral context of the EU. In handling the crisis, Germany also found strong support among the Baltic Sea states for its demands for a strict budget discipline to solve the problems. Fifth, the main game changer for Germany’s relations with Russia was the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in eastern Ukraine. While Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia could have been interpreted as an isolated action on Europe’s borders, the occupation of Crimea once again showed Russia’s willingness to use force and neglect international law. It also challenged key pillars in German policy, such as the European security order and Ukraine’s own right to decide on its association agreement with the EU.
As a response to the fears that Crimea’s annexation sent through the Baltic States and eastern Europe, Germany demonstrated immediate political support for its eastern neighbors. Chancellor Angela Merkel, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen separately visited the Baltic capitals with messages of support. The visits also signalled an inner German unity because Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, represented a more Russia-friendly standpoint in the government than that of Merkel, a Christian Democrat.
In accordance with its obligations and the NATO Readiness Action Plan adopted at NATO’s summit in Wales in 2014, Germany plays an important role in securing NATO’s eastern flank. It has taken an active part in reinforcing the Air Policing mission over the Baltic states despite having previously announced a pause until the Air Force had finished its introduction of Typhoon fighters. Moreover, Germany has stepped up its presence at the upgraded Multinational Corps North East in Szczecin in Poland, a headquarters within NATO’s command structure. However, Germany has rejected the idea of giving specific territorial responsibility to the headquarters, as Russia could interpret this as a threat.
Germany plays a significant role in strengthening the NATO Response Force (NRF) and in developing its new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF ). It was the leading nation for the VJTF during 2015 and will take up the position again in 2019. It has a presence in the NATO Force Integration Units (NFIU), which were installed in the Baltic States, Poland, and the eastern Balkans to improve the deployment of the VJTF and NRF. Germany has also taken part in Article 4 and 5 exercises in the Baltic area. Since 2014, Germany and Poland have also deepened military cooperation and integration. Land forces have exercised under each other’s command in Poland during the summer of 2015. There are plans to create a common German-Polish submarine command in the Baltic Sea. If this integration plan becomes a reality, then it will link Polish and German submarine logistics and infrastructure for a long time.
Germany will also, in accordance with the decision at the NATO summit in Warsaw 2016, be the leading nation for a NATO-led battalion in Lithuania starting in 2017, with the aim of deterring Russia. Other battalions will be set up by the UK in Estonia, by Canada in Latvia, and by the U.S. in Poland. The deployment in Lithuania will result in the first long-term German deployment of troops outside of Germany since World War II.
Germany’s overall aim in the region is to reassure the Baltic states without provoking Russia more than needed, and at the same time, live up to U.S. expectations that Europe should take more responsibility for its own security. In the Baltic capitals, German policies have fostered confidence that Berlin will help in the event of a crisis as a leader and not as a follower. Despite these recent actions, Germany has not given up on Russia—keeping the door open for negotiations and future cooperation.
The current direction of Germany’s new security policy will be maintained regardless of what government is formed after the next year’s parliamentary elections. The policies outlined in the White Paper represent a consensus and therefore are politically difficult to change. Even if Germany improves its trade relations with Russia—a goal of the Social Democrats—it will not automatically imply an improvement of political relations. Germany’s Cold War legacy leaves it with a strong tendency to compartmentalize its security policies and not to entangle economic and political interests. Germany’s new role in the Baltic Sea is here to stay.