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Putin’s Bluff and the German House of Cards

Russia’s Attack as the Zero Point of German Security Policy

Russia has committed with its attack on Ukraine one of the gravest breaches of international law in Europe since 1945. That it could come this far, is also due to Germany's weakness. German politics has failed to recognise the signs for too long. Now a big leap is needed in German security policy.

For months, politicians and experts in Europe and the USA were guessing the strategic calculations and true intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the heart of the matter was the question whether Russia was only bluffing with its threatening gestures and the deployment of armed forces on the Ukrainian border or whether it was actually prepared to use force. By now, it has become clear that Putin was bluffing, and apparently from the very beginning. However, not by making false threats regarding the use of military force, as many observers on both sides of the Atlantic assumed – or at least hoped. Rather, he raised false hopes that he might be dissuaded by diplomacy from using force. Especially in Germany, where security policy is determined by the mantra that there must be no military solutions, the military dimension in Putin’s game was completely misjudged.


Putin’s real intention: retaining power


In retrospect, it seems clear that, eight years after the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Putin wants to achieve nothing less than a reorganisation of the post-Soviet space. From the letter of demand to NATO and various speeches by the president to Russian state propaganda, Moscow has skilfully constructed a narrative at the core of which Russia feels threatened by eastward expansion of the transatlantic alliance and therefore demands security guarantees. However, behind the pretence that the West has forced the Russian reaction through its behaviour – or through broken promises – lies a worldview that fundamentally runs counter to the idea of a democratic, rule-based international order.


Putin is not only demanding an exclusive zone of influence for Russia and thus denying sovereignty to the states in its immediate neighbourhood. The Russian president even goes so far as to completely deny Ukraine, but also other former parts of the Soviet Union – all of which are independent states and some of which are EU and NATO members – their independence. The claim that there is a threat posed by Western military forces in these countries is a mere pretext. The alliance’s troops in NATO’s eastern member states are severely limited by the NATO-Russia Founding Act and no match for Russia’s regional superiority. A possible stationing of troops or even strategic weapons on the territory of Ukraine – as Putin has implied – is far from reality.


The threat perception rather stems from the supposed danger that the spread of democracy and prosperity in Russia's neighbourhood would have for Putin's hold on power and his system. Any successful development in neighbouring states would, he fears, also be an example to the Russian people and could put the Russian social contract and thus Putin’s power base into question. Preventing this is the ultimate goal of an exclusive sphere of influence. However, the argument that Ukraine lies within Russia's sphere of influence must be firmly rejected. Those who speak of spheres of influence think in categories of the 1930s – under international law, Russian influence ends at the Russian state border. The demand to determine the fate of smaller neighbouring states in violation of national sovereignty means nothing less than placing interests of the powerful above the power of international law. For 30 years, Ukraine has been a sovereign, democratically developing and, above all, peaceful country that has in no way posed a threat to Russia. Politicians of almost every stripe have therefore concluded that Russia is clearly the aggressor in what is perhaps Europe's biggest crisis since 1945. Putin has committed a blatant breach of international law – which, by the way, Moscow has repeatedly committed itself to uphold.


Superficial diplomacy and war preparations


To achieve his goals, Putin is clearly not afraid to use military force. While many observers still assumed that the Russian president was conducting diplomacy against a military backdrop, he was preparing a war in Europe, which he tried to conceal with false diplomatic advances and flanked with an orchestrated campaign of disinformation and propaganda. This fits into the policy which started with the 2008 war in Georgia and is ultimately aimed at upsetting the international order in the post-Soviet space – with military force if necessary.


The high operational readiness and formidable capabilities of the Russian armed forces, which have undergone a fundamental structural, personnel and material modernisation since 2008, were already evident in March and April 2021, when large Russian units were deployed in the immediate vicinity of Ukraine for the first time since 2014. The new deployment of Russian forces that started last November, consisting of highly mobile combat units with great firepower, backed up by air defence forces and supplemented by militia, most recently comprised about 75 per cent of all available combat battalions. In the last few months, Russia has thus assembled a considerable force around Ukraine, which represents a dramatic shift in the military balance of power in Russia’s neighbourhood.


With these final building blocks, Putin is now accomplishing the supreme goal he has been pursuing since the end of the 2000s: to re-establish Russia’s military capacity to act and its strategic assertiveness vis-à-vis the West. Some 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union – called by Putin the greatest “geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” – the Russian president is now regaining the political initiative and escalation dominance he has long sought, which now allows him to create a fait accompli in a regional war in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood.


The strategic implications of the Russian deployments were recognised by US intelligence services early on in November. There is hardly any other explanation for the unprecedented step of publishing so quickly and comprehensively intelligence on the planned Russian steps, including a detailed timetable and expected time of attack. President Biden’s decision to be more specific and public about Russia’s intention to go to war than any president before him must also be understood in this light.


This proactive naming and shaming repeatedly forced Russia to respond to diplomatic advances and offers of talks from the West. US public diplomacy may thereby have complicated and possibly delayed Moscow’s initial plan to use a false flag operation to create a pretext for war and attack Ukraine. Russia responded by ostensibly holding out the prospect of a diplomatic solution, coupled with misinformation about an alleged Russian troop withdrawal. This led many, especially in Germany, to misunderstand the deployment as mere sabre-rattling instead of seeing it for the tectonic shift in the military balance in Eastern Europe that it is – true to the motto that what must not be cannot be.


The German perception


Germany fundamentally misjudged Putin's plans and the Kremlin's actual intentions until the very last. The mantra that conflicts cannot be solved militarily had already obscured Berlin’s situational assessment in Syria and Afghanistan and unnecessarily and prematurely deprived itself of several options for action. While the German government unilaterally relied on negotiations in Geneva or Doha, Assad’s troops with the help of Russia and Iran in one case, and the Taliban in the other, created political facts by military means. And it is precisely in this context that the core problem of German security policy can be located.


In the belief that the European peace order established after 1990, the integration of all Cold War actors into multilateral organisations and the supposedly universal recognition of the primacy of diplomacy made territorial conflicts and armed inter-state disputes in Europe impossible, Germany lost its security policy compass and deprived itself of its defence capability. Instead, it unilaterally relied on negotiation formats, some of which had been deadlocked for years and were never seriously accepted by the other side as instruments for a solution. Arms exports to Ukraine were categorically ruled out in order not to lose supposedly exclusive channels of dialogue with Russia, which ultimately proved worthless. This one-sided approach eventually shattered in the face of the harsh reality of Russia’s war of aggression. For while Berlin was still searching for its partner in the diplomatic arena, the latter had already entered the battlefield.


A big leap instead of a piecemeal approach to security policy


In its assessment of the security threat at the time of the suspension of compulsory military service, the German government assumed that a scenario in which the Bundeswehr would be called upon for national and alliance defence was highly unlikely. It was assumed that there would be a warning period of about 10 years to prepare for a changed threat situation in which extensive conventional forces would again play a role. What was overlooked here – as shown not least by the different interpretations of Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 – is that it could be difficult to identify the point in time that would mark the beginning of this ten-year preparation period.


The defence policy decisions of 2014 to 2017, on which the goal of establishing three divisions with eight to ten fully deployable heavy brigades by 2031 is based, basically went in the right direction. However, the implementation of these plans has been seriously hampered by the fact that the political will to create the necessary structures and to provide the necessary (budgetary) resources has so far been limited. As a result, eight years after the first Russian aggression in Europe, the Bundeswehr has only very limited capabilities for national and alliance defence and is far from being able to fulfil its commitments made to its allies.


In view of the fundamental change in the security situation that has now occurred, there is a need for a “big leap” in German defence policy. The starting point for this must be the determination of the necessary size of the German armed forces and the question of the appropriate form of military service to achieve the corresponding number of personnel. The professional army in its current form has proven completely insufficient to reach the current target size of 203,000 soldiers, despite the “Trend Reversal Personnel” initiated since the summer of 2015. In view of the foreseeable threat situation of the coming decades, a target size far beyond the current one will probably be needed in order to produce all required capabilities of the Bundeswehr. Therefore, politicians will have no choice but to resume the debate briefly conducted during the last legislative period on the introduction of general compulsory military service for men and women.




The question of whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin was bluffing with his threatening gestures and the deployment of Russian armed forces on the Ukrainian borders in recent months has been settled, as has the fundamental controversy between those who have played down the threat posed by Russia and those who have repeatedly warned of it. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, a flagrant violation of international law, poses the greatest threat of an extensive war in Europe since 1945. It will change international politics as fundamentally as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Unlike in 1989 or 2001, Germany is not even close to being adequately positioned for the fundamental change in the security situation in Europe that has now occurred. German policy has consistently failed to correctly assess the signs that have been evident since 2008, draw the right conclusions and take the necessary measures for its Russia policy, but also for German security and defence policy in general.


Above all, Germany has apparently completely abandoned – or simply forgotten – the principle that diplomacy must be underpinned by an adequate defence capability in order to exclude the option that the other side will not negotiate. The policy that was unilaterally limited to political negotiations and at the same time only willing to use political and economic sanctions, collapsed like a house of cards at six o’clock Moscow time on 24 February 2022. This misguided policy reached its tragic final chapter with the absurd sounding statement that financial and economic aid alone could make the Ukrainian state more resilient, complemented with the farce of sending 5,000 combat helmets designated as protective helmets.


Germany in particular, with its claim to civil power, its value-driven foreign policy and its premise of making the rule of (international) law the basis of international politics, has proved completely incapable of protecting the European peace order and preventing one of the most serious breaches of international law in Europe since 1945. The fact that hardly any state has benefited from this peace order as much as Germany and that only Germany would be able to guarantee the conventional defence of Europe, forces Berlin to make a radical U-turn. Russia policy in particular, but much more seriously, the entire security and defence policy of the past decades, has reached a zero point.


This is compounded by the fact that the worst-case scenario for the Western allies actually assumed by many observers would be simultaneous Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, which would inevitably lead to the overstretching of US forces. Chinese military strategists will be watching very closely to see how fundamentally and substantially the European states – and here Germany is of central importance – realign their security and defence policies and thereby alleviate the burden on their US ally. It was not NATO's strength that forced Putin to attack, but the weakness of the alliance, especially the European pillar, that invited him to do so. This must not be repeated with regard to China.


born 1978 in Duisburg, Head of Department International Politics and Security Affairs, Division Analysis and Consulting, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

born 1990 in Bayreuth, Policy Advisor Transatlantic Relations, Division Analysis and Consulting, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.


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