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BERLIN — Can Germany be trusted to drop the big one?
So far that question has been a footnote in ongoing coalition talks between the three winners of the country’s September election. Yet for both the rest of Europe and the transatlantic alliance, it couldn’t be more explosive.
At issue is whether Berlin will continue to honor a decades-old commitment to drop atomic bombs on Russia in the event of an attack on the West.
That might sound like an issue better put to 1981 than 2021, but with Germany’s Russia-friendly Social Democrats poised to lead the next government, it once again looms over Europe and NATO.
The question of where Germany stands on nuclear deterrence has become all the more urgent in recent weeks amid the tensions on the border between Belarus and Poland, where Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has been funneling migrants into the EU, a provocation many observers believe has been encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last weekend, Lukashenko mused in an interview with a Russian journalist about stationing nuclear-capable Russian missile systems in Belarus. That came just days after Russia dispatched two nuclear bombers on a “training mission” over the country.
Most Germans are as blissfully ignorant of their country’s atomic pledge (a pillar of a Cold War-era deterrence doctrine known as nuclear sharing) as they are that Russia has stationed a considerable arsenal of nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, just 500 kilometers from the German border.
But with Germany’s fleet of nuclear-equipped bombers at the end of their lifespan, the country’s new government has to decide whether it wants to be a NATO partner in name only. For many observers, the answer is clear.
“The political consequences would be grave,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, an MP from the conservative Christian Democrats and a retired German army colonel. “We could see a cascade effect on a number of fronts.”
Few issues get Germans’ political juices flowing quite like a good nuclear debate.
It doesn’t matter if the subject is reactors, submarines or weapons (land- or sea-based, supersonic or hypersonic). A German’s views on these issues offer a window into their political soul. In fact, modern Germany’s political map was effectively drawn along an atomic fault line.
The Green party grew out of the anti-war, anti-nuclear movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Among the Social Democrats, the nuclear question has been a debate going back to the 1950s, when party leaders, skeptical of the transatlantic alliance, dreamed of creating a neutral, nuclear-free zone at the center of Europe. Twenty years later, SPD chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s support for the stationing of U.S. medium-range ballistic nuclear missiles in Europe again divided the party and contributed to his downfall.
It’s little surprise then, with the SPD on the cusp of taking back control of the chancellery for the first time in more than 15 years, that the nuclear question is back on the agenda. Rolf Mützenich, a veteran of those earlier battles who now heads the SPD’s parliamentary group, created a stir last year by demanding that the U.S. withdraw its remaining nuclear warheads, believed to number a couple of dozen, from German soil. Nuclear sharing is a “dated concept,” he argued.
At the time, many dismissed the call as the ramblings of an aging peace activist. But now, Mützenich, who wrote his doctoral thesis about “nuclear-free zones,” is one of the most powerful politicians in Germany.
“I want to see as few atomic weapons in the world as possible,” he told German public radio in a recent interview, reiterating his opposition to maintaining Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement.
The irony is that it was the SPD, under Schmidt in the 1970s, that pushed for Germany to have a role in nuclear sharing in the first place, reasoning that it would give the country a say in the weapons’ use in the event of a war.
To this day, supporters of the doctrine see the policy as a crucial element in NATO’s deterrence strategy towards Moscow. Doing away with it now, just as Russia has become more belligerent in Ukraine and elsewhere, would destabilize Europe, they warn. If Germany backs out, the other countries that participate in the arrangement — Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey, among them — might rethink their engagement, upsetting Europe’s broader security arrangements.
“If the aim is to achieve more security and peace in Europe, a one-sided decision to withdraw from a consensus is not the right path,” said Claudia Major, head of research for international security at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
One big worry is that Poland and the Baltic countries would regard the move as a betrayal and implore the U.S. to station nukes in their countries, further ratcheting up tensions with Russia, while signaling discord within NATO.
“The message to Russia and China would be that the alliance is divided,” said Major.
In Washington, a pullout by the Germans would be seen in many quarters as a betrayal. That would be grist to the mill for the likes of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who spent much of his term in office railing against the Germans for not devoting more resources to defense. Conversely, the end of the German commitment would complicate life for President Joe Biden, who has made improving relations with Berlin a top priority, going as far as to give his tacit blessing to Germany’s controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia.
If Trump retakes the White House in 2024, the U.S. commitment to German and European security would be in serious doubt.
To prevent such a scenario, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer committed last year to acquire a many as 30 U.S.-made F-18 jets to replace Germany’s aging bombers. Last month Kramp-Karrenbauer underscored the urgency of the purchases, saying in an interview that Germany’s role was central to NATO’s strategy of deterrence.
“In order to have deterrence, we have to make it very clear to Russia that we are prepared in the end to use such weapons,” she said.
Mützenich accused her of saber-rattling, calling her “irresponsible.” Prominent Green politicians joined the criticism.
The exchange has put a big question mark over whether Germany will go forward with Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plan to buy the F-18s.
Supporters of Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing are hoping that other voices in his party, in particular Olaf Scholz, a centrist who is expected to become chancellor, will carry the day in the end. While the Greens’ senior ranks are also divided on the issue, the Free Democrats, a more conservative party that is expected to join the coalition, wants to maintain the commitment.
But with a strong and vocal left-wing base in both the SPD and Greens, selling the idea of spending billions on new planes to dropping nukes on Russia will be tough. That’s especially true for the Greens, whose party program calls on Germany to join the U.N.’s nuclear ban treaty, which demands the prohibition of all nuclear weapons.
Though Germany’s current fleet can remain in service for another few years, new planes would have to be ordered soon to allow for a seamless transition.
In a preliminary draft of the expected new government’s coalition agreement, the parties dodge the question, saying only that they will make a “reasoned and principled” decision.
Kiesewetter warned that such wooly formulations will raise questions about Germany’s reliability as an ally.
“The new government needs to understand that Germany out in the world is regarded differently than how we see ourselves,” he said. “We see ourselves as a pacifist little calf that’s running around not harming anyone, and everyone else sees us as a European bull that should be prepared to shoulder responsibility for the herd.”
Nette Nöstlinger contributed reporting.