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Is the German military capable of defending Europe?

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Is the German military capable of defending Europe?
Bundeswehr soldiers in Lithuania. Photo: DPA
16:04 CET+01:00
The election of Donald Trump to President of the US has awoken fears that the US will no longer be the guardian of European security. If Washington steps back, can Berlin fill the void?

After less than a month of life with the Trump administration, it is still far from clear how Washington now sees NATO and the defence of Europe.

On Tuesday US Defence Secretary James Mattis described NATO as "the most successful military alliance in history" on his way to a meeting of defence ministers in Brussels.

But his boss in the White House has repeatedly called the alliance's continued utility into question and has called on other member states to do more.

On the campaign trail before his election Trump said that if Russia attacked the Baltic states, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations have “fulfilled their obligations to us.”

As the largest economy in Europe, and the powerbroker in the EU, Germany is the obvious NATO partner to step into the breach, should the US draw back.

In late January and early February, hundreds of German soldiers landed in Lithuania to head up a deployment of a 1,200-strong battalion that will include forces from several NATO members.

Germany's Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who was at the base to welcome the troops, said that "it sends a clear and important message to all: NATO stands strong and united."

It was one of several headlines over recent months that suggest Berlin is taking its military commitments more seriously.

In May 2016, the Defence Ministry announced that it was adding thousands of new soldiers to its ranks and increasing its spending by billions. It was the second year in a row that an increase in defence spending was announced, after continual cuts since the end of the Cold War.

"It is clear to Germany that we need to contribute more to the NATO alliance," a spokesman for the Defence Ministry told The Local on Tuesday.

But he also stressed the contribution the Bundeswehr (German military) is already making to European security.

As well as the troop commitment in Lithuania, Germany is a key contributor to the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) - a highly mobile force of 5,000 soldiers set up to deter a Russian assault on smaller NATO members.

The German airforce has also been involved in policing air space over the Baltic region, while contributing "significantly" to Multinational Corps Northeast (a military cooperation with Poland and Denmark), the spokesman added.

He warned though that for Germany to meet its NATO obligations, the government needs to continually increase military spending year-on-year until 2030. Anything less will mean that the country will spend less than the current 1.2 percent of GDP on defence, already significantly below the 2 percent commitment made by NATO members in 2014.

But a defence expert The Local spoke to expressed deep scepticism about Germany's ability to forge a defence policy which would ensure European security.

Describing the country's leadership as "nuclear illiterates", Dr. Gustav Gressel, a defence expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), argued "nuclear deterrence is one of the main contributions the US has given to Europe".

"This gap must be filled if the US does indeed withdraw," Gressel continued.

"How can that happen in a country [Germany] in which nuclear deterrence has been a taboo topic for 25 years and in which the desire for complete nuclear disarmament is considered realistic policy?"

Gressel stressed that public antipathy to assertive defence policies was tying policy makers' hands.

"The reunification of Germany was the last big goal for Germans. After that everyone fell into this 'end of history' feeling - everything is good, we're all friends and it has to stay that way. Since then it has been hard to mobilize Germans for new projects."

Any time European policies have rubbed up against Russian resistance, the German public have rebelled against efforts to push them through.

"The overwhelming majority of the electorate simply don't want to be drawn into a confrontation which it can't understand and the repercussions of which it can't predict."

But he also said that politicians were doing to little to re-frame the debate.

"Germany hasn't managed to turn its historical guilt into a consciousness for its historical responsibility," he said.

“That the Russian regime is intentionally making ideological constructs of the 1930s its own, that it considers the Hitler-Stalin pact to be 'normal politics', and that putting insubordinate Ukrainians in concentration camps is discussed on public television, is only discussed by a small group of German politicians - and they are accused of being 'warmongers'."

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