In the wake of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Germany has shifted the focus of its defense policy back to collective defense. A new article by Timo Graf, Markus Steinbrecher & Heiko Biehl shows that public opinion on collective defense has also shifted: from a marked reluctance to support NATO’s eastern members to a much greater willingness to contribute military resources to reassure those members in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Against the background of the war, how do we explain that shift in the alliance solidarity of the German people? Which factors are driving this change and how lasting is it going to be? The answer is complex and involves the public image of Russia, the willingness to follow US leadership, and strategic culture.
For decades, both Western and Eastern NATO partners have criticized Germany for not spending enough on (collective) defense and its growing dependency on energy imports from Russia. Economic interests and a free-riding mentality aside, a driving force behind close relations with Russia was public opinion. Significant parts of German society were Russia-friendly and showed little support for strengthening NATO’s eastern flank.
Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022 forced a historic shift in Germany’s defense policy and in its relations towards Russia – a Zeitenwende (epochal turning point) as it is now referred to in the German debate. Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared the contributions of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) to NATO’s territorial defense of Europe as their top priority, because “[t]he crucial role for Germany at this moment is to step up as one of the main providers of security in Europe […] beefing up our military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.” The Zeitenwende in defense policy has been mirrored by a major shift of public opinion in Germany on collective defense: Reluctance towards the defense of NATO’s eastern flank has given way to majority support for military efforts to reassure NATO’s eastern members in the face of Russian aggression. German chancellor Olaf Scholz interprets this shift of public opinion as being indicative of “a new mindset in German society.”
Our article seeks to answer two pressing questions: Against the background of the war, which factors are driving this shift in peoples’ alliance solidarity? And are there any early indications on how lasting this change is going to be? These questions are addressed on the basis of multivariate analyses of representative population surveys from 2021 and 2022. The results show that the perception of Russia as a threat to national security is a key factor, yet it is only part of a more complex explanation involving strategic postures and the subjective level of information about collective defense as well. By contrast, the often cited free-riding mentality of the Germans proves largely irrelevant. The empirical findings shine light on Germany’s reaction to Russia’s war against Ukraine and add to our understanding of the societal foundations of alliance solidarity in Germany and other countries.
First, the increased perception of Russia as a strategic threat to Germany is a key driver for public support for measures of collective defense. The largely absent public threat perception kept support for alliance solidarity low until 2021. In 2022, however, the perception of Russia changed fundamentally. A majority of Germans has lost its naïve view on Russia, recognizing Russia as a threat to German security instead, which contributes to a greater willingness to support national contributions to NATO missions on the Eastern flank.
These insights are also of relevance beyond Germany, because just like the German people the citizens of other major western European countries such as Italy, Spain, and France had a very ambivalent view of Russia prior to the war. Since 2022, Russia is seen very unfavorably by majorities all across Europe. How long that pan-European consensus will last very much depends on the duration and the course of the war. As the war continues and as the initial shock of the invasion eventually wears off, it becomes increasingly important to establish the current recognition of Russia as the greatest threat to European security as the point of departure for all joint and national strategies.
Second, the growing public knowledge and media coverage of these missions has also contributed to the change of public opinion. Before 2022, Bundeswehr engagements – like the one in Lithuania – were rarely mentioned in the media and hardly present on the public agenda or in political debates. As we could show this has changed – at least to a certain degree. Still most Germans just know some basic facts or even nothing at all about the Bundeswehr’s deployments in Eastern and Central Europe. Moreover, reporting is bound to decline as the “newsworthiness” of war in Ukraine decreases with every day that it drags on and as it has to “compete for attention” with other global flashpoints.
Third, another force for the change in public opinion has been a renewed orientation towards the United States. In times of crisis, most Germans, like their government, look to the other side of the Atlantic for guidance. They trust in the United States as the protective power of the Western world and want Germany to participate in the common defense efforts. This revitalized transatlantic orientation is an important driver of Germans’ readiness to support NATO’s measures of reassurance.
If a (new) U.S. administration were to signal a reduction in military aid to Europe as the war in Ukraine continues, the willingness of the German and other European people to contribute to the collective defense of NATO’s eastern flank might be at risk. Hence, the Germans do not seem to be ready to act as the military leader of Europe – others being even more improbable candidates. Instead, they look to the U.S.’ military leadership in guaranteeing Europe’s security, which could put the premature debate about Europe’s strategic sovereignty on hold – at least as long as Russia wages war in Europe and the U.S. do not exit NATO.
Fourth, our analyses show that the strategic culture of the German society has not suddenly and fundamentally changed. The basic preferences of the population on security and defense policies are largely stable: Most Germans still favor multilateral approaches in international affairs, show transatlantic orientations, and prefer civilian over military means. Consequently, the substantial increase in support for alliance defense measures looks more like an ad hoc reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than a fundamental reorientation in strategic postures.
Our results provide some implications for policy makers not least because they suggest that the underlying preferences of Germany’s public – its strategic culture – have not changed (yet). So, chancellor’s Scholz statement of “a new mindset in German society” might have been a bit premature. But how to stabilize Germany’s willingness to reassure its Eastern partners and how to avoid a return to reluctance in common defense efforts? Our analyses suggest that the perception of threat is largely determined by Russia’s course of action in Ukraine and beyond. The level of Atlanticism depends for the most part on the continued and visible military support of the U.S. to Europe (as well as the political agenda of its President). And the public’s level of information about the Bundeswehr’s efforts to help NATO secure the eastern flank can be influenced – to a modest extent – by the public communication and information efforts of the German ministry of defense and the government. Consequently, all actors involved in the conflict between NATO and Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine can shape the alliance solidarity of the German people – for better or worse.
Read the article “From reluctance to reassurance: Explaining the shift in the Germans’ NATO alliance solidarity following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” here