COLOGNE, Germany — Germany begins the new year with two prominent defense and diplomacy assignments: leadership of NATO’s highest-alert combat formation, and a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The two new responsibilities follow recent pledges by Berlin to play a more active role in global affairs, offering German Chancellor Angela Merkel an instant test to make good on those proclamations during the final years of her tenure.
As of Jan. 1, Germany is on the hook to provide 5,000 soldiers for NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or VJTF. The formation must be ready to fight wherever it is needed within 48 to 72 hours. Partner nations for this year’s rotation include the Netherlands, Norway, France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania, bringing the total package to about 8,000.
A key rationale for the quick-reaction force is to display to Russia the ability to rapidly ferry combat power across Europe at a time when speed is believed to be a Russian advantage. European governments are still wary from the 2014 Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, and more recently from a naval standoff between the two countries in the Sea of Asov. Both incidents fit into a pattern of Russia steering clear of outright war while trying to shake up the post-Soviet order around its borders, according to issue experts.
The German Defence Ministry’s logistics planning for the VJTF role takes into account the need to quickly move combat gear if needed. Its acquisition office last month announced a $110 million support contract to ensure rapid access to military rail transport from civilian providers during Germany’s one-year tenure.
The Bundeswehr, plagued by equipment shortfalls, management problems or both — depending on who is asked — has had to dig deep to assemble the needed equipment for the task force lead. In the end, funneling supplies from across the force to the tip of the spear appears to have worked, but it has depleted the readiness of many units, said Christian Mölling, an analyst with the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations.
“It means the rest of the Bundeswehr is no longer the kind of deterrent it is meant to be,” he said in an interview.
With the task force now on high alert, Mölling said, the thing to watch will be Germany’s national decision-making process in the event that it will be called up. Parliament and the government, he argues, lack a well-rehearsed process for assessing whether a given conflict warrants deploying the task force, potentially kicking off a comprehensive national debate that would negate any hope of a rapid reaction.
That is especially the case because of Moscow's penchant to keep its activities just below the conflict threshold that would trigger Article 5, NATO's clause for collective defense when one member is attacked.
Amid deepening global crises and a deteriorating relationship between Europe and the U.S., a German government debating the definition of a worthy VJTF deployment would probably lead to Russian President Vladimir Putin “grabbing a bag of popcorn,” Mölling quipped.
“We just don't have the necessary routine for a case like that,” he said.
As a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it’s easy to foresee the animosity between Germany and the Trump administration in Washington coming to a head in New York, said Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Many Germans are deeply wary of the U.S. president and his knocking of NATO and other multilateral institutions that have brought Berlin back from the devastation of World War II. That is even more the case since Jim Mattis, a vocal believer in America’s global alliances, called it quits as defense secretary last month.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Jan. 1 tweeted a list of objectives for Germany during its Security Council tenure. They include countering climate change and related global security effects, and a commitment to arms control and disarmament — issues that the Trump administration has dismissed.
When it comes to the voting pattern of Berlin and Washington, often aligned on the Security Council stage, things could get a little awkward, Franke predicts.
In practical terms, however, “I’m pessimistic that a lot will change,” she said. But Germany’s term holds the promise that government leaders here will get into the habit of developing truly global foreign policy positions and selling them to audiences foreign and domestic, she said.