If You Really Want The ‘Zeitenwende’, Listen to the EU’s North-Eastern Flank

Why defence isn’t merely a matter of military security and the ‘peace’ and ‘justice for Ukraine’ advocates are much more similar than they’d like to admit.

During last month’s Progressive Governance Summit I attended, Federal Minister for Special Affairs Wolfgang Schmidt humorously argued that when it comes to crafting a new foreign security policy, Germany is still in its ‘teenager’ years, fickle and run by ‘hormones’. His comment came after months of international pressure on Chancellor Scholz to live up to his ambitious Zeitenwende announcement by providing military aid to Ukraine and taking European security seriously. But rather than relieving allies’ disappointment in Scholz’s feet-dragging on Ukraine, this rhetoric may strengthen the view of Germany as a European wild card. After all, teenagers are not typically seen as the most reliable strategic partners.

Divided Between Venus and Mars

Nowhere is this doubtful Zeitgeist more evident than in North, Central and Eastern Europe (NCEE). I should know – as a sociologist studying post-2014 NCEE defence restructuring, I talked to a number of regional actors about how they view the way out of the current European post-security interregnum. From Helsinki through Tallin and Vilnius to Warsaw, many have questioned Germany’s solidarity and expertise, pointing to the demise of strategic thinking and growth of strategic corruption among the German elites and the privileging of national industry’s interests over European security. In six out of nine Central and Eastern EU states alone, trust in Germany’s strategic partnership declined to the benefit of the US. After all, it is CEE states that now provide most military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine relative to their GDP, and together with the Nordics, sound a strong voice on EU-Russia policy. Across different polls, the majority of Swedes, Finns, Estonians and Poles also declare their willingness to defend their democratic states in times of crisis, while most polled Germans remain in the negative.

Mediatized analyses propose to see EU societies as divided between planet Venus and planet Mars or advocates for peace and advocates for justice for Ukraine. While not unfounded, such dichotomies are unhelpful if we want to make sense of the more complex reality on the ground and lead the EU out of the current security crisis. The emergence of the NCEE semi-periphery as the new, defence-oriented centre of gravity of European security policy has left many in the West uncomfortably baffled, partially because these states are routinely seen not as agents in their own right but merely a ‘sphere of influence’ of bigger players. This intellectual discomfort can be extremely productive for progressives wishing to shift the gear on German strategic culture – at least insofar as it is translated into genuine curiosity about how their NCEE partners think of security in the increasingly unstable world.

What can German progressives learn from the EU’s North-Eastern flank?

First, if my own sociological fieldwork on the post-2014 NCEE Zeitenwende taught me anything, it is that the ostensible EU ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ are much more similar than some care to admit. After the end of the Cold War, we were all passengers on the same post-militarist train heading towards the ‘end of history’. Just like Germany, most states in Russia’s EU neighbourhood decreased defence spending and suspended male conscription, and Sweden even dismantled its world-famous total defence system.

The difference is that NCEE states left that train in 2014 after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, while Germany still insisted on building Nord Stream 2. For those routinely targeted by Kremlin’s hybrid activities, the gap between the horizons of expectations of Pax Europaea and lived experience has become too wide to ignore. Still, the difference between the two camps is not so much about values as it is about area-studies expertise. Why the majority of Polish and Baltic citizens advocate for ‘justice’ over ‘peace’ for Ukraine is not because they endorse war. Rather, they reject a merely negative peace, one buying Russia time to regroup before the next blow while continuing violence in occupied territories.

Secondly, the North-Eastern flank of the EU serves as a potent reminder that not all militarisms are created equal. This point may ring especially problematic in Germany, where reconciliation with the country’s violent past has led many younger progressives to view any and all military power as unenlightened, obsolete and suspicious.

Meanwhile, Finland showcases that high levels of militarization can be reconciled with a dedication to liberal democracy and human rights. In Poland, the Zeitenwende has brought more young women into security at a time when domestic fundamentalists are fighting against gender equality. Progressives in NCEE tend to view their militaries and the NATO alliance as non-ideal yet necessary tools of deterrence and democratic self-defence. Bordering Russia and Belarus, we cannot afford to virtuously deconstruct the national security concerns of our fellow citizens from the political backseat. However, rather than leaving defence to the Right, many regional social democrats increasingly see the way forward as working towards mainstreaming democratic and civic values into national security.

Lastly, by overemphasizing military security, we may be missing the mark on the innovative way the EU’s Northeast thinks about defence. Far from merely bolstering the military arm of their states, the doctrine of comprehensive security – or total defence – championed by Nordics and the Baltics is equally focused on bolstering the capacity of the state and the society to sustain its vital functions during any type of crisis.

It is not only about having contingency plans for public and private sectors and providing citizens with basic knowledge and skills. Comprehensive security advocates have grown to see broader, democratic and socio-economic resilience as the first line of defence against hybrid threats. After all, underfinanced, ineffective public institutions cannot provide the proper safety net for citizens in times of crisis. Likewise, unequal societies lacking public trust and social cohesion create fertile soil for disinformation. It is here that comprehensive security provides a new, unexpected opening for social democrats and their programmatic goal of replacing free-market Europe with social Europe. By advocating for socio-economic resilience as the first line of defence, they may build wider support for eradicating some of the very structural causes of the current state of post-security.

So far, the jury is still out on whether Germany’s ‘epochal turn’ is merely old wine in new bottles or a beginning of a true shift in strategic culture. For those progressives who wish to shape the latter, a starting point is to listen to their partners on the EU’s North-Eastern flank, who have proven to be a few steps ahead on both the intellectual and mental Zeitenwende.

We urgently need the German ‘teenager’ to grow into a credible leader, one willing to step aside and support NCEE states in shaping European security policy that so directly concerns them.


Weronika Grzebalska

Polish Academy of Sciences
Weronika Grzebalska is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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