Germany’s Scholz changes defense ministers — but not yet his tank reluctance

Germany’s Scholz changes defense ministers — but not yet his tank reluctance

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BERLIN — Olaf Scholz has once again rebooted his security policy, nominating a new defense minister to take the reins. That doesn’t mean, however, that the German chancellor is dropping his reluctance to send Ukraine battle tanks.

Tuesday’s nomination of Boris Pistorius puts an end to a growing government crisis that had left Europe’s biggest economy for several days effectively without clear military leadership. But Pistorius — whom Scholz hailed as having “the strength and calmness that is needed in view of the Zeitenwende,” Germany’s historic military revamp — will have little time to get adjusted to the new role.

Pressure is mounting on Germany to participate in a broader alliance of countries that would supply Ukraine’s army with modern Leopard 2 battle tanks. And moments after being sworn in on Thursday, the new defense minister is scheduled to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is coming to Berlin before a key meeting Friday in Germany where allies will discuss tank deliveries for Ukraine.

Pistorius is replacing Christine Lambrecht, a loyal defender of Scholz’s cautious tank stance who resigned on Monday after a series of gaffes and missteps that weighed on Berlin’s reputation.

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That means expectations are high for the 62-year-old Pistorius, who is from Scholz’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Yet Social Democratic lawmakers argue the change should not be read as an indication the power balance in Berlin is shifting toward supplying Ukraine with battle tanks.

“I don’t think one has anything to do with the other,” Wolfgang Hellmich, the SPD’s defense policy spokesperson, told POLITICO.

Kristian Klinck, an SPD member of the Bundestag’s defense committee and an army reserve officer, also said he didn’t see “any significant change in this regard because of the personnel change in the defense ministry.”

While stressing that Pistorius will play a role in deciding on further military aid for Ukraine, Klinck said “this very important question of the delivery of battle tanks” would be decided “primarily in the chancellor’s office” and in coordination with other allies.

Scholz himself reiterated his reluctant position during an interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday, saying that any decisions on further weapon supplies could only be taken in close coordination with allies.

That argument for holding back tank deliveries has started to sound less convincing, however, given the calls from allies like Poland to jointly send Leopards, and after the U.K. announced it would supply Ukraine with its own Challenger 2 battle tanks.

Pressure on Scholz

Green MP Anton Hofreiter, chair of the Bundestag’s European affairs committee and a long-standing critic of Scholz’s cautious position, said it was time for the chancellor to act.

“The decision to supply tanks ultimately rests with the chancellor. Behind him is his Social Democratic Party, which unfortunately is still often under the illusion that relations with Russia can be normalized again and that Moscow should therefore not be provoked too much,” Hofreiter told POLITICO.

Germany’s Scholz changes defense ministers — but not yet his tank reluctance
Anton Hofreiter, co-head of the German Green Party Bundestag faction | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Hofreiter, whose Green party is part of Germany’s government coalition alongside Scholz’s SPD and the pro-business Free Democratic Party, argued Germany was presenting “an unclear, wavering and hesitant picture” of its military support for Ukraine.

“Allies are now watching Berlin very closely: If we continue to close our minds on the Leopard issue, Germany would be increasingly isolated in Europe,” he said.

Scholz’s vice chancellor, Robert Habeck, also from the Greens, upped the pressure on the chancellor last week, saying Berlin should not stand in the way if allies like Poland, Finland or Spain want to send their own Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine — an important demand because Berlin must authorize any re-export of the German-made battle tanks.

The government’s deputy spokesperson later clarified that there were “no differences” on the issue between Habeck and Scholz, suggesting the chancellor would support his deputy’s line.

The remarks raised expectations that Berlin may use Friday’s meeting to at least give its allies the green light on sending Leopard tanks. But it remains uncertain whether Scholz will join the coalition and offer Germany’s own tanks, either from the German army or defense industry stocks.

Scholz said Tuesday that he would not debate these questions in public, but German officials have already pointed out it would be rather unlikely for the chancellor to agree to send battle tanks unless the U.S. does so as well.

There are also questions in Germany about whether the recent political crisis within the defense ministry has left Scholz weakened. Scholz personally chose Lambrecht and defended her until the end, despite concerns she had failed to properly spend a reject influx of defense funds and let Germany’s ammunition stockpiles run low (in addition to her gaffes and waning standing among the military).

The SPD’s Hellmich, however, expressed optimism that these shortcomings would now improve with the newly appointed minister.

“Boris Pistorius has been in the political business for a long time and is knowledgeable on the subject. He sits on the defense committee of the Bundesrat [Germany’s upper house of parliament] and is a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly,” Hellmich said.

“That’s why the troops are in good hands with him.”

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