Difficult times begin for Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius. He faces many challenges, from modernizing the Bundeswehr to assisting Ukraine. The minister should address these challenges quickly in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Will Boris Pistorius be able to live up to expectations, and will German policy change with the new minister?
A pitiful legacy
After the start of a full-scale war in Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised the Bundeswehr 100 billion euros for modernization. So far, however, the army has yet to feel any significant improvements, and only a tiny part of the multibillion-dollar fund has been contracted to purchase F-35 fighter jets.
At the same time, accusations against the previous Defense Minister, Christine Lambrecht regularly appeared in the media: either because of a shortage of ammunition worth billions of euros or faulty equipment in all military branches.
For example, according to documents, only 34 percent of the army’s self-propelled artillery howitzers Panzerhaubitze 2000 are serviceable. In the navy, only two of the six submarines are in service.
The latest egregious case was the discovery of breakdowns in all 18 Puma infantry fighting vehicles to be delivered to the NATO rapid reaction force.
Experienced and ambitious, but far from Scholz’s “number-one candidate.”
Now the defense ministry, with all its problems, will be headed by Boris Pistorius.
“He is an extremely experienced politician, proven in management, has been involved in security policy for years, and with his competence, perseverance and big heart is the right person to lead the Bundeswehr at this pivotal moment,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the appointment this Tuesday.
Like Lambrecht, Pistorius is a lawyer. Before his new appointment, he had served as interior minister of Lower Saxony since 2013. Before that, he was the mayor of Osnabrück.
Although Pistorius has built his entire political career in the region, he has often been tried for high positions at the federal level.
According to Spiegel, in the SPD of Lower Saxony, asking when Boris would already go to Berlin was considered trivial. He has been described as sharp-tongued, pushy, and rather ambitious. The latter demonstrates that in 2019 he competed with Scholz for the position of SPD leader.
As of late, Pistorius was considered a candidate for the interior minister to replace the incumbent Minister Nancy Feather, should she decide to run in the Hessian elections.
That he ended up in another ministry may demonstrate Scholz’s difficulties in seeking the head of the defense department.
As the German press has learned from its sources, Pistorius was far from Scholz’s number-one candidate.
But it seems that there were no other candidates from among the ranks of the high-ranking Social Democrats for this position.
Among the main tasks of the new minister cited by military analysts are quick and decisive military assistance to Ukraine, reforms to reduce internal bureaucracy, and the rapid implementation of new procurement procedures for the implementation of the 100 billion euro Bundeswehr fund.
This may need to be improved by the new minister’s lack of experience with the Bundeswehr and defense issues.
However, among Pistorius’s positives are his service in the army (back in the early 1980s). This experience will contribute to his reputation among members of the Bundeswehr.
An additional plus is his expertise in internal security and his ability to work with a large bureaucratic apparatus.
Germany’s new defense minister has two daughters and is a widower. His wife died of cancer.
Support for Ukraine and ties to Russia
Boris Pistorius had a long relationship with the ex-wife of former German Chancellor (1998-2005) Gerhard Schroeder, Doris Schroeder-Kopf, after his wife died. The couple separated last year.
It is worth mentioning that Gerhard Schroeder is a close friend of Putin and has close business relations with Russia. He is the chairman of the Nord Stream AG Shareholders’ Committee and a member of the Gazprom Board.
The pro-Moscow and corruption components of Schroeder’s activities introduced a new word – “Schroederization” (German “Schröderisierung”), which is defined as the corruption of the political elite of Europe by the Kremlin.
Although Pistorius’ job functions included dealing with domestic issues, he also voiced his views on foreign policy.
Before the big war in Europe, Pistorius belonged to the Social Democrat wing, which advocated a “friendly and critical” approach to Russia.
From 2013 Pistorius was one of the state’s representatives on the German Bundesrat until 2017 when he served as a deputy of the Bundesrat. In this capacity, he was also a member of the German-Russian Friendship Group set up in cooperation with the Russian Federation Council. The Bundesrat’s German-Russian Friendship Group was dissolved on April 8, 2022, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In 2018, Pistorius argued for a review of anti-Russian sanctions because they, he said, had caused billions of dollars in damage to the German economy. “If you’re not reaching your goals, you have to ask yourself if the tools are right,” he said.
The politician argued that a European peace policy was only possible with Russian involvement.
But Russia’s full-scale war changed Pistorius’ views.
On February 24, he criticized Russia’s attack on Ukraine:
“I am shocked and appalled by the dramatic developments and brutal attacks on Ukraine by the armed forces under the command of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is the first aggressive war of one state against another sovereign state in Europe in a decade.”
In the spring, he harshly opposed using symbols glorifying Russian aggression during the May 8 events. “We will not allow the glorification of this war on our streets – whether it be the display of the Z symbol or the St. George’s ribbon,” the minister said, giving the police the go-ahead to disperse the offending demonstrators.
Pistorius also advocated confiscating the assets of Russian oligarchs in favor of Ukraine and called to be guided in this by Canada’s experience.
“We should follow its example and not only freeze the assets of oligarchs on the EU sanctions list against Russia but confiscate them and use them for humanitarian aid and building Ukraine,” he said
But most importantly, Boris Pistorius has publicly expressed support for Ukraine’s victory in the war, which Olaf Scholz has openly stated in his speech in Davos this Wednesday.
In May, Pistorius said that the return of the occupied territories is “legitimate and right, and we should also support it. Ukraine must win the war.” At the same time, he urged Kyiv to restrain itself from attacking Russian territory.
A turning point in Germany’s support for Ukraine?
It is undoubtedly too early to judge the minister by his previous statements. Neither his participation in the inter-parliamentary German-Russian Friendship Group nor his public comments supporting Ukraine are significant. What matters are decisive actions, such as the transfer of Leopard 2 tanks. Against the background of Chancellor Scholz’s indecisive and, in some places, overly cautious policy, exacerbated by pressure not only from Ukraine but also from countries like Poland or Finland, it will be tough for the new minister.
Poland and Finland are ready to hand over tanks to Ukraine but are waiting for Germany’s will. Intercepting the primacy, Britain has already announced the provision of Challenger tanks.
In addition, a new round of military aid donor countries’ meetings with Ukraine at the Ramstein air base will start on January 20. Boris Pistorius has little time to get into the state of affairs and present a list of actions at the talks on behalf of Germany that would satisfy the wishes of the allies and Ukraine.
Against the backdrop of Russia’s constant bloody rocket attacks, Ukraine needs practical and rapid military assistance. As Ukrainian military expert Oleksiy Kopytko has repeatedly stated, a change in the defense ministers of partner countries always entails the need for new ties with the team of the new defense manager. The transformation of the ministerial team may become another factor, slowing down European assistance to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, we will know the fundamental steps after the next Ramstein. Will Boris Pistorius live up to the hopes of the Germans, the allies, and the Ukrainians? Will he be able to influence the policy of the whole Scholz cabinet towards Ukraine?
Will Scholz understand that only a successful Ukrainian offensive will hasten the end of the conflict and reduce the suffering of civilians in eastern Europe? And will there be an understanding of the correlation between supplying Ukraine with weapons and Russia’s defeat in its war of aggression? These questions remain open.