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Germany’s controversial Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht is reportedly set to step down as early as Monday, suffering the consequences from a series of blunders that hurt her credibility and increasingly weighed on Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his declared sea-change in German defense policy.
The news of Lambrecht’s expected resignation — which, more than 18 hours after a first report by German media outlet Bild, has been neither officially denied nor confirmed — plunges Scholz’s government into uncertainty less than a week ahead of a crucial meeting of Western defense officials.
The news comes amid growing international pressure to support Ukraine with German-made Leopard battle tanks. The U.K. on Saturday agreed to send next-generation Challenger tanks to the Ukrainian battlefield.
Two officials in Berlin confirmed that Lambrecht’s immediate departure has been discussed in her Social Democratic Party (SPD). One official conceded that the leaked information about the expected resignation had left the government in turmoil as Scholz had not yet officially decided on a potential successor, causing a communication fiasco. A government spokesperson declined late Friday to comment on “rumors.” Lambrecht’s spokesperson could not be reached for a comment.
Lambrecht’s expected resignation is a bitter setback for Scholz, who had long defended his minister against mounting criticism and just two weeks ago said via a spokesperson that he considered her a “first-class defense minister.” Letting Lambrecht go would also mean an admission that the Social Democratic chancellor picked the wrong person for the job when he formed his government just over a year ago.
There is also a possibility that Scholz might use the occasion to announce a broader government reshuffle.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Lambrecht’s leadership style has come under fire, especially for failing to implement an increase in military spending pledged by Scholz under his Zeitenwende sea change in German defense and security policy, and despite the creation of a €100 billion investment fund for the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces. POLITICO reported last month that criticism was mounting amid ammunition shortages and revelations that Germany’s bold promise to invest “from now on, year after year” at least 2 percent of its economic output in defense had been put on hold, making the country a laggard in the NATO military alliance.
Lambrecht had also faced strong criticism for celebrating an early delivery of 5,000 helmets to Ukraine at the beginning of last year as “a clear signal” of support, then by taking her son on a helicopter flight as part of a personal holiday. The minister also lacked authority among her own troops and caused a stir when, six months into her job, she admitted in an interview to still not know the military service grades.
An awkward video published on social media on New Year’s Eve was likely the tipping point for Germany’s defense minister, prompting even close allies in her party to take distance. Standing against the backdrop of Berlin’s fireworks, Lambrecht said the war was “linked with many special impressions” and “many, many encounters with interesting, special people.”
Moreover, Lambrecht’s authority was widely seen as undermined after Scholz and U.S. President Joe Biden announced on January 5 that they would jointly send infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine, despite Lambrecht just weeks earlier (at a time when Scholz and Biden had already discussed the delivery) saying that Germany had no such armored vehicles available.
This, as well as the fact that Lambrecht’s ministry had been left scrambling in recent days to organize the promised vehicles following Scholz’s announcement, prompted suggestions that the defense minister had not been closely involved in Scholz’s planning, although the government disputed that.
Western defense ministers will meet on Friday at the Ramstein military base in Germany, where Berlin is expected to allow partner countries like Poland and Finland to send their German-made Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine. German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck already said on Thursday that Berlin should not stand in the way if partner countries wanted to organize such deliveries, and a government spokesperson said on Friday that Scholz shared Habeck’s position.
In saying on Saturday that it had agreed to send Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, the U.K. government noted “other international commitments in this vein, including Poland’s offer to provide a company of Leopard tanks,” according to a statement.
Scholz will now have to quickly nominate a successor for Lambrecht ahead of the key Ramstein meeting, with Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, and Siemtje Möller, the junior defense minister — both also from the SPD — being named as potential candidates. Other potential names are SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil, the SPD’s Labor Minister Hubertus Heil, and the SPD’s Wolfgang Schmidt, the head of Scholz’s chancellery.
Given that Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, also from the SPD, is expected to soon announce a run for prime minister in the German state of Hesse, which will hold elections in October, Scholz might also announce a broader reshuffle.
Federica Di Sario contributed reporting.