German defence minister resigns after series of gaffes

Germany’s defence minister has announced her resignation, triggering fresh uncertainty for Europe’s most populous nation as it confronts critical decisions about its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Christine Lambrecht, who has faced harsh criticism for her handling of defence policy as well as a succession of gaffes, said that a “months-long media focus” on her had left no room for a factual discussion about the German military and national security policy.

She said that she had asked the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, for his permission to resign.

Lambrecht, 57, was tasked with playing a key role in overseeing a “sea change” in Germany’s approach to defence and security that was promised by Scholz in the days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

But she faced attacks for the slow pace of reforms to the Bundeswehr — the federal army — and attempts to upgrade its equipment.

She faced derision for admitting in December 2021 that she did not know the various army ranks — and admitting again five months later that she still did not know them.

Lambrecht suffered international mockery shortly after the start of the Ukraine war, when she was asked if Germany would provide military aid and replied that it would send Kyiv 5,000 helmets.

Calls for her to step down grew after a New Year’s Eve video message that addressed the war in Ukraine while fireworks exploded in the background. In that video, Lambrecht said she associated the conflict with “many special impressions, many encounters with interesting, great people”.

Her resignation, which had been expected for days, comes as Berlin faces a looming decision about whether to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine — and whether or not to allow other European nations to do so.

Lambrecht had been due to meet her US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, on Thursday ahead of a meeting of international supporters of Kyiv at the US’s Ramstein air base in western Germany the following day.

The chancellery did not immediately announce her successor, but possible candidates include Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces who has documented the parlous state of the German military.

Högl used an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on Sunday to call for a tripling of the chancellor’s promise of an extra €100bn in funding for the Bundeswehr to €300bn. She voiced caution, however, on sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, warning: “You have to weigh up whether the Bundeswehr can really do without them.”

Siemtje Möller, the junior defence minister, has been touted as another possible candidate.

Lars Klingbeil, leader of Lambrecht’s Social Democratic party (SPD), comes from a military family and is seen as someone who could smooth over relations with the armed forces.

German media have also named Wolfgang Schmidt, the chancellor’s chief of staff and a close ally, as one of the runners and riders.

But choosing either Klingbeil or Schmidt would upset the gender balance and become a potential problem for Scholz, who has committed to having an equal number of male and female ministers in his cabinet.

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