(Bloomberg) -- German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said she will step down following a series of missteps and days of speculation over her future, a blow to Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government as it weighs crucial decisions on arming Ukraine.
In a brief statement published Monday by her ministry, Lambrecht said she asked Scholz to relieve her of her cabinet post, blaming intense media reporting as an unacceptable distraction. Scholz said he had “great respect” for the decision, thanked Lambrecht for her service and promised to name a successor swiftly.
“This is not the day of course, for good reasons, to talk about how things will go forward,” Scholz told reporters during a visit to a defense contractor in Ulm. “But I want to tell you that I have a clear idea and this will be communicated to everybody very quickly.”
Among the potential candidates are SPD defense expert Eva Hoegl, Scholz’s chancellery chief of staff Wolfgang Schmidt and Labor Minister Hubertus Heil. SPD co-leaders Saskia Esken and Lars Klingbeil have also been named, as well as former SPD leader Andrea Nahles, who currently heads the federal labor office.
The 57-year-old Lambrecht, like Scholz a trained lawyer, came under close scrutiny over a perceived lack of military expertise, with the criticism intensifying after a poorly executed New Year’s Eve video that seemed to make light of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Lambrecht’s departure hits close to home for Scholz. He had picked her as one of his deputies when he served as finance minister in Angela Merkel’s final term and had stood by her in recent weeks even as criticism mounted.
The process has been messy. Reports of her pending resignation surfaced on Friday. The government declined to comment for days, leaving the uncertainty hanging.
The Social Democrats are responsible for appointing a successor, and time is pressing. A meeting of senior defense officials from allied nations is scheduled for Friday at the US airbase in Ramstein, Germany. Before the gathering, the government is expected to make a decision on tank deliveries.
Scholz has pledged to keep gender parity when it comes to the SPD minister posts. This would mean that he’s either picks another woman or implements a broader reshuffle in the cabinet.
The upheaval marks a major setback for the ruling coalition and risks disrupting decisions critical to the international effort to stand up against the Kremlin. Scholz’s administration faces mounting pressure to supply Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine after Poland and Finland said they wanted to send the German-made combat vehicles.
Germany is expected to drop its resistance and supply Leopards to Kyiv amid concerns about fresh Russian offensives in the spring, according to officials familiar with the government’s thinking.
The war has laid bare the poor state of the armed forces in Europe’s biggest economy. The defense ministry post is typically poisoned chalice, with few ministers lasting long in the job amid persistent underfunding. To try to reverse the decline in Germany’s military power, Scholz’s government has created a special fund worth €100 billion ($108 billion).
Before reports of her planned departure surfaced, Lambrecht on Friday gave little indication that she was ready to leave. In a press conference, she said Germany will continue to use the new Puma armored fighting vehicles despite recent technical failures.
She also pushed back against critics, following a meeting with the chairmen of Rheinmetall AG and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann GmbH & Co. KG, whose joint venture produces Pumas.
After a series of technical failures in December, Lambrecht had called on both companies to fix the Puma which is meant to replace the German army’s aging Marder vehicles.
The former justice minister’s qualifications for the role were widely questioned. In her first media interview as Germany’s top defense official in December 2021, she said she struggled with the sequence of military ranks.
The final gaffe may have been the awkward New Year’s Eve video, which renewed questions about whether she was up to the task. With fireworks exploding loudly in the background, she said the war in Ukraine facilitated her interactions with “many interesting and excellent people.”
--With assistance from Iain Rogers, Kamil Kowalcze and Wilfried Eckl-Dorna.
(Updates with comments from Scholz starting in second paragraph)
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