The Social Democrat politician was against sanctions on Russia in 2014. Now he has to decide whether Germany can send Leopard tanks to help Ukraine challenge Russia.

In 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, Boris Pistorius was among many German politicians who opposed western sanctions on Moscow.

Nearly a decade later, Pistorius is the new German Defence Minister, a job he has been thrust into amid Russia’s nearly year-long assault on Ukraine. 

And one of his first tasks – and perhaps the trickiest – is to take a call on whether Germany will send its heavy-duty Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine to arm the besieged country with more firepower against the Russian troops.

A politician with no federal government experience, Pistorius became the defence minister after a series of gaffes by his predecessor Christine Lambrecht led to her exit from the country’s Social Democrat-led government. 

Pistorius’ post, reportedly declined by several other politicians sounded out by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, is unenviable for different reasons, including the huge task of reforming the underfunded German military structure. 

With a potential Russian spring offensive looming, Ukraine has been urgently seeking heavy weapons like Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks from the West. But Berlin has been dragging its feet on Kiev’s requests despite increasing pressure from the US

Germany has been resisting the delivery of heavy weapons to Kiev for fear of being dragged directly into the war that will put it in Russia’s crosshairs. 

“Pistorius has been a very typical SPD politician in terms of how he viewed Russia in the past. The position taken by the SPD in the past [before the Ukraine war] was one of more engagement, reconciliation and trying to maintain good relations with Russia,” says Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defence Studies. 

But the Russian attack on Ukraine “undermined” the SPD’s soft approach toward Moscow, leading to a change of heart in many people holding senior positions in the leftist party, like Pistorius, says Krieg. Since Russia’s offensive, he has been “very firmly on the Ukrainian side”, Krieg tells TRT World. 

A soldier from Carpathian Sich international battalion fires an RPG while conducting manoeuvres near the front line, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kreminna, Ukraine, January 3, 2023.
A soldier from Carpathian Sich international battalion fires an RPG while conducting manoeuvres near the front line, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kreminna, Ukraine, January 3, 2023. (Reuters)

Under Chancellor Scholz’s leadership, the Social Democrats have made “a nearly 180-degree shift” in their position on Russia, the defence analyst says, being self-critical of their Russia policy and accepting that they “miscalculated Putin”. 

Like many other Social Democrats, the analyst says that Pistorius will not “step away” from escalating German backing of Ukraine against Russia if he sees that in the interests of NATO despite his past pro-Moscow positions, the analyst says. 

Russian roulette 

While Pistorius had connections with political circles close to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder –  a Social Democrat close to Russian President Vladimir Putin –  he is not pro-Russian, says Raoul Motika, a German professor of Humanities at the University of Hamburg and an expert on Euro-Asiatic Studies. 

“It’s correct that Pistorius was among politicians who opposed sanctions on Russia after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. But at that time, almost all of the federal government structure had the same understanding as him,” Motika tells TRT World

Bulent Guven, a Turkish-German political scientist, also believes that Pistorius cannot be easily labelled a pro-Russian politician even though some Western analysts like Kyle Orton continues to advocate that he is “fairly openly pro-Russian, part of Moscow front ‘friendship’ groups”. 

While Pistorius is from a leftist political tradition that has long advocated good relations with Russia for political and economic reasons, “we can not call him pro-Russian”, Guven tells TRT World.

Motika also points out that besides Pistorius, Germany’s mainstream political factions - Social Democrats or Christian Democrats - have always advocated peaceful politics with Russia for partly emotional reasons rooted in the country’s catastrophic WWII legacy with Moscow. 

Guven feels that Pistorius’s appointment might signal that Germany seeks a kind of post-war realignment with Russia because Berlin considers itself the greatest victim of the Ukraine conflict outside the two warring sides, according to Guven. 

“Russia is not a country with which Germany can cut its relationship in the long run,” Guven says. The analyst says that Germany needs Russia in relation to several supply lines, from energy to rare earth metals. 

He adds that Germany is also not a country that can afford to live with constant political tensions with Russia. 

After mysterious explosions in the North Stream pipelines stopped gas flow from Russia to Germany, Berlin needed to find other suppliers to ensure its energy security as its economic situation deteriorated.

As a result, Germany desperately hopes to see the end of the Ukraine war, and in that sense, Pistorius’s appointment might make perfect sense to lay out Germany’s post-war planning, which was also recently pointed out by former Chancellor Angela Merkel, he says. 

Will Germany deliver Leopards? 

The biggest issue is whether Germany will be able to release its Leopard 2 tanks for use in Ukraine. 

Denmark, Finland and Poland – which bought the German tanks – have expressed readiness to send their Leopards to Ukraine if Berlin approves their re-export. 

Ukraine is pressing hard for Germany to supply its Leopard 2 tanks as it tries to push back Russian troops.
Ukraine is pressing hard for Germany to supply its Leopard 2 tanks as it tries to push back Russian troops. (AP)

During a critical meeting at the Ramstein Air Base this week, the US-led anti-Russia Western alliance called the Ukraine Defense Contact Group is expected to put more pressure on Germany to allow the countries to re-export their tanks to Kiev. 

But on Wednesday, senior German officials still resisted the delivery of Leopards, saying the US should take the lead by sending its Abrams tanks to Kiev first. 

The German establishment and the current government are “very hesitant when it comes to taking leadership” positions on Ukraine-related issues, like delivering tanks to Kiev, says Krieg. 

“Germany is not now and never going to take leadership on Ukraine. They are following and bandwagoning along the US and the UK that will likely continue under the new defence minister,” he says. 

Regarding delivering Leopards to Ukraine, Germany “needs its time to make up its mind” and will continue bandwagoning with European partners like France and the UK, says the defence analyst. “Quite likely, Germany will eventually decide to deliver tanks,” he says. “But it will not happen tomorrow.”

Germany is one of the leading supporters of Kiev, receiving the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, underlines Motika. Except for the far-right and far-left, main political parties, including the pacifist Greens, who have traditionally opposed arms exports, want to arm Ukraine with weapons, says Motika. 

The German professor believes that during the Ramstein meeting, Germany could green-light European countries’ request to send their Leopard tanks to Ukraine. 

“The German army does not have many tanks in its inventory,” says Motika. While Germany is Europe’s biggest economy, its army has long faced a shortage of men and machines.   

Reforming the army 

One of Pistorius’s “Herculean” tasks was to reform the country’s weak army, one of the leading forces during the two world wars. “Because Germans have long believed in peace rhetoric, there has been no real investment in the army,” says Motika. 

Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has also developed excellent relations with all of its neighbours, which are also EU-member states, making both the citizens and politicians think that they don’t need a powerful army,  leading to less and less investment in the military, says the German professor. “As a result, the German army is very weak.” 

But how can Pistorius fix that problem? 

“He is a disciplined man who can help the army gain some of its strength,” says Guven. Krieg also thinks similarly. Lambrecht, Pistorius’s predecessor, was not so willing or capable of implementing sweeping changes in the military announced by the Chancellor last year, he says. Pistorius will probably manage “a better implementation of this turnout in the German defence policy,” he says. 

“The German military has been mismanaged and underfunded for decades. A lot of inefficiencies in the military. So the country needs someone who is a doer and who is a kind of no-nonsense person. I think he is that kind of person, making the military more efficient,” says Krieg. 

Reforming the German army is not easy because it requires massive overhaul, restructuring and also rebranding of the military and its purpose, which is something Pistorius and the government need to sell to the sceptical public, says Krieg

“But that will also take years and years,” he adds. 

Source: TRT World