German Defense Minister Vows Stronger Geopolitical Role Ahead of U.S. Visit

In an interview before his first official visit to Washington, Germany’s defense minister staked out a broad geopolitical vision, taking pains to indicate that his country is ready to assume a more assertive stance in the face of growing international instability.

The defense minister, Boris Pistorius, laid out plans for Germany to increase its arms deliveries and take a more robust role in both the Indo-Pacific region and in military leadership in Europe. He spoke to The New York Times before traveling to meet his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, as well as the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Wednesday in Washington.

The minister has been a part of Germany’s effort to change allies’ perceptions of his country as reluctant to take up leadership in Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — a view fostered by its slow initial pace in delivering weapons to Kyiv and its stumbling efforts to fulfill a pledge to revitalize its own military.

Mr. Pistorius’s candor when discussing such topics has made him one of Germany’s most popular politicians, even when he sometimes goes further than some Germans, still haunted by their country’s World War II history, find comfortable.

The main objective of the U.S. trip is to discuss the situation in Ukraine and Russia, and how to maintain European and NATO security as the war drags on.

But Mr. Pistorius, keen to cement ties with Washington amid European concerns that U.S. interest in supporting Ukraine could wane, also projected a willingness to help challenge China by supporting American efforts to engage with countries like India, which could serve as a counterbalance to Beijing. Taking a tougher stance on China, still one of Germany’s critical economic partners, has been especially fraught since the country dipped into recession early this year.

Here are some highlights of the interview:

In Germany, as in the rest of Europe, many officials worry about what will happen to trans-Atlantic relations as the U.S. presidential election campaign heats up, and express concerns that their most critical ally’s interest in supporting Europe, and the war in Ukraine, could wane.

Mr. Pistorius said that he aimed to promote stronger ties with Washington by showing greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

“We also see European responsibility for the Indo-Pacific,” he said, describing it as “in the interest of supporting our partners,” in the region, whether that was the United States or other allies like Japan or India.

Germany must help in the South China Sea to “ensure that the rules-based international order and international law continue to be observed, and that freedom of navigation and freedom of trade routes continue to apply in the future,” he said. China has staked claims to much of the sea, raising concerns among Washington and its regional allies.

While he hopes to increase Germany’s involvement in the region, Mr. Pistorius stressed that his country was not seeking to establish itself as a military power there: “We are too far away, and not anchored for that.”

Like Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, the defense minister has stressed the need for deeper engagement with non-Western allies, who have faced pressure to join in confronting China and Russia, but who he argued need to be offered more in return.

On a recent visit to India, Mr. Pistorius spoke with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, about easing the process for weapons purchases. That a German minister could even propose such an idea shows how much things have changed in the country since the invasion of Ukraine. As part of what Mr. Scholz named a “Zeitenwende” or “turning point,” Berlin has pledged not only a revitalization of its military but also a readiness to abandon its postwar legacy of pacifist foreign policy.

“I am convinced this means we should supply more arms deliveries. We have to talk about that in Germany and change the corresponding restrictions,” Mr. Pistorius said. “This does not mean that we want to flood the world with German weapons. It still has to be done with a sense of proportion.”

Although he has received some criticism for his outreach to Mr. Modi, given some of the Indian leader’s policies, Mr. Pistorius argues that countries like India are needed to counter rivals like Russia and China.

  • Germany is hesitant to provide new weapons systems to Ukraine beyond those already sent, arguing that the focus should be on improving the ability to repair arms Germany has provided, and increasing production of ammunition and spare parts.

“It is now a question of: How can we establish sustainability?” Mr. Pistorius said, arguing that it was more important now to create a smooth, functioning system for the repair and resupply of munitions for the guided missiles and tanks already sent to Ukraine. “That is what is crucial now.”

He cited progress in establishing repair lines, including two facilities in Poland that he said would soon be ready to repair the German-made Leopard tanks that Berlin and other allies provide.

  • In taking up a stronger leadership stance in Europe, Mr. Pistorius also promoted Germany’s air defense system proposal, despite tensions with France over the plan.

Earlier this week, Mr. Pistorius announced a reversal of Germany’s longstanding hesitation to permanently station troops in Lithuania. Germany now plans to place 4,000 more troops there, on NATO’s eastern flank — on the condition that Lithuania build critical infrastructure for them, which critics note could still take years to unfold.

The efforts to boost Germany’s leadership have included its recent hosting of large air power exercises for allies, its efforts to establish a consortium to provide and maintain more German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine and its proposal to move forward on a defensive air shield system for Europe.

Mr. Scholz’s air defense proposal has led to tensions with France because it includes the procurement of U.S. and Israeli-made air defense systems, such as the surface-to-air Patriot system, and not only European weapons. Seventeen countries have joined Germany’s initiative, including Britain and some Baltic States.

France, in turn, is attracting other countries to join its own defense strategy. Paris argues that, with no direct threat to NATO, Europe can wait until its own missiles and fighter jets are ready.

“What we are saying is: We do not have that much time, because we are under threat,” Mr. Pistorius said.

Still, he insisted this would not stoke conflict. France could still join the German-led initiative, or continue on its current course: “In the end there will be a joint protective shield,” he said, “which will then consist of two parts.”

When it came to revamping the military, Germany’s Zeitenwende process appeared to lag behind for nearly a year, despite the special budget. Officials blamed a bloated procurement system, labyrinthine bureaucracy and the hesitancy of Mr. Pistorius’s predecessor, Christine Lambrecht.

Mr. Pistorius said his ministry has now managed to pare back bottlenecks, with the time to complete procurement orders for Leopard tanks and self-propelled howitzers, for example. cut down from nearly one year to four months.

But the most important indication, he said, is that “by the end of this year we will have committed about 60 percent of the special budget” to signed orders, or orders about to be signed.

He also said he was paying close attention to the recent developments in Russia after the brief revolt by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner private military company. In particular, he said he was looking to see what dynamic Belarus, which brokered an end to the mutiny, could now play in the conflict.

“We should be careful about jumping to conclusions,” Mr. Pistorius said. “It is unclear, for example, what the consequences of Belarus’s increasing involvement in events will be. One thing is certain: We are keeping an eye on what is happening and are contributing our strength through the allied deterrence efforts.”

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

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