Boris Pistorius, the new German defense minister, speaks with The Washington Post in Brussels on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

Boris Pistorius, the new German defense minister, speaks with The Washington Post in Brussels on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (Marin Driguez/Agence VU for The Washington Post)

Despite trumpeting a huge boost in defense spending in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Germany's armed forces are in a worse place than a year ago, the country's new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, said in an interview this week.

Germany is not alone among Ukraine's allies that are struggling to fill the gap created by deliveries to Kyiv, and the military's operational readiness has only been impacted "to a limited extent," the defense minister said on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Brussels, in his first interview with an English-language newspaper since taking office last month.

But it may be some time before the vision of a strengthened German military is realized.

"Given the rate at which materiel and weapons and ammunition are being provided, it's impossible to reorder and deliver again," Pistorius said.

The pressure points are similar in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Many allies who have helped supply Ukraine's military are now expressing unease about the dent to their strategic assets. Of particular concern is ammunition: Ukraine has been firing as many as 7,000 artillery shells a day, which is more than European industry has the capability to manufacture.

But in Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz had raised expectations that he would revitalize the country's beleaguered armed forces with a special 100-billion-euros fund as he announced a shift in defense policy just days after Russia's Feb. 24 invasion. Instead, German donations to Ukraine have further diminished the supplies of its long neglected armed forces, bureaucracy has slowed replenishment and the fund has been eroded by inflation and interest payments.

And now, as other European countries have stepped up purchases, arms manufacturers can't fill new orders quickly.

The task of turning things around falls to Pistorius, 62, the former interior minister of the German state of Lower Saxony, now thrown into the national and international spotlight and lobbying for more money to do it. Pistorius said he is pushing for an increase of up to 10 billion euros for defense in Germany's annual 50-billion-euro budget next year, "but also in subsequent years" to cover expanding running costs.

In Scholz's "turning point" speech last year, the injection for the Bundeswehr, the German military, came hand-in-hand with a decision to arm Ukraine, breaking a German taboo of sending weapons to an active war zone. "The goal is a powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr that can be relied upon to protect us," he said then, announcing a revitalization of the German military.

Since then, after dithering and a storm of bad publicity, Berlin has gradually increased its military support to Kyiv, committing more than $2.5 billion, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy's tracker.

Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said the deal for Ukraine's allies is a fair one. "You give us everything we need to fight, and we fight, not you," he said. "Whatever the price of giving weapons to Ukraine is, the price for the same countries to send their own troops into any battle is much, much higher."

Still, the fear remains that this war could spill beyond Ukraine's borders. And even in the face of that threat, Germany has remained slow to spend on its beleaguered forces.

A promise to dedicate at least 2% of the country's gross domestic product to defense — "now, year after year," Scholz had said — has been pedaled back. The government aims to meet the 2% target in the next "few years," Pistorius said.

"A complete year has been lost now in a situation in which we have a major war directly in Europe," said Joachim Weber, a security expert at Bonn University's Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies. He estimated that Germany could fight for only about two days with its current ammunition supplies.

As months have passed, more than 10% of a special 100-billion-euro fund for the military has been lost to inflation and interest payments. And even the Bundeswehr wish list derived from before the war remains unfulfilled.

"Many things that were considered important suddenly went off the list," said Ralph Thiele, a retired colonel and chairman of the Berlin-based Political-Military Society, which aims to bring together policymakers and industry.

Industry representatives have urged the German government to place orders, to avoid falling to the back of a growing line.

Speaking earlier this week, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said waiting times for large caliber weapons have gone from 12 to 28 months and that orders placed now will be delivered in 2½ years. Rheinmetall, the producer of the gun for the Leopard 2 tank, says it has a backlog approaching 40 billion euros.

Production capacity is limited, because, until recently, demand had been relatively low, said Hans Christoph Atzpodien, head of the German Security and Defense Industry Association. "We thought that we would never end up again in the situation of war in Europe."

"We need firm orders, long term orders," he said. So far, industry offers for ammunition production to the Bundeswehr "were not taken," he added.

Some blame has been aimed at former defense minister Christine Lambrecht, who resigned last month after a string of blunders and amid criticism she'd done little to replenish German stocks.

Pistorius said he does not want to dwell on what might have been done earlier: "I am responsible now, and we are doing everything we can to do what is necessary as quickly as possible."

A priority, he has said, is speeding up procurement. He said new ammunition orders have been submitted. There have also been discussions with arms manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann about replacing the 14 Leopard 2 tanks Germany has pledged to Ukraine with upgraded models, he said.

"We have to top up, on the one hand," Pistorius said. "And, at the same time, provide Ukraine with maximum support. And this, against the backdrop of industry resupply times."

The security challenges triggered by Russia's war, and to what extent Europe is rising to meet them, will be a major theme as world leaders and defense and security experts gather in Germany on Friday for the annual Munich Security Conference.

In Poland, where the threat of the war next door is more existential, weapon deliveries to Kyiv have been accompanied by a defense spending spree. The country has said it will spend 3% of its GDP on defense this year, as it updates its equipment and aims to create "the strongest land force in Europe."

Britain, the second-largest donor of military assistance to Ukraine, recently pledged to send a squadron of 14 Challenger 2 tanks. In a recent memo leaked to British media outlets, army Gen. Patrick Sanders, chief of the general staff, said there was "no better cause" than sending military hardware to Ukraine, but warned the effort will make Britain "temporarily weaker."

Other countries have held back donations amid concerns about strategic stocks.

Pistorius has said that Germany — after greenlighting that German-made Leopard 2 tanks could be sent to Ukraine — is struggling to get meaningful commitments from other European countries. The hope had been for allies to contribute enough for two battalions, equivalent to at least 70 tanks. Germany has chided the others for not following through, after many of them blamed Berlin for holding up deliveries.

While trying to equip Ukraine ahead of an anticipated Russian offensive, Pistorius is also trying to assess the German military's situation.

"A hundred billion [euros], in the long run, won't be enough to do what everyone says must be done," he acknowledged. More than $10 billion is needed to replace the country's nuclear-capable Tornado fighter jets, which entered service in the 1970s and are now too old to take part in NATO missions with F-35s from Lockheed Martin.

But the fund does not cover basics such as money for ammunition. This is a force that has been using outdated analog radios that prevent German soldiers from communicating with other NATO troops. The state of the Bundeswehr is such that it had to send its decades-old Marder infantry fighting vehicles to Lithuania to fulfill its NATO commitments — after the modern Pumas it was supposed to deliver broke down during training.

In view of the developing situation, Pistorius said Germany would look again at how funds have been allocated. "It is crucial that we quickly obtain the important things we need in the short term," he said.

The German government has so far ruled out passing its Tornados onto Ukraine. Because of training complexities, it makes sense for Ukraine to have a more widely used jet, Pistorius said.

Some experts said that the delivery of the Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine this spring will further constrain Germany's already limited operational capacity, with a tank fleet of just 300.

"If you deliver stuff from the Bundeswehr, you have to immediately order new stuff," said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a lawmaker with Germany's Free Democrats and head of parliament's defense and security committee. "It's not a supermarket, you need time."

She said not everyone had embraced the urgency: "There are some colleagues that still need time to realize it's not the Bolshoi Ballet dancing 'Swan Lake' in Ukraine, it's a hard, terrible war."

And there's the crippling effect of German "perfectionism" and achingly slow bureaucracy. Experts say the back-and-forth between the Defense Ministry, military planners and manufacturers stretches far longer than necessary, as procurers strive for "gold-rimmed" supplies.

Pistorius said expectations on specifications are now more realistic. "We're looking where we can dismantle bureaucratic hurdles," he said. "But all of this also takes time."

Morris reported from Brussels and Berlin. Brady reported from Berlin and Stern from Kyiv. The Washington Post’s Karla Adam in London and Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

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