Germany’s hesitation over the tanks was caused by more than just the weight of history. The logic in Berlin seemed to be that too much military assistance from the West to Ukraine could provoke Vladimir Putin to become even nastier.
After weeks of deliberation and intense international pressure, Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally announced last Wednesday that Germany will be sending much-needed Leopard 2 tanks to help Ukraine in its efforts to defend itself against Russian aggression. For months, NATO had appeared to be in disarray because of Germany’s vacillations. Just days before the announcement, there had been a meeting of NATO and defence leaders from 50 countries, held at the American Air Base in Ramstein, Germany. This was the latest in a series of arms-pledging conferences since Russia invaded 11 months ago, and European leaders had pressed Germany to give the green light for delivery of the German-made tanks to Ukraine to drive back Russia’s forces. Discussions had been taking place for weeks between the defence ministers, and many had expected an agreement at the meeting. But, no. All Germany could say at the time came from its defence minister, Boris Pistorius: ‘There are good reasons for the deliveries, and there are good reasons against them. ‘All pros and cons must be weighed very carefully’, he added, without elaborating on these reasons.
Defence experts consider the Leopard 2 tanks to be especially suitable for Ukraine and argue that they could lead to Kyiv quickly taking back the land grabbed by Russia early in the invasion. More than 2,000 Leopard tanks sit in the arsenals of 13 European armies, and Germany’s Bundeswehr operates around 350. They are optimised for use against Russia’s T90 tanks, having greater mobility, accuracy, and firepower. Kyiv has requested 300 Leopard tanks from the West, which they argue would allow them to create an armoured brigade that could serve as a spearhead of a force that could break through those Russian defences down towards the captured city of Mariupol, thus isolating Crimea. However, timing is of the essence, as Russia is expected to launch a renewed effort in the spring as weather conditions improve.
Most NATO members have been generous and timely in sending urgently needed weapons to Kyiv. But some have been dilatory, even resistant, in responding to all of Ukraine’s urgent needs. Two of the wealthiest and most militarily powerful nations, the US and Germany, while providing impressively large amounts of military aid, have been reluctant to send the most effective weapons Kyiv has desperately requested, or even allow other nations to send them.
Germany’s hesitancy here can be summed up in one word: ‘history’. Ever since the defeat of Nazism seventy-eight years ago, Germany has self-consciously devoted itself to promoting peace and integrating into an European and trans-Atlantic security order where consensus has been the byword. President Putin’s sudden and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine eleven months ago forced Berlin to rethink decades-old ideas about its place in Europe, its relationship with Russia, and the use of military force. The issue of its successful Leopard 2 main battle tank has exposed Germany’s current dilemma on how to respond to the war and the deep ambivalence in a nation with a catastrophic history of aggression during World War II.
While Germans overwhelmingly support Ukraine in its fight to defend its homeland, recent opinion polls reveal that half of the population does not want to send tanks. “Germans want to be seen as a partner, not an aggressor’’, said the president of the American Council on Germany, Steven Sokol. ‘’They have a particular sensitivity to delivering arms in regions where German arms were historically used to kill millions of people’’, he added. Others disagree. ‘’The German position is profoundly confused’’, said Oxford history professor Timothy Garton Ash in an interview with the BBC last week. ‘’The old thinking is dead, and the new is not yet born’’, he added.
The problem for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, however, was that his hesitancy risked isolating Germany as well as exasperating his NATO allies. Heavy diplomatic pressure had been building on Berlin not only to send tanks but, if they were not prepared to do so, to at least allow countries that bought them to re-export them to Ukraine. As the producer of the Leopard tanks, Germany has end-user export control, and none could be sent to Ukraine without a nod from Berlin. Its refusal to make a decision had increased frustration in Kyiv and its allies.‘’Germany’s attitude is unacceptable’’, said Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, last week before Schulz’s announcement. ‘’It has been almost a year since the war began. Innocent people are dying every day’’, he continued. ‘’Russian bombs are wreaking havoc in Ukrainian cities. Civilian targets are being attacked, women and children are being murdered.’’ He went on: ‘’I try to weigh my words but I’ll say it bluntly. Ukraine and Europe will win this war – with or without Germany’’. Poland had announced it was ready to deliver 14 Leopard tanks to Kyiv, and, if Germany continued to refuse, Morawiecki had threatened to set up a ‘small coalition’ of countries ready to donate some of their Leopard tanks to Kyiv. Upping pressure on Berlin, the foreign ministers of the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in a joint statement last week also urged Germany ‘’to provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine now’’.
Germany’s hesitation over the tanks was caused by more than just the weight of history. The logic in Berlin seemed to be that too much military assistance from the West to Ukraine could provoke Vladimir Putin to become even nastier. Putin preys on weakness and invaded Ukraine not because he feared it was becoming too strong, or even posed a military threat to Russia, which it didn’t. The real reason was that he judged wrongly that the West was too feeble to help Ukraine. In any case, he fully expected Russian forces to seize Kyiv in a few days and Western allies to do almost nothing in response, just as happened in 2014 when he seized Crimea. Armed with this experience, Western allies now agree that it is essential to be firm when facing up to bullies and that Germany dithering on Leopards risked sending a message to the Kremlin that Western support for Ukraine was not rock-solid. That, in turn, could have been a greater risk. Failing to stand up forcefully to Putin is a surer way to encourage him to be more aggressive, which is why the countries on Russia’s western border are so insistent that Russia must fail in its aggression. They fear they will be next in Putin’s sights.
So now, Ukraine will get about 100 Leopard 2 tanks delivered in the next month or two, not only from Germany, but also from Norway, Poland, Spain, and the Netherlands. The UK will be sending 14 Challenger tanks. Even better for Kyiv, the US simultaneously announced that it would send 31 of its world-class M1 Abrambattle tanks to Ukraine, in a deal that appeared to unlock Chancellor Scholz’s problem. Announcing his decision, US President Joe Biden said Vladimir Putin had expected Europe and the US to ‘‘weaken our resolve. He was wrong from the beginning, and continues to be wrong’’, he said, emphasising that ‘‘this is about helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land. It is not an offensive threat to Russia’’.
Russia predictably condemned the announcement as a ‘’blatant provocation’’. The tanks would ‘’burn like all the rest’’, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. ‘’They are just very expensive’’.
Maybe, but the most alluring potential of these tanks is that, if they are as successful as the hype implies, they could eventually put Kyiv in a position to dictate ceasefire and peace terms to Moscow. That would be in everyone’s interests. Except, of course, for the dictator in the Kremlin.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.