Poland wants to send its German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, but needs German approval. Photo by STR/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
BERLIN – Olaf Scholz really, really doesn’t want to send battle tanks to Ukraine. That is the essence of German arms export policy once you cut back on the flimsy excuses. One of the more recent was Berlin’s insistence on only sending its Leopard 2 tanks, or allowing them to be exported by European partners like Poland, if the US sent its own tanks.
A new apology was issued today (January 20) at the summit of Kiev’s allies at the US air base in Ramstein, West Germany. Boris Pistorius, Scholz’s new defense minister, told reporters that no decision had yet been made on sending the leopards, but that the government would start cataloging its stocks of them. As tempting as it is to be drawn into the mystery of why it took the German government 11 months of all-out war in Europe to begin this exercise, the simple reality is that Berlin is consciously and intentionally stalling.
When Christine Lambrecht resigned as Defense Secretary this week, many European capitals (and Washington) breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently not up to the role – or even particularly committed to it – she had become an embarrassment. But as I wrote in my New Statesman column this week, it has always been disappointing to attribute Berlin’s laxity in arms exports to Kyiv to a poor cabinet appointment. German reluctance to help Ukraine make further progress in reclaiming its territory from Russia has always been more than that.
Scholz is not stupid. Neither did Pistorius. Neither does Lambrecht, by the way. The German Chancellor sincerely believes that supporting Ukraine beyond the mere diplomatic minimum would be a dangerous provocation by Russia. Those close to him are less worried about how Ukraine can repel Vladimir Putin’s attack than about how relations with Moscow can be restored and stabilized after the peace talks. Such instincts run deep. They draw from everything from the deep, romantic German affinity for Russia to a misremembered account of Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in the 1970s (which actually combined diplomatic detente towards the Soviet bloc with a steely commitment to West Germany’s defense skills ). A deep German fear of nuclear weapons, also rooted in the country’s Cold War past, also haunts the Chancellery. (To learn more on the subject, see the New Statesman’s interview with one of Ukraine’s top defense officials, Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, to be published next week. Danilov discusses, among other things, the roots of the German Fear of Russia.)
But Germany’s approach is misguided on several fronts. For one thing, it completely overlooks the possibility – nay, the likelihood – that stemming Ukraine’s advance could pose its own dangers, that even Western “restraint” can lead to an escalation, that an emboldened Putin is likely to turn out to be even more ruthless would prove to be a humiliated Putin.
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Even with Berlin’s narrow definition of its own interests, it’s a dead end. The rest of Europe is starting to steer around Germany. On Wednesday evening, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a radio interview that he could send the tanks without German consent. “Consents are secondary here, we will either obtain these consents quickly or do what is necessary ourselves.” Sympathy for this view is present in large parts of Eastern and Northern Europe and will increase if Scholz’s government, as now seems likely, continues hesitates. But the pattern – of moving in a Germany that just doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with events – is broader. On Jan. 19, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, and Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, signed a key treaty in Barcelona, a clear sign that Paris is losing patience with its relatively fruitless alliance with Berlin and is trying to sidestep it.
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That reality has yet to sink in here in the German capital, where the notion that the rest of Europe might have to outpace the lumbering Germanic giant all too rarely crosses the minds of influential minds. This is a city where it is often assumed that issuing twangy declarations of “responsibility” and “lessons of history” is the same as actually acting on it. Germany’s intransigence is a betrayal of both, reshaping the geometry of European power and cooperation. Far from being Europe’s leading country, it is emerging as the great roadblock at the heart of the continent.