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BERLIN/DAVOS – International efforts to ship modern tanks to Ukraine may depend on Germany – but it is waiting for the US to act first, which is not happening.
Ahead of a meeting of Western defense ministers this Friday at the US Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is being goaded into helping Ukraine procure Germany’s top Leopard 2 tanks in anticipation of a possible spring offensive. The reason: In addition to overseeing his own fleet of Leopard tanks — and Europe’s largest economy — Scholz has to approve donations from other countries for the German-made tanks.
There is an expectation that Germany will soon allow at least allies like Poland and Finland to send their Leopards to Kyiv. And officials and diplomats in Berlin say the chancellor might even offer to help Ukraine train and maintain the Leopards.
But that is probably the furthest that Germany is currently going to achieve. Unless, of course, the US is also willing to send tanks. Scholz hinted as much on Wednesday and kept a low profile on the issue when he was pressured at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“We are [among] those who do the most” on military aid to Ukraine, the Chancellor said, cataloging almost four minutes of military hardware that Berlin has already delivered or will soon deliver, from air defense systems to Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
“We never do anything alone, but together with others, especially the United States, which is very important in this common task of defending Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty,” he added.
It’s a line German officials have been repeating in recent days: Berlin’s decision to use Leopard tanks is linked to American willingness to send M1 Abrams tanks of its own. But as President Joe Biden’s administration prepares to announce a major new US arms package for Ukraine on Friday, the aid is unlikely to include American tanks.
This worries European leaders like Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who wants to form a broad alliance of countries that will each supply a few Leopards to Ukraine, forming a large battle group of tanks.
So far only Finland has publicly raised the possibility of participating in such a programme. Many other countries appear to be holding back as long as mighty Germany stays on guard.
Spain, for example, which has over 200 Leopard 2 tanks, has already stated that the question of sending some of these tanks to Ukraine “is not on the table as we speak here today,” as Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said on Tuesday Tuesday in Davos said .
But EU diplomats say countries like Spain would find it difficult to sustain such a line if Berlin — and Washington — changed course.
Looking for a leader
The pressure on Scholz increased after Great Britain announced last weekend that it would send its own Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace will convene a meeting with Eastern European and Baltic defense ministers in Estonia on Thursday to further increase pressure on Berlin.
Western officials fear Ukraine has little time before Russia launches a new, broader offensive against Ukraine | Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP via Getty Images
The French are also considering sending their own Leclerc tanks to Ukraine to give Berlin a common framework for tank transport.
“The issue is complicated and has not yet been clarified in Paris. But we’re considering it,” a French official told POLITICO before nodding to an upcoming meeting on Sunday. “We will see what is decided at the joint Franco-German cabinet meeting.”
Western officials fear Ukraine has little time before Russia launches a new, broader offensive against Ukraine, potentially requiring late-game tank deliveries to bolster Kiev’s defenses.
“Scholz has been warning for months against going it alone when it comes to arms deliveries to Ukraine,” says Katja Leikert, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the CDU, the country’s largest opposition party. “But now he’s doing just that: his reluctance to have European allies deliver Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv is dangerously solo.”
She told POLITICO: “Germany should play a leading role in a European coalition of states that supplies Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine.
Strong criticism also comes from the Greens, a small coalition partner in the Scholz-led Social Democrats. In a thinly veiled push to send tanks to Ukraine, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party said earlier this week that she hoped Friday’s Ramstein meeting “will set in motion decisions that will help Ukraine to attract more people.” to free”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Davos that the “main message” of the Ramstein meeting will be to provide “further support, heavier weapons and more modern weaponry”.
Pressure on Germany to do more also came from Strasbourg on Wednesday. The European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on Scholz to form an international coalition to deploy leopards “without further delay”. And EU Council President Charles Michel told MEPs: “The time is now. Ukraine needs more military equipment. I strongly support the supply of tanks.”
A possible gesture by Scholz to help train Leopards or set up the supply chain for maintenance, as raised by officials and diplomats in Berlin on Wednesday, could be of some significance given that the tanks are made in Germany .
“In general, the availability of spare parts and a secured logistical supply is crucial for the effectiveness of the main battle tank system, including for example recovery tanks to recover damaged tanks,” said Georg Löfflmann, assistant professor of war studies at Warwick University.
General Rajmund Andrzejczak, chief of the General Staff of Poland’s armed forces, told POLITICO on Wednesday that Ukrainians could be quickly trained to use Western tanks and urged Kiev’s partners to avoid unnecessary delays.
“This is a crucial battle point right now,” he said, noting Russian efforts in Soledar and Bakhmut. “So it’s now or never. If we don’t broadcast, if we talk too much, bureaucracy, some delays – it might be too late.”
Alexander Ward and Suzanne Lynch contributed reports from Davos. Lara Seligman and Paul McLeary contributed reports from Washington. Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting from London. Gregorio Sorgi contributed the reporting from Brussels.