NATO members are right to send tanks to Ukraine

Germany on January 25, 2023 approved the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, after weeks of pressure from Kyiv and many allies. (File Photo: AFP)
Germany on January 25, 2023 approved the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, after weeks of pressure from Kyiv and many allies. (File Photo: AFP)


  • But their dithering has served no one except Vladimir Putin

EVERYBODY KNOWS that the second round of Ukraine’s war is coming. Everybody knows that the Ukrainians need tanks and long-range missiles to withstand the next Russian offensive and to take back the territory that is theirs. And everybody knows that, sooner or later, the West usually ends up giving Ukraine what it needs. 

That is why the latest round of “After you! No, after you!" has been so dismal and self-defeating. The fact that Ukraine is set to receive main battle tanks is welcome. But the way the decision came about prolonged Ukraine’s agony, damaged Western unity and benefited nobody except the man in the Kremlin. None of NATO’s actors comes out of the latest drama well, but Germany emerges worst.

Germany should deserve plaudits: including aid channelled via the European Union, it has given more military and financial help to Ukraine than any country bar America. But under its chancellor, Olaf Scholz, it has nonetheless contrived to appear reluctant and hesitant. Just before Russia’s looming invasion of Ukraine, its first instinct was to limit military aid to helmets. Mr Scholz’s caution has made it seem as if he was bounced into promising anti-missile systems by America. He pledged infantry-fighting vehicles in January, just after France had set a precedent. Most recently he has dithered over tanks.

Ukraine has been asking for German-made Leopards since day seven of the invasion, but Germany has not been willing to send any of its own, nor to give permission for other countries to re-export theirs. A long-overdue agreement on sending tanks had been hoped for when the Western allies gathered at Ramstein, an American base in Germany, on January 20th. But Mr Scholz scuppered that, only to yield on January 25th, after withering criticism from his allies, from within Germany and even from inside his own coalition. His government now pledges to send 14 Leopards to Ukraine, and to allow other countries to follow suit, a welcome 45th-birthday present for Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “It is right that we did not allow ourselves to be pushed, but chose…close co-operation with our allies," an unrepentant Mr Scholz told the Bundestag.

Other countries are not blameless. Until recently America dragged its feet on sending Abrams tanks, and France’s Emmanuel Macron has said only that he is “considering" sending Leclercs, after refusing them for many months. Britain, keen to set a precedent, did step up a couple of weeks ago, but it can spare only 12 or 14 Challengers and they will be of limited use, given that they lack a good supply chain of parts and ammunition in Europe. Poland, which has berated Germany most loudly, did not get around to formally asking for re-export permission until this week.

There is a sense in Germany that Mr Scholz has notched up a diplomatic victory. By digging in his heels, he has forced the Americans to offer 31 of its Abrams tanks. Neutral Switzerland, under German pressure, will now allow the use of Swiss-made ammunition. It is, some argue, a further success for Germany’s gradualist strategy, of increasing the calibre of arms supplies to Ukraine without provoking Russia into escalation.

To Germany’s allies, however, Mr Scholz does not look so clever. The Leopards are better suited to Ukraine than the Abrams, which are fuel-hungry and hard to maintain. The German-made tanks are speedy and powerful; most important, more than 2,000 of them already sit in the arsenals of 13 European armies. They could play a vital role in halting a new Russian push, and in punching a hole through the land bridge that connects Russia to occupied Crimea.

Mr Scholz’s diplomatic victory is therefore pyrrhic. It came at the cost of the first big public spat between Ukraine’s allies. And the chancellor blocked the best possible outcome, which would have been for Ukraine to have got more Leopards much sooner.

Furthermore, if Mr Scholz’s reluctance was a fear of escalation, his démarche does not make sense: his argument in recent days has been that he wanted America to supply tanks at the same time as Germany. A darker calculation is that the chancellor knows that when the war eventually ends, Russia will remain a large and powerful presence in Europe. Perhaps he wants to stay on reasonable terms with it. But this way of thinking ought to have been utterly discredited by Russia’s repeated invasions of its neighbours, in 2008, 2014 and 2022.

Many will say this explanation of Mr Scholz’s hesitation is too cynical. A more charitable one would be a deep aversion to the spectacle of German tanks once again heading east, towards Kharkiv and Kursk. This is understandable, but wrong-headed. In 1941 German invaders entered Russia. This time the invaders are Russian. There is no equivalence between helping a victim defend itself and committing an act of aggression. Any Germans who confuse the two have learned the wrong lesson from their country’s terrible history.

Mr Scholz’s claim to European leadership was bolstered just after the invasion, when he declared a Zeitenwende, a turning-point in Germany’s strategic outlook. Yet it is Mr Biden who emerges looking the statesman, for having yielded to preserve transatlantic unity when so much was at stake. Mr Scholz, by contrast, endangered it, and squandered Germany’s diplomatic gains by approving Leopards so grudgingly.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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