Home / Politics / A meeting in Germany approves more arms for Ukraine, but no Leopard tanks
Back

FOR MONTHS pressure has been building on Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, to sanction the transfer of Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. Made by a German firm, the tanks could substantially boost its defences. More than 2,000 of them sit in the arsenals of 13 European armies. Germany’s Bundeswehr operates around 350. Because of end-user export controls, none can be sent to Ukraine without a nod from Berlin.

Just such a nod was widely expected on January 20th, when some 50 senior Western officials, including Lloyd Austin, the American defence secretary, convened in person or online at Ramstein, an American base in Germany. Their brief was to co-ordinate and expand military aid to Ukraine, where the fighting has reached a crucial juncture in advance of probable spring offensives. But the nod never came. Instead Boris Pistorius, a German defence minister appointed only three days earlier (pictured, with General Mark Milley, chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff), stepped out to explain that since there had been no consensus on the Leopards, no decision had been made.

The failure to hand over the German tanks at this stage may prove only a minor factor in the nearly year-old war. Mr Pistorius suggested a decision might come soon, in days or perhaps weeks, and that other countries could already begin training Ukrainian troops on Leopards. And friends of Ukraine did respond generously to its pleas for all kinds of other military gear, from anti-aircraft systems to American Bradley and Stryker armoured fighting vehicles. Germany itself pledged €1bn-worth ($1.1bn) of extra weapons, bringing its military aid so far to €3.3bn.

Yet even if the tank hold-up does not end up hurting Ukraine much, such foot-dragging does hurt its ally Germany badly in diplomatic terms. Despite being Ukraine’s second-biggest supporter after America, both financially and militarily, Germany has paid a heavy reputational price for repeatedly appearing reluctant to pitch in on a war raging only one country away. Again and again Mr Scholz’s government has protested that it cannot send some type of weapon, only to eventually cave in.

Stopping even other allies from sending Leopards seems inexcusable to many of Ukraine’s champions. Mick Ryan, a retired Australian officer, wondered on his blog whether any "nation serious about its security in the 21st century will want to partner with the Germans". Poland has already said it may send Leopards from its own stocks, without Germany’s approval. Social-media wits have coined a new verb, “scholzing", meaning to show good intentions but weasel out of doing anything about them. Mr Austin was at pains to describe Germany as a “good ally". Asked whether it was doing enough to show leadership, he replied: “Yes, but we can all do more."

Mr Scholz has attracted ire not only from abroad. German policy pundits have grown increasingly exasperated. Recent opinion polls show that not only about half of Germans, but a 51% majority of voters for Mr Scholz’s own Social Democratic Party (and even more followers of the Greens and Liberals in his coalition) favour sending Leopards to Ukraine.

So what is the problem? Mr Scholz’s government has over time proffered different excuses. Early on it said Germany could not spare tanks because its own force has shrunk so much since the cold war. It has also said that training for, deploying and maintaining a modern Western tank force would be a logistical challenge for the Ukrainians, who are used to Soviet-era gear. More quietly and consistently, German officials have argued that they do not wish to pour too much oil on the fire: giving Ukraine too much of a boost could prompt Russia to escalate, which could in turn force NATO to enter the conflict directly. The most recent excuse has been that Germany will only act in concert with its allies. In this case that means sending main battle tanks once America pledges to do the same.

The arguments do not quite add up. Ukraine’s army has proved itself very capable of adopting and adapting new weapons systems. Much of the European Leopard fleet is clearly surplus to needs in countries far from a hostile front. Russia has escalated the war anyway. In terms of tanks, Britain has already committed to sending its comparable Challenger to Ukraine. And the Americans have a better technical argument that their Abrams tanks, which are immensely heavy, costly and hard to maintain, are not a suitable platform for Ukraine.

There is an underlying logic to Mr Scholz’s position. His detractors say that Germany’s chancellor, like much of his party’s old guard (and indeed much of Germany’s establishment), finds it hard to let go of an instinctive caution and diffidence towards Russia. Others say this is not fair; Mr Scholz’s inner circle are fully determined to fight back against the aggressor. It is just that they are committed to a “boil the frog" strategy whereby slow, calibrated boosts to Ukraine’s fighting ability draw Russia ever deeper into a losing war without sparking a wider (or even nuclear) confrontation.

That approach has proved remarkably successful so far. But as Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations notes, “Boiling the frog is a brilliant strategy, so long as you remember that it is not just Russia that is in the pot, but also Ukraine."

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

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

Catch all the Politics News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.
More Less

Recommended For You

Trending Stocks

×
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout