The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Germany is refusing to send tanks to Ukraine. Biden cannot let this stand.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stands next to a Leopard 2 main battle tank while visiting an army training center in Ostenholz, Germany, in October 2022. (David Hecker/Getty Images)
5 min

Vladimir Putin launched his illegal invasion of Ukraine 11 months ago not only believing he would quickly subjugate Ukraine but also on the assumption that the Western alliance was too weak and divided to put up a united front to thwart him. Both expectations proved disastrously wrong — until Friday, when Germany’s refusal to approve the transfer of dozens of heavy battle tanks to Ukraine opened the first serious crack in what had been NATO’s solid front.

That fissure needs to be quickly patched. Left unresolved, the Kremlin’s dictator is certain to try to exploit it, not only on the battlefield but also in the parallel conflict zone of European public opinion.

A grandmother is still missing after a Russian missile hit her home in Dnipro, Ukraine on January 14. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Serhii Korolchuk/The Washington Post)

In addition to Western sanctions against Russia, which will take an increasing toll on the Russian economy and undercut its resupply of high-tech weapons over time, military aid for Ukraine has been key to Ukraine’s survival and ability to blunt Moscow’s superior numbers of troops on the battlefield. Germany has given Ukraine more military aid than any country but the United States and Britain.

The fact of Germany’s multibillion dollar commitment is testament to the remarkable recalibration in Berlin’s thinking that occurred immediately after Russia’s invasion. Having pursued one decades-long strategy toward Moscow — promoting economic partnerships and codependence based on the premise that such a policy would render a European war unthinkable — Chancellor Olaf Scholz executed an abrupt about-face days after Russian troops and armor flooded into Ukraine. He announced a major long-term increase in German military spending and made clear Berlin would stand with its NATO allies against an unprovoked war of aggression.

That was a credit to what appeared to be a clear-eyed assessment of the existential threat to the Western order posed by Mr. Putin’s brazen assault on a sovereign nation. Mr. Scholz understood clearly that Ukraine’s only “sin” was aspiring to be a fully European nation — democratic, pluralistic, tolerant and modern. And he understood that if Russia were granted impunity after invading a big European country such as Ukraine, smaller European countries were also at risk from Mr. Putin’s imperial fantasies.

But that message has apparently not been fully received by a portion of Germany’s coalition government and its public. Polls suggest that while German support generally for Ukraine remains relatively high — though less so than in other Western countries — it is split almost equally on the question of sending German-made main battle tanks to Ukraine.

Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks, several thousand of which are in the arsenals of its NATO allies around Europe, are the best such options for Ukraine’s use. They are far more numerous than British Challenger 2 tanks, about 14 of which are being delivered to Ukraine, and more suitable for Ukrainian terrain and maintenance abilities than the United States’ top-of-the-line battle tank, the M1 Abrams. Several European countries with Leopards in their arsenals have signaled they are ready to ship them immediately to Ukraine, including NATO members Poland and Denmark, as well as Finland, which has applied to join the alliance. But those shipments must first be approved by Germany, which insisted on a right-to-refusal in its arms sale contracts.

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Mr. Scholz is sacrificing sound strategy on the altar of political calculation by wavering in the face of opposition from some political allies and a segment of the German electorate. It is a misjudgment that cannot stand.

Some officials in Berlin have suggested they would send Leopards to Ukraine if the Biden administration goes first, and provides political cover, by sending some U.S.-made Abrams tanks to Kyiv. Washington has so far been reluctant to do that, regarding the gargantuan, gas-guzzling Abrams, which requires constant maintenance, as a poor fit with Ukraine’s terrain and capabilities. That might be an accurate technical assessment.

Yet if sending some Abrams tanks is the key to breaking the impasse on a potentially much greater shipment of Leopards, President Biden should give his assent. He should do so not only to add muscle to Ukraine’s arsenal at what is likely to be a decisive moment in the war, but also to maintain Western resolve and unity in the face of the gravest threat it has faced in more than a generation.

Ukraine, whose own supply of Soviet-made battle tanks has dwindled as the war has dragged on, is in an existential fight. Its struggle is also a crucible for Europe and an assault against the most basic precept on which the Western system rests: the impermissibility of unprovoked wars of aggression. Tanks alone will not win that war. Ukraine also needs large numbers of lighter fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, howitzers, modern air defense systems and a constant resupply of artillery shells, which it has been using at a rate of roughly 3,000 per day. Still, the top Ukrainian military commander has said Ukraine needs 300 Western-made battle tanks, which would be a formidable component in Kyiv’s ability not just to hold its own lines but also to push Russia back from territory it has occupied illegally.

Moscow is gearing up for a major spring offensive, expected to start in the next two months. Ukraine might launch one of its own. What is at stake is not only Ukraine’s survival, but also leadership and clear-eyed thinking in Washington and Berlin. Germany’s hesitation is a critical challenge to Western unity, and Mr. Biden cannot sit pat in the face of it.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).