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Why is Germany under pressure to send tanks to Ukraine?

NATO Secretary General and German defense minister said on Jan. 24 that a solution to the Ukraine Leopard 2 tanks issue would come "soon." (Video: Reuters)
8 min

The outcome of Ukraine’s increasing push for Western battle tanks depends in large part on Germany.

For months, Kyiv has implored Western allies to send battle tanks to help it retake territory Russia has captured in Ukraine’s south and east. After nearly a year of war, Ukrainian officials insist Western-made tanks — and one type in particular, the German-made Leopard 2 — could be the missing element.

The calculus behind which weapons and systems Western allies are willing to send has been continually in flux as battlefield conditions shift, as Ukrainian capabilities — and the trust of its allies — increase and as Western powers adjust their thinking on what moves would risk intolerable escalation with Russia, which has made nuclear threats.

Earlier this month, Britain became the first country to promise Western-produced main battle tanks to Ukraine. The prime minister’s office said Britain would send 14 Challenger 2 tanks in the coming weeks — a small allotment but one that could pressure other potential contributor countries. But Britain doesn’t have many tanks to spare. The United States has held off sending its own M1 Abrams tanks, citing concerns about Ukraine’s ability to maintain them.

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That has shifted attention to Germany’s Leopards, around 2,000 of which are scattered across Europe. Poland and Finland say they want to send some of their Leopards to Ukraine. The catch: Under deals with purchasers, the German government has to give permission for transfer, and has so far shown reluctance to do so.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki indicated Monday that Warsaw would formally seek Berlin’s approval after Germany signaled its openness. Previously, Poland had said that it would be willing to send Leopards, without our without Germany’s approval.

Signs of a shift from Berlin emerged Tuesday, with German media outlets reporting that Germany has decided to deliver at least one company of its own Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to grant permission for other nations to do the same.

Here’s what to know about Germany’s stance on military aid:

For Ukraine, what’s so special about Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks?

Why does Germany get to decide if other countries can send Leopard tanks to Ukraine?

Manufactured in Germany and first introduced in 1979, the Leopard 2 main battle tank is considered one of the best in the world. It is a key piece of equipment for more than a dozen European militaries, plus Canada and Turkey.

Ukraine’s foreign and defense ministers reiterated their plea Thursday to be supplied with Leopards, “for the sake of millions of peaceful citizens of Ukraine.” They promised that Ukrainian forces would use the weapons only within their country’s internationally recognized borders — an assurance meant to assuage fears of escalation.

Main battle tanks are heavier and more powerful than infantry fighting vehicles, and they are meant to engage other tanks and break through enemy lines. The armored combat vehicles the United States and Germany have already pledged are meant primarily to transport and support infantry.

But because the tanks are made in Germany, other countries that have purchased them must get permission from Berlin to transfer them to third countries. The approval decision lies with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Some European officials and analysts have called on Germany to join a consortium of countries that would each contribute a few Leopard tanks to a fleet destined for Ukraine. Poland’s defense minister said Tuesday he had sought official consent to send the weapons to Ukraine’s front lines. Finland has also indicated interest in contributing some of its tanks.

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Poland's prime minister said he would ask Germany for permission to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine on Jan. 23, after Berlin said it would not stop them. (Video: Reuters)

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said previously that his country would send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to its eastern neighbor, with or without Germany’s approval.

Moving ahead unilaterally would be “a rather unprecedented breach” of political and contractual relations between Warsaw and Berlin, said Jakub Eberle, the research director at the Institute of International Relations Prague. “In short, the Polish government would probably be in a legally very difficult situation on multiple fronts.”

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Why has Germany been reluctant to send military aid historically?

Germany’s long-standing reluctance to wade into foreign conflicts stems from norms and policies built on guilt over World War II. Eager to avoid being seen as militarily aggressive in the decades since, Germany has largely shied away from exporting weapons to conflict zones.

As a result, Germany is often described in security and foreign policy circles as pacifist. But some analysts reject this interpretation, pointing to the significant resources West Germany poured into building up its Cold War-era army and its hosting of U.S. nuclear weapons, as well as German military interventions as part of NATO coalitions in Serbia in the 1990s and later in Afghanistan.

Germany in 2014 sent rocket-propelled grenades to Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, which was targeting the Yazidi ethnic minority group. Critics point out that the German defense industry has also sold arms to authoritarian leaders.

Germany’s approach to international conflict is based less on a principled aversion to war than on a deep-seated preference for diplomacy and the idea of pushing change through economic ties, Eberle argues.

The war in Ukraine put Berlin in an especially uncomfortable position, since Germany — once politically and geographically split between the Soviet bloc and the West — has maintained closer ties to Russia than many of its peers. Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Berlin and speaks Russian fluently, helped broker a 2014 cease-fire agreement with Russia in the contested Ukrainian region of Donbas. But she also deepened Germany’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels and advised President Barack Obama not to send lethal aid to Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, The Washington Post reported.

Scholz’s party, the Social Democrats, is seen as having maintained an especially sympathetic posture toward Moscow. Even after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, some lawmakers in Scholz’s party said cooperation with Russia would be essential for European security.

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How has the war changed Germany’s approach?

At first, Germany’s stance seemed to be more of the same: In the weeks leading up to the invasion in February, as Russia massed troops along Ukraine’s border, Eastern European officials lambasted Germany for pledging just 5,000 helmets to support Ukraine’s defensive efforts.

Two days after Russia invaded, however, Scholz declared a “Zeitenwende” — or “turning of an era” — as he announced Germany would arm Ukraine directly and authorize other countries with German-made weapons to do so. Scholz also vowed that Germany would begin spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense, the NATO target.

Almost a year into the war, the main centrist parties in Germany are broadly aligned on the need to arm Ukraine, Eberle said.

Berlin’s weapons transfers to date signal it intends to take up a more prominent role in European security and defense, said Aylin Matlé, a defense policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Still, among Ukraine’s Western allies, Germany remains “on the reluctant side” in providing weapons to Kyiv, Eberle said. Ukraine and some NATO allies have criticized Germany for not sending more weapons and faster.

In the past, though, after pressure mounted and partners, particularly the United States and France, announced their own arms deliveries, Berlin has followed suit.

That inclination to follow is part of Germany’s “multilateral reflex,” according to Eberle. On security matters, he said, Germans believe they “can’t be seen as doing things on our own.”

The German arms industry has been in decline in recent years, so supply issues also may be a concern, Matlé said. Pistorius, the defense minister, said he had ordered an audit of Leopard tank stocks on Friday morning.

Germany sent some Leopard tanks to Slovakia as part of a deal to enable Slovakia to send Soviet-era fighting vehicles to Ukraine. But Berlin hasn’t sent the German-made tanks directly to Ukraine.

Scholz told President Biden on a call this week that he would want the United States to commit to sending its own M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine as well, The Post reported.

The Biden administration announced a roughly $2.5 billion military aid package last week that includes new armored fighting vehicles. The Abrams tank wasn’t part of that package; U.S. defense officials have said it is complicated and expensive, and its jet engine makes it more difficult to refuel than the Leopard, which uses diesel.

But the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday the Biden administration is considering sending a significant number of Abrams M1 tanks to Ukraine and an announcement could come this week. Germany, meanwhile, will pledge to send about 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv and allow other countries such as Poland to do the same, German media and The Journal reported.

Loveday Morris, Dan Lamothe, Annabelle Chapman, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.