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Tanks, but no tanks: What’s the matter with Germany?

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At a time of considerable unity in the geopolitical West, there’s a wrinkle in the heart of Europe. For the past few days, tensions and anxiety have grown over Germany’s seeming reluctance to dispatch its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, or even allow other European nations in possession of German military equipment to do the same. The dispute over the delivery of these vehicles complicated a meeting of Western defense ministers at a U.S. base in Germany on Friday, aimed at coordinating further assistance to Kyiv. And it stoked ire within Germany and among its European partners toward the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

On Monday, it was still unclear whether Germany would sanction the delivery of these tanks to Ukraine, though newly installed Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said a decision would be made “soon.” Some 2,000 Leopards are scattered across Europe’s armies, making them an attractive option to send to the front lines in Ukraine. Polish and Finnish officials have said they are willing to dispatch their Leopards, but are waiting for approval from Berlin, which has to sign off on such transfers. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Sunday said her government would not get in the way of a Polish transfer of these tanks to Ukraine.

For months, Ukraine has been clamoring for heavier weaponry as it prepares for its next counteroffensive against Russian forces occupying Ukrainian territory. Analysts suggest Kyiv is keen on forming an entirely new armored division to help drive forward its next campaign and is expecting significant assistance in the forthcoming tranches of U.S. and European military aid.

“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,” my colleague Claire Parker wrote in a helpful explainer. “The armored combat vehicles the United States and Germany have already pledged are meant primarily to transport and support infantry.”

Why is Germany under pressure to send tanks to Ukraine?

The irony is that, after the United States, Germany is one of the biggest suppliers of weaponry and aid to Kyiv. As the Financial Times reports, the country has already delivered advanced air-defense systems, antiaircraft guns and multiple-rocket launchers, and recently agreed to send some 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles. Scholz, after all, announced his nation’s embrace of a “Zeitenwende,” or historical turning point, in the wake of Russia’s invasion last February, and moved to revise Germany’s entrenched post-World War II national security ethos.

Still, some of Germany’s neighbors and allies bristle at its perceived foot-dragging, the latest instance surrounding the delivery of these tanks. They have also grown frustrated over Berlin’s slow reckoning with the failings of its long-standing approach to the Kremlin, which critics say appeased Russian interests to maintain a steady flow of Russian gas to Europe’s largest economy. And now, at a moment when Ukraine and its allies are all preaching the need for speed to chase Russia out of its territory, the Germans are being viewed as a European ditherer.

The impasse has allowed figures like Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki — who helms an illiberal nationalist government that has been censured by the European Union for undermining the rule of law at home — to morally grandstand. In an interview with a Polish press agency published Sunday, he called on Scholz to “take a resolute action,” adding that “it is on Germany to decide whether it wants to join the mission of stopping barbaric Russia” or be on the “wrong side of history.”

The war in Ukraine and a ‘turning point in history’

The German position on all this, of course, is deeply informed by history. The trauma of World War II — and the collective complex of shame and guilt that followed it in Germany — has for decades influenced policymakers in Berlin, underlining a policy of quasi-pacifism and an approach to Eastern Europe and Russia that carries with it an awareness of the misdeeds of the Nazi past.

“Germans want to be seen as a partner, not an aggressor, and they have a particular sensitivity to delivering arms in regions where German arms were historically used to kill millions of people,” Steven E. Sokol, the president of the American Council on Germany, told the New York Times. “People do not want German weapons on the front lines being used to kill people in those regions.”

Current opinion polls show considerable division within Germany over the extent to which it should arm Ukraine, including sending tanks. “No German chancellor, of no party, wants to be seen out front in pushing a military agenda — you want to try all other options before you resort to that,” Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said to the Associated Press. “And therefore for domestic consumption, it is seen as a positive thing for a German chancellor not to lead on this, to be cautious, to be resistant, to have tried all other options.”

That does not impress onlookers elsewhere. “The reasons the Germans give are flimsy and unconvincing,” Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister and former ambassador to Berlin, told the Financial Times. “This German angst, this absolutely irrational fear that delivering Leopard tanks would provoke Russia to escalate this war, is just ridiculous.”

Jeremy Cliffe, a Berlin-based writer for the New Statesman, argued that there is a real gap between what Scholz views as smart strategy on Ukraine and what some of his counterparts in Europe consider to be the correct path. “The German chancellor genuinely believes that support for Ukraine beyond the bare diplomatic minimum would be a dangerous provocation to Russia,” Cliffe wrote. “Those around him fret less about how Ukraine can defeat [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s attack than about how to restore and stabilize relations with Moscow after peace talks. Such instincts are deeply rooted.”

Whatever the case, officials engaged in the Ukraine war envision a tough slog ahead. U.S. Gen. Mark A. Milley, who attended the meetings last Friday, told reporters that the new armored vehicles and tanks — whenever they arrive — will still require a “very, very heavy lift,” given the time it will take to assemble the equipment and train Ukrainian forces to use them.

“From a military standpoint, I would maintain that, during this year, it would be very, very difficult for Ukraine to eject Russian forces from all of Russian-occupied Ukraine,” Milley said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but it will be very, very difficult.”