Updated: Sep 13
By Anaïs Penin
Following weeks of pressure from Kyiv, its allies and German political parties, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally confirmed the decision to authorize the export of 14 ‘Leopard 2’ tanks to Ukraine. This decision is contested by some Germans, still marked by the scars of the Second World War, but the Chancellor told them to « trust » him and said that the decision was « the right one ».
Is the Hesitant Decision Linked to Russia?
Germany's hesitant decision is for some linked to the fact that Germany is trying to keep its long-lasting ties to Russia. Historically, Russia and Germany have had a complex relationship of both cooperation and conflict.
Despite being enemies during the second part of World War II, they have also fought alongside each other in the past, such as against Napoleon, and shared control of Poland during World War I. More than three million Russians live in Germany today, and these immigrants are well-integrated into society and are an asset to German institutions and schools.
Economically, the two countries have a strong relationship, with Germany being one of Russia’s biggest trade partners. A very large part of Germany’s energy consumption must be imported, and the country has found Russia to be a very good supplier, constantly growing its Russian imports since the end of the Cold War.
The two countries had stable economic and diplomatic relations for years to avoid further conflicts, but since 2014 (the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Crimea), Germany has had a more negative image of Russia.
Germany’s Position Towards Military Spending is Evolving
Germany has spent far less on its military than other of its Western neighbours. This is partly because the country and its population are still strongly marked by the scars of World War II, and it prefers to settle potential conflicts diplomatically and not militarily since.
However, after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Germany is reconsidering its approach to defence aboard, but also at home. After the invasion last February, Olaf Scholz decided to spend 108 billion dollars (100,5 billion euros) to make Germany’s military capacity more modern. He also claimed that Germany will now use two per cent of its GDP in defence spending, meeting the target set by NATO (which the country missed for years).
Tanks are a Step Forward for the Protection of Ukraine
Despite the missiles, snipers, or war vehicles already sent to Ukraine by NATO, the tanks are still an element that could prove decisive for Ukrainian protection in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
For Kyiv, having tanks would be a significant military upgrade. Most Western countries and allies want to improve Ukraine’s armoured vehicle capacity to counter a possible Russian spring offensive. Ukraine is a flat country, and this is an opportunity to have tanks. Indeed, to counter and repel Russian offensives, Ukraine must invest in heavy and mobile weapons to hit Russian tanks from afar.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked for tanks to push Russia out of the Ukrainian areas it occupies. According to some Western officials, Russia is in a weaker position these days, and it makes sense to send tanks now to push Russia out.
Germany’s Hesitation to Send Tanks
Made-in-Germany tanks ‘Leopard 2’ (already used by many European countries) are the easiest to use and maintain. They consume little fuel, are easy to deploy and available within three months.
Germany has been reluctant for a long time to deliver tanks (and to accept that its allies deliver tanks made in Germany) because this meant a deeper engagement in war through heavy weapons.
This may also increase the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, with a direct negative impact on German industrial production through high energy costs and limited import capacity. To help Ukraine militarily and to conduct military operations abroad, the German constitution is strict. Germany must have the approval of its parliament.
First Turning Point: UK’s Decision.
The United Kingdom has provided substantial support to Ukraine. On January 15, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the UK would send 14 tanks to Kyiv. He also urged NATO members to consider the option of sending military equipment to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia.
This statement by Britain has put pressure on Germany, as the UK defence minister said that it would be a « quantum step » if Berlin have Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. At that time, Germany still had to give its final decision, and its hesitating behaviour gives the country a rather negative image regarding most of its NATO allies who agreed to deliver heavy weapons to help Ukraine.
Germany is still Reluctant after the UK Decided to Send Tanks to Ukraine.
The 20 January 2023 conference organized by NATO at Ramstein Air Base (Picture) in northern Germany failed to convince Germany and despite mounting international pressures on 24 January, Germany still refused to send its Leopard 2 tanks.
Furthermore, the country also refuses to allow other countries to send their made-in-Germany tanks, which is a big issue for them since they need Germany’s approval to send them. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Tuesday that Berlin was evaluating not only its current inventory and industry stocks but also the suitability of its tanks for combat in Ukraine, as well as logistical concerns regarding supply and maintenance.
On Wednesday 18 January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the German Chancellor informed US legislators that Germany will not provide or approve the shipment of tanks to Ukraine until the US reciprocates by providing its own.
Germany has also been under pressure from twelve countries operating Leopard tanks for several months now, such as Poland and Finland, which have been pushing hard for Germany's agreement to send their German tanks to Ukraine so that Europe and Ukraine win this war, and the Ukrainians get their land back.
Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister, even said: “Even if we did not get this approval … we would still transfer our tanks together with others to Ukraine.” Poland and Finland are also relentless in helping Ukraine to maintain good relations with them because the country is part of their Eastern European policy.
The Final Decision
Hours after Germany’s decision to finally ship Leopard 2 tanks, President Joe Biden announced that the United States will send 31 powerful Abrams tanks to Ukraine. The decision of the US was taken with the aim, according to Joe Biden, of helping Ukraine to take back its territories, and this decision must not constitute "an offensive threat to Russia".
It is possible that the decision of the United States has probably comforted Germany in its decision (which was probably aware of the US decision before the official announcement), to be in line with its NATO allies.
One can also imagine that given Germany's historical situation, the aftermath of World War II and its disarmament, the Chancellor waited to see if all parts of the German government, as well as the main political parties, agreed with the final decision. The Chancellor, by taking the time to make the right decision, probably wanted to avoid that if his decision had not been validated by everyone, it could be used politically against him.
To conclude, one may ask what element played the most important role in the fact that Germany hesitated so long in its decision. The county has probably been very reluctant to send tanks to Ukraine to maintain its political and diplomatic relations with Russia which is an important economic (and cultural) ally, or because it has been reluctant to escalate the tensions of the conflict by coming to the aid of Ukraine, but also because of international rules that do not allow it to use its military capabilities as it wishes.
Sources: BBC, Politico, NUK, Reuters, Euro News, Reuters
Written by Anaïs Penin