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25 January

Germany took too long to reach the right decision on tanks

Berlin’s stalling has cost it the trust and goodwill of its allies.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Today is a good day for Ukraine, Germany and Europe: Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, has agreed not only to approve the export of Leopard 2 battle tanks by other European states to Ukraine but also to send at least a company (14) of Germany’s own Leopards. What makes this yet better is that the US will now also send its own Abrams tanks – which was not planned until Scholz made it a condition for Germany’s change of position. Along with other recent pledges, including the Challenger 2 tanks offered by Britain, it means a sizeable and multinational consignment for Kyiv. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that this is a happier outcome, reached more quickly, than I feared when I wrote of Germany as the “roadblock at the heart of Europe” on Friday. 

How to view this breakthrough? One reading is that Scholz has pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke: that his valid concerns about the optics and potential consequences of Germany unilaterally sending tanks to Ukraine have ultimately meant many more tanks for Ukraine, from more countries, than would otherwise have been the case; and that crucially he has helped to bind the US to this new phase of Ukraine’s fightback. Another reading is that Scholz was merely cornered by his own excuses: that his protestations that Germany should not “go it alone” begot the insistence on the Abrams tanks (generally deemed less ideally suited to Ukraine’s needs than the Leopards, and in any case seemingly not deliverable for many months) and that the US called his bluff.

Both arguments have their weaknesses. The “Scholzian masterstroke” narrative implies a degree of 4D chess-playing that even Scholz himself might not claim. His hesitancy over sending the tanks may have been misguided, as I have argued, but there is no suggestion that it was anything but heartfelt. The notion of a Machiavellian hawk lurking in the chancellery all these months plotting a maximalist international tank contingent for Kyiv is fanciful. So too is the implication that Scholz might genuinely believe the US – whose military support for Ukraine continues to dwarf European contributions – required prodding from Berlin to commit itself to the country’s ongoing defence.

The “Scholz cornered” school also has its flaws. US involvement in the tanks coalition is a welcome achievement, however it came about. And one can recognise that Scholz has been too prone to follow rather than lead German public opinion, but also that he ultimately exercised a positive and sovereign choice as chancellor to send the tanks. Conspiracy theories about his hesitancy stemming from Russian blackmail or German hopes of being first in line for Russian business deals after the war do a disservice to more valid criticisms.

The truth almost certainly lies somewhere on a line between the two readings, but at this stage at least we simply cannot say with precision where on that line. We do not know. So it makes more sense to focus on what we do know.  

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We know that the shift in Germany’s position is an excellent outcome, but one not reached at a pace matching that of events on the ground in Ukraine. Kyiv first publicly and formally requested Leopard tanks in September (their necessity for its defensive war effort was clear in diplomatic and expert military circles before that). We know that had Berlin reached its current position sooner, tanks would have reached Ukraine sooner, and likely enabled it to liberate more occupied territory sooner. And we know that war crimes against civilians are routinely taking place in that territory. 

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We know that it was always a question less of “if” but “when” Germany would need to accede to this request. As I predicted on 13 September: “After weeks more ministerial handwringing, ponderous debate about the perils of ‘going it alone’, exasperated interventions by MPs, Kyiv and other allies and tortuously evolving holding positions, Germany will eventually send Ukraine the battle tanks it needs right now.” We know that for months Berlin clung to that bogus claim that it merely did not want to go it alone. Provably bogus, because we know that other European governments were willing to send their tanks (witness the Spanish government’s move last June to transfer Leopards, blocked by Berlin) and that the German government failed comprehensively to assess its stocks for such a time as its partners fell into line, and indeed reportedly obstructed such an exercise. 

And we know that whatever the benefits of waiting four months to broaden the tank coalition, they have meant broken crockery all over the floor. Berlin has forfeited substantial trust, goodwill and diplomatic capital, especially in those states where it most urgently needs to do the opposite: Washington and the capitals of central and eastern Europe. We know that by doing so it has played into the hands of “America First” Republicans who believe Europe will never take the lead in providing its own security unless the US withdraws its support and forces it to do so. Relatedly, we know that continually clinging to American power rather than investing in European leadership and initiative will almost certainly harm Germany and Europe in the long run.

In short, we know that this behaviour does not correspond to the responsibilities of a state of Germany’s size, location and influence. So: two cheers for Olaf Scholz. But next time must be different.

[See also: Germany has become the roadblock at the heart of Europe]