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7 March 2023

Countries urging Germany to send Ukraine tanks must now do the same

The failure of other states to step up is a European tragedy.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Not so long ago, it was clear that Germany was the main brake on the West sending Ukraine the battle tanks it needs for the next stage of its resistance to Russia’s invasion. As I wrote on 20 January after the failure to establish a “tank coalition” at a summit of defence minsters at the Ramstein Air Base, “Germany has become the roadblock at the heart of Europe”. There was justice in this accusation. Kyiv needed Leopard 2 tanks (present in large numbers in European militaries, well-suited to battle conditions in Ukraine and relatively easy to supply and repair). The Leopards are a German make of tank. Berlin controls their export. Here, finally, was a chance for it to live up to its talk of special responsibility for European stability and international rule of law. Government sources from various other European countries shared this criticism of a Germany all too reluctant to lead.

It is only fair to acknowledge that Berlin has stepped up since then. The week after Ramstein, it committed to sending Ukraine 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks (a more modern model than expected) and approve the export of Leopard 2s to Ukraine by other states. On 18 February at the Munich Security Conference the country’s impressive new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, uttered welcome words that had long eluded Germany’s cautious leaders: “Ukraine must win this war.” On 24 February, the first anniversary of the invasion, Germany increased its commitment from 14 to 18 tanks to be sent by the end of this month. Ukrainian officials are delighted. On 3 March Kyiv’s ambassador to Germany, Oleksii Makeiev, spoke approvingly of the country’s new leading role: “What has changed in the last few months is we are not just discussing the current order of the day, but we are strategically planning according to what is needed and what can be delivered.”

Meanwhile other European governments – including some previously all too happy to hide behind German intransigence and share in the eye-rolling about it – are conspicuously failing to play their part. Poland, it is true, has already provided four tanks – though it is notable that the government that led the criticism of Germany seems unlikely to match Berlin’s delivery of Leopard 2s for quite some time. And Britain and Portugal are both set to provide tanks (Challenger 2s and Leopard 2s respectively) soon.

[See also: How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?]

But many are dragging their feet. The Danes are protesting that many of their Leopard 2s are deployed in the Nato mission in Estonia and that they are reluctant to hand over their others. The Dutch, who had pledged the 18 Leopard 2s they lease from Germany, are no longer willing to spare them. Spain, which floated the possibility of sending Ukraine some of its 327 Leopard 2 tanks as early as last June, has likewise become suddenly reticent now that the excuse of German inaction has vanished. Currently it is pledging just ten, on an uncertain timetable, protesting that it needs to take into consideration the defence of its two exclaves on the north African coast (a curious claim, given that relations between Spain and Morocco have notably improved recently).

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Other protests of territorial vulnerability are more credible. Finland, it is true, must think of its 1,340km-long border with Russia and is not yet a Nato member with the protections that the alliance provides. Military tensions between Turkey and Greece have risen in recent years and some sort of conflict between the two is not unthinkable. But still one might hope for more. For an otherwise impeccable champion of the Ukrainian cause, Finland’s proffered three tanks (from an arsenal of about 200 Leopard 2s) seems conspicuously modest. And there is nothing – other than mutual antipathy and the fact of both countries approaching elections – stopping Turkey and Greece from sending Ukraine equal numbers of Leopard 2s, helping Kyiv while maintaining their balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean.

The biggest culprit, however, is surely France. As the pressure built on Olaf Scholz in January, Emmanuel Macron added to it by suggesting that he might send Leclerc heavy battle tanks. Yet now there is no indication that Paris will send Kyiv any battle tanks at all. This is part of a broader trend: Germany gets criticism (some of it justified given its size, location and historical responsibilities) for being sluggish on military aid for Ukraine. But its transfers, worth €2.4bn according to the latest assessment by Kiel University’s Ukraine Support Tracker, dwarf France’s €0.7 billion. To quote Gustav Gressel, Rafael Loss and Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), analysts who had urged speedier initiative from Germany, “there is reason to suspect that some earlier proclamations of willingness were made only to pile pressure on the Germans”.

This is unacceptable. Yes, Germany should have provided leadership sooner. One of the reasons why some governments are now stalling on sending tanks is that they have realised quite how poor is the condition of those in their stocks. Earlier initiative in Berlin would have meant more time for governments to address this. But that does not exonerate those who wagged fingers at Berlin before and are failing to match the urgency of the moment now. Germany is powerful, but not hegemonic (“too big for Europe, too small for the world,” as Henry Kissinger once put it). When it acts, it needs other Europeans to buttress it – particularly when those other Europeans were among those urging it to act in the first place.

The topic matters above and beyond the precise military value to Ukraine of the tanks themselves. In an age when Europe’s security situation is ever more precarious, and the long-term future of American commitment to that situation is far from certain, it is a test of the continent’s ability to coordinate its actions and respond to events. “If Europeans fail in their collective effort to mobilise even 62 Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine (let alone sustain and eventually expand their number),” write the ECFR authors, “it would be nothing less than a declaration of strategic bankruptcy.” For a continent that aspires to “strategic sovereignty” this should be a relatively easy task. Yet it is falling short. If it cannot cobble together two battalions of tanks, out of an arsenal of some 2,000, for a conflict as existential as this one, then Europe faces a grim future indeed.

Read more:

There are cracks between how Ukraine and the West see the war ending

Ben Hodges: “The only hope the Russians have is that the West loses the will to keep supporting Ukraine”

Europe’s Iron Lady: Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas

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