After weeks of hemming and hawing, Germany agreed to send a contingent of 14 of its coveted Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine. The move, a major change of heart from Chancellor Olaf Scholz, was roundly welcomed by allies, who last week descended into mutual recriminations over how the allies could bolster Ukraine’s battlefield capabilities against Russia’s invasion.
It was the perfect birthday present for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who hailed the decision while continuing to push for further arms pledges from the west.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki praised the Chancellor for agreeing the move. “Thank you Olaf Scholz. The decision to send Leopards to Ukraine is a big step towards stopping Russia. Together we are stronger,” he said. And Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also welcomed the move. “At a critical moment in Russia’s war, these can help Ukraine to defend itself, win and prevail as an independent nation,” he said.
Many European countries use German-built Leopards, which number about 2,000 across the continent, and Ukraine has pleaded for tanks in recent weeks, describing them as vital to counter Russia’s advantages in arms and men.
Along with Germany, Poland, Spain, Finland and Norway are all now planning to supply Ukraine with their own Leopard tanks, with some 80 vehicles expected to be delivered. Spain owns one of the largest Leopard fleets, with 347 tanks, while Poland has 247, Poland has 200 and Norway has 36. Other potential contributions could come from Portugal, which has 37 Leopards, and from The Netherlands with 18.
Britain had already announced it will send its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, crossing what had previously appeared to be a red line for the US and its European allies. And France is also considering sending its heavy tank, the Leclerc.
However, foreign policy experts said the tank saga also showed that Europe still lacks a coherent defence strategy. Mr Scholz’s cautious approach to sending the Leopards, or even allowing other countries to export their own stocks of the German-made military vehicles, not only confused allies but also created a split within his own government.
The convoluted decision-making is likely to continue, warns Ian Lesser, the Vice President of the German Marshall Fund of the US. “It is fair to say that there were sighs of relief that this is resolved. And this is a very big step in political terms – indeed, the political significance outweighs the operational benefits of the tanks,” he says. “But it has been messy. And I doubt it will be the last, as allied decision making is strongly driven by internal Nato dynamics, and Nato members cannot act without consensus.”
Mr Lesser also says the delay confirms that Germany is still uncomfortable with leading in Europe. “The failure for Germany to be in the mainstream risked triggering a wider debate about NATO cohesion and strategy. But, while it is easy to say it didn’t look good and they eventually took the right decision,” he says.
Others agreed that it reflects badly on Berlin. “Germany currently lacks a strategic culture and failing to see the bigger picture,” says Ian Bond director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. “This episode delayed the moment that Ukraine gets weapons. It is bad for European cooperation, as it says you might have to think twice about working with Germany. And it is bad for Germany security as it will encourage Putin to think Berlin is the soft underbelly.”
Sven Biscop, the Director of Belgium’s Royal Institute for International Relations, agreed that Europe needs a broader strategy for the war. “It is true that the bickering is very silly,” he says. “We lack an overall plan amongst Europeans on what Ukraine needs – as this war could last a long time. So what happens if Ukraine deploys its tanks and loses half of them? We need to ask deeper questions about what we do next, especially if the war drags on for months and years.”