The Politics of Tank Distribution: International Image, Aid to Ukraine, and the German Leopard A2 Tank

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reached its one year anniversary on Feb. 24, 2023. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, maintaining a constant presence in the global news cycle throughout the year, especially across Europe. The continental proximity of European countries to the conflict and the escalating pressure to offer aid by sending money, arms, and munitions has pushed multiple, including Germany, out of their comfort zones.

For the German government, requests for aid began almost immediately after the start of the war, with a verbal message from the Ukrainian embassy in Berlin laying out a wishlist of 30 types of weapons systems on March 3, 2022. As of January 2023, the German government had sent over 100 types of weapons, transportation, and other aids, ranging from hospital beds and forklifts to missile defense systems, rocket launchers, and multiple varieties of small tanks and armored vehicles. But the Leopard 2 tank was a sticking point.

The Leopard 2 is a German-made tank, generally viewed as one of, if not the best tank currently available—only perhaps in competition with the M1 Abrams tank from the United States. Since Ukraine has largely relied on Soviet-era tanks like the T-72, the upgrade to a top of the line model could help break through the Russian defenses to take back important territory in Crimea, according to retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges.

Ukraine requested German-made tanks on the initial wishlist but the topic did not gain major international attention until Jan. 11, 2023 when Polish President Andrzej Duda pledged that “a company of Leopard tanks for Ukraine will be transferred as part of building an international coalition.” Poland’s commitment suddenly shifted the spotlight onto Germany, as the manufacturing contract attached to the Leopard tanks stipulates that Poland must receive approval from the German government before transferring  their ownership to a third-party country.

This move put immense pressure on the German government. Germany’s contributions to the war effort through aid to Ukraine and their divestment from Russian gas, oil, and coal had been very substantial, and as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said, Germany was already among “the ones that are doing the most.” In response to a question concerning these tanks, he continued, “We are strategically interlocked, together, with our friends and partners. We are working together and discussing with them and we are never doing something just by ourselves but together with others, especially the United States.” 

The German government did not respond quickly, only eventually asking Poland to put in an official request. Tanks were the next big step in military aid, and a whole cocktail of factors caused hesitation within Germany. Pundits and officials mentioned potential gaps in Germany’s military as a result of giving away their arms, the fear of escalating warfare spilling farther into Europe and possibly into Germany itself, and the historical association with German warfare. While Scholz emphasized Germany’s collaborative outlook and past contributions, the Polish pledge to send their Leopard 2 tanks put an individual spotlight on Germany as a roadblock—the single authority standing in the way of the Leopard 2 tanks making their way to Ukraine. The international community, along with German citizens, grew increasingly restless the more days passed without a decision. Even as German government officials met with a Ukrainian delegation at the Ramstein conference, and England agreed to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks, there was still no word.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the delay unacceptable, saying that Poland would be willing to simply send the tanks without German approval. Mychailo Podoljak, Adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted, “Today’s indecision is killing more of our people. Every day of delay is the death of Ukranians. Think faster.” Even U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, after returning from a trip to Ukraine, said he was “tired of the shitshow,” and, “To the Germans: send tanks to Ukraine, because they need the tanks. It is in your interest that Putin loses in Ukraine.” Similar statements piled up from across Europe, casting Germany as slow decision-makers standing in the way of action.

The criticism and pressure from inside Germany was also immense. German Defense Committee Chair Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann stated after the Ramstein Conference, “History is watching us, and Germany has sadly just failed.” On Jan. 21, ten days after the initial Polish statement, a Tagesschau headline read “Ampel macht Druck auf Scholz” (Traffic Light Pressures Scholz), referring to the three-party governing ‘traffic light’ coalition composed of the SPD (Social Democrat Party), FDP (Free Democratic Party) and Bündnis 90/die Grünen (whose official colors are red, yellow, and green). 

But simultaneously, another narrative emerged. On Jan. 18, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that two days earlier during a phone call between Scholz and U.S. President Joe Biden, Scholz made the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks contingent on a parallel shipment of U.S. M1 Abrams tanks. Biden allegedly did not make a commitment either way. As this report spread through German and then English-language media, the pressure began to spread to the United States as well, and both sides tried to downplay their disagreements. Still, U.S. officials were not excited about the prospect of sending the M1 Abrams. Top Pentagon policy adviser Colin Kahl said, “I just don’t think we’re there yet. The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine.”

On Jan. 24, Polish defense minister Mariusz Blaszczak confirmed that Berlin received an official request for export approval of Leopard tanks. Only a few hours later, Der Spiegel reported that the German government agreed to allow the exportation of Leopard 2 tanks and would even send along 14 of their own. Germany would also train Ukrainian soldiers on their operation and maintenance, and provide this training for any allies’ shipments. Only a few hours later, Biden announced that the United States would also send 31 Abrams tanks, thanking Scholz for his “leadership and steadfast commitment,” adding that “Germany has really stepped up.” While Biden made sure to say, “Germany didn’t force me to change my mind…that’s what we were going to do all along, and that’s what we’re doing now.” The weeks of statements from top Pentagon officials against the shipment seem to belie this claim.

The decision to send Abrams tanks was  political rather than military-minded, according to the New York Times—revealing that in private conversations, Scholz felt concerned that even nearly 80 years after the end of World War II, the optics of German tanks leading the charge into escalating warfare would make other European nations “uncomfortable.” However, the promise of Abrams tanks, though they would take “many months” to build, let alone ship to Europe and properly train crews to operate and repair, gave cover to Germany to send the much more suitable Leopard tanks without appearing to be the lone leader of the operation.

By this point at the end of January, announcements of tank deliveries swelled to a fever pitch. Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, and Norway all agreed to either send or join a delivery of Leopard tanks, and France and England planned to send Leclerc and Challenger 2 tanks respectively. On January 27th, the Ukrainian embassy in France stated that Ukraine had secured agreements for the delivery of 321 heavy tanks. But in the time since, progress slowed considerably. On February 14, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said the process of tank deliveries was “not exactly breathtaking – to put it carefully,” and when asked if he had any sympathy for the countries previously pressuring Germany and now falling behind, he said, “Since I am in a diplomatic arena here, I would say: not much.”

While Poland initially delivered four of their promised 14 Leopard tanks, there were doubts about the operational capabilities of their remaining stock. Besides Poland, the only other confirmed announcements of Leopard deliveries were three from Portugal and four from Canada. Spain intended to send six A2 4 tanks, an older model, but admitted they would need extensive repairs before they could face combat, as they had been sitting in a warehouse, missing key parts including batteries, since 2012.

Nearing the end of February, the situation remained similar, with some incremental progress. Poland said the rest of their 14 tanks would cross the border into Ukraine within a few days along with four from Canada. Finland also announced a new military aid package including three Leopard tanks. But these numbers were still disappointing for Germany. Finland only sent three Leopard tanks while owning around 200 total. Spain still refuses to send any of its 239 Leopard 2A6 tanks, citing their need for the purposes of border protection. It appears that the politicians who promised their armies’ tanks were not speaking with the authority to fulfill their commitments. In the meantime, Germany announced an additional delivery of up to 187 Leopard A1 tanks from a coalition of European states. 

Despite its best efforts, Germany is still in danger of being the near-solitary leader of tank deliveries to Ukraine. In a speech at the Munich Security Conference, Scholz urged, “All those who can supply battle tanks of this kind should now actually do so.” At the same event, Pistorius said, “Obviously there are some nations who just preferred to hide behind Germany…It’s easy to say we would if you let us, and when we let them, they didn’t.”

Photo courtesy NATO.

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