Germany U-turns over battle tanks, saying it will send Leopard 2s to Ukraine

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A German Army Leopard 2 A7V main battle tank stands on the training ground.

Picture Alliance | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Germany has announced that it is ready to send 14 of its own tanks to Ukraine and to allow others to do so, in an U-turn from its previous position.

Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced on Wednesday that Germany will provide Ukraine with 14 Leopard 2 tanks out of its own Bundeswehr (German armed forces) stocks.

In a government statement, Scholz said that Germany would continue to increase military support for Ukraine and would provide the Ukrainian armed forces with Leopard 2s as a “result of intensive consultations that took place with Germany’s closest European and international partners,” according to a NBC News translation.

“This decision follows our well-known line of supporting Ukraine to the best of our ability. We are acting in a closely coordinated manner internationally,” the chancellor said.

Germany said its goal was to “quickly assemble two tank battalions with Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine. As a first step, Germany will supply a company with 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks from Bundeswehr stocks. Other European partners will also hand over Leopard-2 tanks. The training of the Ukrainian crews is to begin quickly in Germany, the statement noted.

“In addition to training, the package will also include logistics, ammunition and system maintenance,” it added.

Germany said it will issue the appropriate transfer permits to partner countries that want to “quickly deliver Leopard 2 tanks from their stocks to Ukraine.”

Deliberation

The decision to allow the export of German tanks to Ukraine comes after months of deliberation. Berlin is seen to be wary that Moscow could perceive the provision of tanks as an escalatory step. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said as recently as Tuesday that Germany had to assess the situation further, as well as evaluate its own tank inventory, industry stocks and supply logistics and maintenance.

Germany was also reportedly reluctant to deliver its own tanks unless the U.S. did the same, with the two failing to reach an agreement at a defense summit held at the Ramstein Air Base last Friday.

Reports emerged late Tuesday that Chancellor Scholz was ready to agree to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, while the Biden administration was potentially prepared to provide a couple dozen M1 Abrams tanks.

Russia has already slammed the prospect even in the absence of a White House announcement, with Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov describing the move as a “another blatant provocation against the Russian Federation.”

“If the United States decides to supply tanks, it will be impossible to justify such step using arguments about ‘defensive weapons’,” he said on Telegram Wednesday, adding that American tanks would be “destroyed [just like] all other samples of NATO military equipment.”

Ukrainian frustration

Ukraine has had to tread a fine line with its international allies over the issue of tanks, aware that its ability to fight Russia largely depends on weaponry from NATO partners. But it is also frustrated at the lengthy time it has often taken allies to approve weaponry provisions for Ukraine.

Kyiv has repeatedly pleaded for tanks from its allies, arguing it needs them to defeat Russia, particularly to combat Moscow’s anticipated spring offensives. Up until now, only the U.K. had heeded Ukraine’s call, agreeing earlier in January to send 14 of its own Challenger 2 tanks.

Ukraine has coveted Leopard 2 tanks, which run on diesel, are relatively easy to maintain and are readily available from Ukraine’s neighbors, such as Poland. Warsaw on Tuesday sent a request to Berlin, asking permission to re-export 14 of its own Leopard tanks to Kyiv.

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that allies needed to make a decision on the tanks, especially as the country prepares for a “new wave of Russian aggression” in eastern Ukraine, where fighting is intense.

“There is a lot of talk about tanks. About the modern tanks that we need. And about how this deficit can be filled. A lot of efforts, words, promises,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Tuesday.

“But it is important to see the reality: it is not about five, or ten, or fifteen tanks. The need is greater. We are doing what is necessary every day to fill the deficit … However, discussions must be concluded with decisions. Decisions on real strengthening of our defense,” he said.

M1 Abrams tanks and other armored vehicles sit atop flat cars in a rail yard after U.S. President Donald Trump said tanks and other military hardware would be part of Fourth of July displays of military prowess in Washington, U.S., July 2, 2019. 

Leah Millis | Reuters

There are high hopes that the provision of modern Western battle tanks to Ukraine could shift the war momentum in Kyiv’s favor, as have done other weapons, such as the U.S.-supplied high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS).

“The war in Ukraine will prove that tanks still matter — and Leopards will outclass their Russian counterparts,” John T. Watts, a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security said in emailed comments Wednesday.

“In reality, there are few systems that can provide the combination of fire, protection, and maneuver that a tank can … The provision of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, if employed competently and effectively — and I am confident that they will be — will demonstrate just how effective, powerful, and critical a capability the modern battle tank still is,” he noted.

“The sophisticated and effective armor design, advanced optics, and cutting-edge crew training that make up the modern Western main battle tank system is a very different beast than the Soviet-era equipment and training being employed by the Russian aggressors.”

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