Leopard tank dilemma as Germany tears itself in two over Ukraine
In the Reichstag and Federal Chancellery, Putin has them quaking in their boots
22 January 2023 • 6:00am
For the past week, all eyes have been on Germany. Would Berlin allow its allies to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine? The answer could be decisive for the outcome of Putin’s genocidal war.
Yet the only answer that new German Defence Minister, Boris Pistorius, could give was “maybe”. He could not say when a decision would be made on the tanks, he told Friday’s meeting of 50 defence ministers at the US airbase in Ramstein.
Pistorius said he had ordered an inventory of Leopard 2 tanks so that he could act immediately if a green light came from his government. “I am very sure that there will be a decision in the short term,” he said. However, he admitted: “I don’t know how the decision will look.”
Pistorius’s shilly-shallying was in defiance of Volodymyr Zelensky, who had earlier appealed to the meeting to “speed up” on the question on tanks, but also US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“This is not a moment to slow down,” General Austin said. “It’s a time to dig deeper. The Ukrainian people are watching us. History is watching us.”
At Ramstein air base on Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin refused to comment on Germany's reluctance to give Ukraine tanks CREDIT: Thomas Lohnes/Getty
At a press conference later, he refused to comment on Berlin’s refusal to release its Leopards
The wrangling over tanks for Ukraine is emblematic of the identity crisis gripping Berlin as Germany shifts from decades of relative pacifism to a war-ready footing. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is talking the talk, but struggling when it comes to walking the walk.
Clearly, neither Austin, nor the other NATO defence ministers, could break the deadlock on tanks. Germany seems determined to ignore appeals not only from Ukraine but from the entire Western world. The indecision of Scholz, it seems, is final. Does he even know there’s a war on?
Scholz has not only refused to give German Leopard 2s to Kyiv, but has so far refused permission for any of the 2,000 German-made Leopards owned by other NATO members to be sent. Those who ignore this contractual obligation put future military trade deals with Berlin at risk.
This prospect does not trouble Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, whose relations with Scholz are in deep freeze anyway. The Polish PM has dismissed the German veto as irrelevant and threatened to send 14 Polish Leopards to Kyiv
The spectacle of Germany stymying not only Ukraine but its allies too is deeply damaging, both diplomatically and morally. Olaf Scholz doesn’t seem to care that Germany is now seen as the sausage dog in the manger.
Despite the fiasco in Ramstein, a blast of realpolitik is blowing through Berlin. Almost a year ago Putin’s onslaught on Ukraine forced Germany to rethink its role as the West’s leading “civilian power”.
Today, the debate has moved on from the days when Scholz seemed to dither about taking sides at all. But the painfully slow shift to a war footing is tearing the country — and its centre-Left coalition — in two.
Despite Chancellor Scholz's early fighting talk, Ukraine has been left bitterly disappointed CREDIT: SERGEY DOLZHENKO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
“We are living through a watershed era (Zeitenwende),” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told his petrified compatriots within 48 hours of the invasion last February. “The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law… whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check. And that requires strength of our own.”
This sounded like fighting talk. Yet Scholz’s much-vaunted Zeitenwende has bitterly disappointed the Ukrainians. Early in the conflict, Volodymyr Zelensky told the German Parliament that a new Berlin Wall had been erected in his country. By now it is clear that the German government has no desire to tear down that wall, as long as the Germans are on the right side of it.
What Ukrainians thought they heard from Scholz last February was a commitment to help them to turn the tables on the Russian invaders. Instead, the Zeitenwende turned out to be yet another chapter in the endless debate about German identity that has raged since 1945 — fascinating for pundits and academics, but hardly relevant to a people fighting for their lives.
Now, after eleven months and up to quarter of a million dead on both sides, the Ukrainians have been disappointed by the Germans yet again.
The phenomenon that has prevented Scholz from authorising the use of Leopards has already acquired a characteristically German moniker: “escalation angst” (Angst vor der Eskalation). This term denotes the fear that military assistance to Ukraine risks “provoking” Russian escalation of the war, potentially including the use of nuclear weapons — a fear shared by a majority of the public in the Federal Republic.
The latest poll shows that 46pc of Germans oppose sending Leopard 2s to Ukraine, with 43 per cent in favour.
Boris Johnson might have had Germany in mind when he told the plutocrats in Davos last Thursday that Vladimir Putin “is like the fat boy in Dickens — he wants to make our flesh creep”
. For when the Russian leader rattles his thermonuclear sabre, he has one destination above all in mind: Berlin.
The Kremlin constantly exploits German escalation angst. The latest piece of Russian megaphone diplomacy in Germany was timed to coincide with Lloyd Austin’s visit from Washington. Putin’s spokesman issued dire, though vague, threats of nuclear retaliation against conventional attack “when the very existence of the state is threatened”.
He was echoing Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Putin’s national security council, who wrote that if Russia were to lose the war in Ukraine, “this could trigger a nuclear war”. He added: “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.” This former Russian President has forgotten about the Afghan war, which proved fatal to the Soviet Union.
Such rhetoric hits home at one address in particular: the Reichstag and, on the other side of the River Spree, the German Federal Chancellery. There, in Europe’s largest seat of government, a monumental building bequeathed by Angela Merkel, they are quaking in their boots.
What Scholz has failed to grasp, let alone to explain to his compatriots, is that Putin is escalating the war all the time — regardless of the West. The longer hostilities continue, the greater the danger of escalation.
A stalemate leading to a ceasefire, followed by a “frozen conflict”, is a recipe for Putin to escalate at a time that suits him. The only way to forestall and prevent Russian escalation is to give Ukraine the tanks and other hardware that are needed for victory.
Scholz has been visibly reluctant to send military support into a war zone, though in recent months Germany has stepped up both the quantity and quality of its equipment — including Patriot air defence missiles. The Chancellor still often speaks of “differences of opinion” with Moscow, as though a ceasefire might be enough to normalise relations with a regime that is led by men wanted for war crimes, including Putin himself.
Last week, Zelensky let his frustration show. On German television, he lost his temper, giving Scholz a blunt public ultimatum: “In plain language: can you deliver Leopards or not? Then hand them over!”
The Ukrainian leader’s exasperation is understandable. However many victories it wins, his army has hitherto been denied the tools it needs to finish the job. Zelensky has asked for 300 main battle tanks. So far he has been offered a tenth of that number by the UK and Poland. From Germany? None.
Scholz has drawn different lessons from history than his political counterparts in Britain and America. The latter are invariably conscious of the fatal consequences of appeasement. By contrast, Germans of Scholz’s postwar generation tend to focus more on the risk of militarism and the danger of “going it alone”. Ironically, his refusal to budge on the Leopards has isolated Germany as seldom before in the history of NATO.
On the key question of whether to give Zelensky the Leopards, Scholz demands that the US give him Abrams M1 tanks too, so that Germany in general and he in particular cannot be solely blamed for the consequences.
It was not enough that Rishi Sunak had already announced a week ago that the UK would lead the way by sending 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Kyiv
. Nor did Berlin listen to Ben Wallace’s appeal from Estonia, where he led a group of nine countries that co-signed “The Tallinn Pledge” to step up support for Kyiv. The Defence Secretary said that sending tanks was not “remotely escalatory” because in Ukrainian hands they would be “a defensive weapon”.
Ben Wallace in Tallinn last week where he led a group of European countries pledging weapons to Ukraine CREDIT: Pavel Golovkin/AP
Even though the war is taking place in Europe, Scholz insists that Biden should take the lead. At Ramstein, Lloyd Austin announced a new $2.5 billion package for Ukraine, bringing US military aid to $26.7 billion. But Abrams M1s were conspicuous by their absence. Washington says that this is because they run on jet fuel, which would be impractical for Kyiv.
Ukraine agrees — and hasn’t actually asked for M1s. The only reason they are under discussion is that Berlin hinted that it might agree to send German tanks if American ones were on the table. It turns out to have been just another excuse for inaction by the Scholz government.
Why then have the German Leopards become so symbolic? For one thing, the fact that they are plentiful in Europe means that spare parts are quickly and easily accessible. The most recent versions of the Leopard 2 are among the best tanks in the world
: more than a match for all but the most recent Russian models.
On the eve of Friday’s Ramstein meeting, Moscow deployed its latest T14 tanks in a show of strength designed to deter Berlin. But experts believe that the Russian army has only a handful of these new tanks, which have been plagued by technical problems.
The underlying problem for Germany is that Scholz has prioritised domestic politics over international relations. He believes that by refusing to send his country’s panzers into battle against Russia, he is in tune with German public opinion.
'Berlin’s policy towards Russia, especially after its first invasion of Ukrainian territory in 2014, was tantamount to appeasement' CREDIT: CLEMENS BILAN/EPA
Given Germany’s appalling history over the last century, one cannot lightly dismiss its aversion to militarism and war. One lesson of that century, however, is that appeasement and disarmament are a fatal combination.
Berlin’s policy towards Russia, especially after its first invasion of Ukrainian territory in 2014, was tantamount to appeasement. And the chaotic state of the German armed forces, only fully apparent since the second invasion of Ukraine last year, shows that Berlin had continued to disarm despite the writing on the wall.
Against the odds, Zelensky and his intrepid troops have outfought their opponents at every stage. Despite the strategic and tactical skill that enabled Ukraine to repel Russian attacks on the major cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and to regain many others including Kherson, the human and material cost has been horrific.
In order to mount the major offensives that will be needed to recapture all of the Ukrainian territory occupied by Russian forces, Zelensky needs an even larger and more modern arsenal — above all tanks.
Only now, after a rapidly rising death toll that already surpasses all other European conflicts since 1945, are German elites waking up to the new facts on the ground.
It has taken them longer — much longer — than their English-speaking counterparts to come to terms with this new reality on the battlefield. This has been symbolised by the contrast between the defence ministers of Britain and America with those of Germany.
Until the last few days, the political leader of the German armed forces was Christine Lambrecht, the gaffe-prone Defence Minister whose idea of deterrence on the eve of war was to send 5,000 helmets to Kyiv.
Her tone-deaf New Year’s Eve message a few weeks ago was the last straw: the conflict had given her “a lot of special experiences”, she said bizarrely, plus “many encounters with great and interesting people”. With evident reluctance, Scholz had to sack his loyal but incompetent lieutenant
Boris Pistorius, left, has been plucked from obscurity to replace gaffe-prone Christine Lambrecht, right CREDIT: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg
Yet to say that Lambrecht’s replacement was underwhelming would be an understatement. Until a few days ago, Boris Pistorius was an obscure interior minister in the state of Lower Saxony. Even compared to such predecessors as Ursula von der Leyen, who ordered her troops on exercises to use broomsticks as rifles, Pistorius looks like a lightweight.
Compare him with Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, a four-star general who led troops in combat in Iraq and as head of US Central Command. Or consider Ben Wallace, the British Defence Secretary: though a civilian now, he served in the Scots Guards during the 1990s. As a captain in Northern Ireland, he was mentioned in dispatches for capturing an IRA unit engaged in a bombing operation.
At their first meeting in Berlin on Thursday, Austin joked about how Pistorius had only been in office for an hour.
Is it reasonable to expect men with such distinguished records of military service to have much respect for a provincial politician of the calibre of Pistorius? Apart from doing national service during the Cold War and sitting on parliamentary committees, he has zero experience of defence.
It is hardly the fault of the new German Defence Minister that he is too young to have seen action in the Second World War, like Helmut Schmidt, who made his mark at the Defence Ministry before becoming Chancellor. Another remarkable holder of the office was Manfred Wörner, the first and so far only German to serve as NATO Secretary General.
Among German ministerial posts, however, defence is often nicknamed “the ejector seat” because it has a reputation as the graveyard of political careers, as in Lambrecht’s case. Many are bound to wonder: what could be the button that sends Pistorius into oblivion?
There are suggestions that the new Defence Minister might not always have been as critical of the Kremlin as he now claims to be. He was until recently a member of a parliamentary German-Russian Friendship Group before it was dissolved.
While unthinkable now, a group like this typifies the German approach to Russia until the outbreak of the war. For nearly three decades, Germany was Russia’s biggest trading partner, ever more reliant on imported gas and oil in exchange for the cars and other well-engineered goods craved by the new Russian bourgeoisie.
A self-serving consensus emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall: not US-led deterrence, but German-led Ostpolitik
had won the Cold War. A peaceful end to the division of Germany and Europe had vindicated the dogma of Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”).
Defence and security, the Germans assumed, could safely be left to those who cared about such things — chiefly the Americans — while Europe pursued its destiny. That destiny was pacifist.
A key component of the European mission, zealously propagated by Berlin’s political and business elites, was the integration of Russia into the EU economy.
For 16 years until the end of 2021, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin presided over this seemingly mutually beneficial rapprochement. Neither trusted the other, but the former East German physicist chose to turn a blind eye to the ex-KGB colonel’s unreformed habits — incarcerating or liquidating his opponents and destabilising or invading his neighbours.
Walking through the ruins in Toretsk, a few miles from the front line of the battle in eastern Ukraine CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images Europe
In fact, German reliance on Russian gas grew steadily over the past three decades, even after Putin’s mask slipped in 2014. By doggedly denying the strategic significance of energy projects such as the Nordstream pipelines to Moscow, successive German Chancellors were dragging Europe down the path of appeasement.
Last February, three months after Angela Merkel had left the scene, came the rude awakening — a blitzkrieg followed by a genocide
. Many Germans are still in denial about the fact that this war of annihilation is taking place in some of the same cities and fields where their grandfathers executed their own crimes against humanity.
The German economy was, and is, so much bigger than Russia’s that many were shocked by the revelation that their true power relationship, hitherto obscured by design, was one of near total dependency on Russian energy.
It is true that Berlin has taken drastic and, for some, painful steps to wean the economy off Russian gas
. A huge effort has been devoted to creating storage capacity for liquid gas imported from elsewhere, although high prices mean that Putin is still raking in more German and EU cash than ever before. These energy profits have financed Russia’s war of annihilation.
A striking aspect of the energy crisis is that it shows how rapidly a joint effort by Germany’s corporate and state authorities can transform Europe’s largest economy. No such effort has been devoted, however, to rebuilding the arms industry on the scale required to enable Ukraine to expel the Russians from their sovereign territory.
Unlike Russia, Germany still doesn’t have anything like a war economy, even at the peacetime level of 1989, because it doesn’t want one. Instead, the politicians have concentrated on drawing and redrawing their red lines about what may or may not be exported to Ukraine.
The prospect that terrifies them is of Germany once again being accused of causing a European conflagration. The last time a Social Democrat-led German government faced a comparable dilemma was in the early 1980s, over the stationing of US Cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles. This provoked mass protests, secretly orchestrated by the KGB and Stasi. The then Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, was unable to hold his coalition together. In 1982 he resigned. The Social Democrats were out of office for 16 years.
Protests in Berlin urging the German government to send Leopards to Ukraine CREDIT: Maja Hitij/Getty Images Europe
This time, the coalition Cabinet is also split on sending Leopard 2s, with the Greens led by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck in favour, while many of Scholz’s Social Democrats are against. As in 1982, this has the potential to destroy the coalition.
The stakes could hardly be higher, both for Germany and for the West. On the Leopard 2, Olaf Scholz needs to change his spots. Otherwise he risks not only political oblivion for himself, but moral ignominy for his country.