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Germany's ring exchange with Ukraine: An assessment

Dimitra Kyranoudi | Wojciech Szymanski | Keno Verseck
November 9, 2022

Germany's "ring exchange" of tanks to avoid directly arming Ukraine got off to a slow start. But some experts see it as the prelude to a shift in German security policy.

Two soldiers looking out of the turrets of a tank in a field
Ukraine is reliant on weapons supplied by the West to defend itself against the Russian armyImage: Nick Connolly/DW

For months, the phrase "ring exchange" was practically the motto of German policy on Ukraine, becoming synonymous with hesitation and half-heartedness. The idea was that Germany would supply certain weapons, primarily battle tanks and other heavy equipment, to NATO partner countries rather than directly to Ukraine.

These countries in turn would hand over to Ukraine weapons from their old stocks. This had the advantage of allowing Germany to circumvent the issue of supplying heavy weapons directly to Ukraine while still showing solidarity with it.

The ring exchange was also supposed to contribute to the military modernization of NATO members, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

More than six months after the ring exchange idea was broached, things have gone rather quiet. Initially, the concept didn't work; later on, it worked only in a few instances, and the process was generally far from smooth.

Poland, for example, flatly rejected a ring exchange, and it took months to agree to the details with Greece. Now, though, several successful ring exchanges have taken place, while others are being finalized.

Headshot of Christine Lambrecht, a blonde woman with glasses wearing a red jacket, with the logo of the German army in the background
German defense minister Christine Lambrecht was the one who floated the idea of a ring exchangeImage: Thomas Frey/dpa/picture alliance

Time for an assessment. Is the ring exchange helping Ukraine? How does it benefit NATO members taking part? Does the idea still have a future? And: does it reinforce the image of Germany as a country that, despite being the leading economic power in Europe, is failing to take a leading role in supporting Ukraine? DW put these questions to governmental representatives from countries participating in right exchanges as well as independent experts.

Poland: Unattractive offer

Poland is one of the Ukrainian army's principal supporters. Ukraine has received more than 250 older, Soviet-era battle tanks from its neighbor, which left a considerable gap in Polish stocks. A ring exchange with Germany would have been one way of closing this gap, but so far this has not come to pass. The Polish defense ministry told DW that no talks were currently taking place with Germany about this, either.

A tank in the countryside under a cloudy sky; another tank in the background.
The Leopard 2 A4 battle tank, seen here during a Canadian Army training exerciseImage: Courtesy Canadian Armed Forces/REUTERS

Germany had originally offered to supply Poland with 20 Leopard 2A4 tanks, but they would only have been fully operational about a year after the offer was made. In addition, Germany was prepared to hand over 100 old Leopard 1A5 tanks or used Marder infantry fighting vehicles.

"The Polish government wasn't satisfied with this offer," says Justyna Gotkowska, a security expert at the OSW Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. "First of all, Poland wanted a whole battalion, so at least 44 tanks. Secondly, it wanted new generation tanks. The Polish army is in a phase of accelerated modernization and doesn't see the point in investing in old equipment."

Germany acting below its capabilities

Poland is currently buying hundreds of state-of-the-art Abrams tanks from the United States. On top of this, in July 2022 the Polish defense ministry signed an agreement with South Korea to purchase 180 modern K2 tanks. "As far as tanks are concerned, Germany has taken a back seat as a partner for military technical cooperation," says Gotkowska.

Big policy issues also contributed to the failure of the ring exchange: "Warsaw considers Berlin's policy of military support for Ukraine far from sufficient, proportional to Germany's capabilities," Gotkowska explains.

Olaf Scholz, a balding man in a black suit, speaks into a microphone
Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz is reluctant to supply arms directly to UkraineImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia are satisfied

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and to a lesser extent Slovenia, are among the most active military supporters of Ukraine within the European Union. Slovakia delivered an air defense system directly to Kyiv as early as the spring of 2022 and received a Patriot defense system from Germany and the Netherlands in exchange. In the summer, it then sent 30 battle tanks to its eastern neighbor. The Czech Republic delivered 40 more. In return, Bratislava is getting 15 Leopard tanks from Germany, while Prague will receive 14. For its part, Slovenia delivered 28 tanks to Ukraine at the end of October, for which Germany is supplying it with 43 military transport vehicles.

"In the Czech Republic, the ring exchange with Germany is seen as generally positive and advantageous," Jiri Pehe, a Czech political scientist, tells DW. "It's helping the Czech Republic to significantly modernize its army."

Grigorij Meseznikov, a political scientist from the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Bratislava, says it's similar situation for Slovakia: "We're getting new and modern weapons from Germany in exchange for old air defense systems and tanks."

Volodymyr Zelenskyy on a screen behind a number of Bundestag delegates, who have turned in their seats to watch and are applauding.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, addresses members of the German Bundestag on March 17, 2022Image: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

Germany needs to understand

The political background to the ring exchange idea is viewed differently in both countries. "The majority of the Czech public understands the pacifist background of post-war Germany, but [don't understand] why now, when there can only be peace if Russia is defeated militarily,"Jiri Pehe tells DW. Germany is so reluctant to supply certain weapons to Ukraine."

Grigorij Meseznikov takes the same view. And, he adds, "Germany needs to understand that Russia is threatening the freedom of all of us. It would be good if Berlin took a leading role in Europe in providing military assistance to Ukraine."

Infantry fighting vehicles for Greece

With Greece, it took months—but the ring exchange is now underway. The Greek army is getting a total of 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles from Germany. Some have already been delivered. In exchange, Greece will send 40 Soviet-designed battle tanks to Ukraine.

Olaf Scholz, in a dark jacket; Kyriakos Mitsotakis in shirtsleeves with wind-blown hair. Behind and below them, an out-of-focus Athens cityscape.
In October, Germany and Greece finally agreed a ring exchange, which is now in progressImage: Aristidis Vafeiadakis/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

The Marder tanks that have already been delivered have been deployed on the Greek-Turkish border. "Our armed forces assume that that is where the tanks will be most useful," Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in October at a joint press conference with German chancellor, Olaf Scholz. The border zone along the river Evros in eastern Greece is currently making international headlines because of illegal pushbacks of migrants, and Turkish threats to Greece's territorial integrity.

Investing in solidarity

According to Antonis Kamaras, a defense expert with the Athens-based foreign policy think tank ELIAMEP, the Marder delivery is not primarily about defending Greece. "Its main political value lies in the fact that the Greek government is investing in the concept of solidarity," he tells DW. According to Kamaras, the use of Greece's port of Alexandroupolis for the transfer of weapons systems, supplies and munitions to Ukraine is a far greater contribution to solidarity than supplying tanks.

A helicopter on tarmac, a blue sky and sea in the background. A few soldiers are standing beside it on the left.
Greece is allowing its northern port of Alexandroupolis to be used as a stopover for weapons and supplies going to UkraineImage: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP

Kamaras says it is understandable that Germany is reluctant to supply Marder tanks directly to Ukraine. "It's still a taboo for the German government to see German tanks back on the battlefields of World War II. This is German history," he says.

Hans-Peter Bartels, the president of the German Society for Security Policy (GSP), Germany's oldest security policy association, believes that the ring exchange is just a "temporary phase in German policy, in which they say they don't want to supply weapons directly to Ukraine."

This, he points out, is already starting to change; Germany is already supplying Ukraine with rocket launchers and heavy artillery, for example.

"Yesterday's skepticism is turning into today's 'maybe,' and tomorrow's 'we're proud of this,'" Bartels tells DW. "The line is shifting during the duration of the war."

And as for whether the ring exchange is benefitting Ukraine, Bertels doesn't think so. The past few months of fighting have shown how much more effective Western weapons are than the Soviet ones. In addition, as Ukrainian forces receive more training with Western weapons, it's harder to argue that their military isn't able to use them.

This article has been translated from German.

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Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter