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Opinion: New defense minister's chance with arms for Ukraine

Goncharenko Roman
Roman Goncharenko
January 17, 2023

Germany has been struggling with the issue of arms shipments to Ukraine. In some cases, allies even doubted Berlin's support. Saying "yes" to Leopard 2 tank shipments could dispel doubt, says DW's Roman Goncharenko.

A row of tanks with soldiers in a sandy open landscape
Leopard 2 tanks during an exercise in Poland in 2022Image: STR/NurPhoto/picture alliance

It's like déjà vu: Ukraine and its partners in the West grow increasingly nervous as they watch Russian troop buildups, for instance in Belarus, and wonder where and when President Vladimir Putin might strike next. Almost a year after invading his neighbor, the ploy remains part of Putin's tactics of attrition.

Among Kyiv's allies, Germany is under increasing pressure to supply more weapons and is hesitant while the UK forges ahead, becoming the first NATO member planning to send modern battle tanks. Criticism of Berlin is on the rise and Germany-bashing is once again the order of the day in the Twitter bubble. The old rift between Eastern Europe and Germany threatens to crack wide open again — reminiscent of the situation in the winter of 2022, when Estonia wanted to ship stockpiled East German D-30 howitzers to Ukraine and Berlin objected, only consenting to the move after the Russian invasion.

Dispelling doubts about German reliability

This time, it's all about what most probably is the best-known and most sought-after product of the German arms industry at present, the Leopard 2 battle tank. It has become a symbol. Kyiv has been asking Berlin for these tanks for months and so far been told "no" — although less and less convincingly.

Recently German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck said Berlin should not stand in the way if other countries want to deliver. Poland and several other NATO countries are ready to give Ukraine their own Leopard 2 tanks, but they need approval from Germany, where they were developed.

Roman Goncharenko
DW's Roman GoncharenkoImage: DW

At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Berlin was criticized for its hesitant approach, and rightly so. That reluctance, as well as the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, represented Germany's two biggest mistakes prior to the invasion.

Since then, the country has made impressive adjustments — Germany ended its dependence on Russian energy supplies at record speed, and arms deliveries to Ukraine are on the rise. Just a few weeks ago, Berlin announced plans to deliver Marder infantry fighting vehicles and a Patriot air defense system to Ukraine. These are not mere trifles and Kyiv could really show a bit more gratitude but sending Leopard 2 tanks is a chance for Berlin to dispel any lingering doubts concerning German reliability — a chance for a final correction of previous mistakes, and an opportunity to close this chapter.

Chance for new German defense minister

Berlin must consent, and it will. Pressure is mounting and there are indications pointing in that direction, so it is only a matter of time. It would seem impossible to delay further without harming the country's image. And after Britain's announcement, it would no longer be a solo effort, which the chancellor rejects because of German popular sentiment. Germany is ready to "assume responsibility as one of the main guarantors of security in Europe," Olaf Scholz wrote in a keynote article for Foreign Affairs magazine in December, pledging to train and equip Ukrainian forces.

Agreeing to provide the Leopard 2 tank would really be a step in that direction — and the sooner, the better. The next opportunity is at the defense ministers' meeting on Ukraine assistance at the US base in Ramstein at the end of this week. It is a unique chance for Boris Pistorius, Germany's new defense minister, to make an historic announcement and give the green light for tank deliveries. Ukraine and its partners do not have much time. An even more brutal and bloody phase of the war is imminent and Germany can no longer afford to hold back.

This article was originally written in German.