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Opinion: Send in the Leopards!

January 20, 2023

The German government failed to approve the delivery of Leopard tanks to Ukraine. DW's Christoph Hasselbach wants to know what Berlin is waiting for.

A Leopard 2 tank, partially camouflaged with green branches, the front rising up as it drives fast across a testing ground.
Germany's Leopard 2 battle tank could give Ukraine an advantageImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.M. Wegmann

I admit it: I've changed my mind. For a long time, I could understand why the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was reluctant to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. And I can still understand the concern that supplying certain weapons could drag Germany, or the whole of NATO, into the war. After all, Russian politicians have threatened exactly that; President Vladimir Putin even toyed with the nuclear option. There are certainly reasons to be circumspect when dealing with Russia.

The problem is: Putin knows this. More than that: He has factored this fear into his calculations from the start. And while Ukrainians are desperately fighting for their lives and freedom, the Russian army is systematically destroying residential buildings and civilian utility installations. War crimes are being committed more or less on our doorstep!

Threat of a war of attrition

Measured against Russia's overwhelming numerical superiority and the sheer unscrupulousness of its warfare, the Ukrainian army has done astonishingly well, even recapturing large swaths of territory. A crucial reason for this is Western military aid.

Headshot of Christoph Hasselbach, who is wearing a dark suit, red tie and glasses.
DW's Christoph HasselbachImage: DW

But the Ukrainian counteroffensive has apparently reached its limits, and a war of attrition has begun. And Russia has greater stamina for this. Even without major battles, every day is a day of suffering for the civilian population — and also, incidentally, a day when the world cannot turn its full attention to other urgent problems, such as tackling the hunger that has increased worldwide as a result of the war in Ukraine.

Now is not the time for negotiation

Given the current military stalemate, energy shortages and inflation, calls for a diplomatic solution are growing louder again in many of the countries that support Ukraine. "Let's finally negotiate a peace!" they say. Yet, one thing is clear: If Ukraine were to negotiate now, it would get a peace dictated by Russia.

As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a DW interview in October: "If President Putin and Russia stop fighting, there will be peace. If President Zelenskyy and Ukraine stop fighting, Ukraine will cease to exist as an independent nation." This is why diplomacy and military aid are not antitheses — they complement each other. Ukraine can only negotiate from a position of strength. And it is not there yet.

Putin decides what constitutes entry into the war

According to everything military experts are saying, Western battle tanks would make a crucial difference. With these, instead of just holding its ground, Ukraine could push deeper into Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.

In Putin's interpretation, these territories now belong to Russia. What if Russia considers a Ukrainian advance there, using Western battle tanks, as entry into the war by the countries that supplied those tanks? The answer is: He can interpret it like that anyway if he wants to. He can also interpret other things as entry into the war if he so pleases. But the West cannot allow itself to be coerced by such threats. International law is on the side of Ukraine and its military supporters because the country is merely defending itself against an aggressor.

Nothing is without risk

It is true that this path is not without risk. But the alternative path, of restraint and staying out of it all, is even riskier. It would show Putin, and all his potential imitators around the world, that he can get away with his aggression. Moldova or the Baltic states might then be his next targets.

This is why restraint is no longer appropriate when it comes to the battle tanks — if indeed it ever was. As long as no other Western country was prepared to supply battle tanks, Olaf Scholz could say he didn't want Germany going it alone. And that was sensible. Now Britain intends to go ahead and deliver its Challenger battle tanks regardless of who follows suit.

Other countries such as Poland and Finland would send German-made Leopard tanks immediately if Germany were to permit it — Berlin reserves the right to approve such exports. Allowing this is the very least the German government should do. But still it refuses. There may be reasons having to do with Germany's self-defense capabilities that speak against Berlin supplying Leopards directly, but there are no diplomatic, strategic, or even moral ones.

Supplying battle tanks is militarily necessary; it is covered by international law; and, strategically, it is the decisive signal, to both Putin and our own allies, that we will defend our freedom together. The German government cannot wait much longer without losing its credibility.

This article has been translated from German.