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Poland pressed Germany to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine

January 24, 2023

Poland was prepared to send tanks to Ukraine even without Germany's blessing. Officials in Warsaw said they couldn't understand the hesitation by their counterparts in Berlin as fears grow that the war is coming closer.

3 tanks on bare, sandy ground, facing away, each with two soldiers looking out of the top
Poland wants to give Ukraine some of its Leopard 2 battle tanks, seen here during a training exercise in April 2022Image: STR/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The Polish government has officially sought permission from  Germany to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks, Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced Tuesday on Twitter. He also called on Germany's government to "join the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks."

Within hours, German media were reporting that Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government was planning on sending its own Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

In recent days Poland's government had repeatedly made clear that it was determined to reinforce Ukraine with the tanks it urgently needs — with or without Germany's permission.

Polish officials had been left deeply disappointed by the outcome of the meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group at the US's Ramstein Air Base on Friday. Germany's government had still not made a decision about supplying Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Both Polish President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had made it clear that they would not be dissuaded by Germany's hesitancy.

"Ukraine and Europe will win this war — with or without Germany," Morawiecki told the Polish news agency PAP over the weekend. 

That recalled a previous statement by Duda, who had said in October that "Poland will stand with Ukraine, no ifs or buts: That is our reason of state."

Mateusz Morawiecki is in Brussels, wearing glasses before the EU flag
Morawiecki has said Ukraine and its allies would win the war with or without GermanyImage: Nicolas Landemard/Le Pictorium/MAXPPP/picture alliance

Germany's 'nice declarations'

Ahead of Tuesday's reports, Polish government spokesman Piotr Müller had said it was unfortunate that Germany did not appear prepared to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine from the Bundeswehr's reserves. "The image Germany is presenting is disappointing," he said. "It makes nice declarations about human rights, about European values, but in reality, in a difficult situation, they are not respected."

And Poland's government had made clear that it would send the tanks without Germany's permission as part of an alliance of countries prepared to initiate such actions. "If the Germans are not part of this coalition, then we, with others, will still send tanks to Ukraine," Morawiecki said.

Polish officials had found encouragement in recent remarks by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock who told the French broadcaster LCI on Sunday that "for the moment the question has not been asked, but, if we were asked, we would not stand in the way."

Annalena Baerbock speaks in front of two desk microphones
Baerbock said Germany "would not stand in the way" if allies sought to supply LeopardsImage: Jean-Francois Badias/AP Photo/picture alliance

Excerpts from the interview featured heavily on Polish TV news programs. Morawiecki said Baerbock's comments represented a "glimmer of hope" that the Germans would "not only abandon their obstructive approach but also supply heavy weapons of their own." He claimed that this was the result of Poland's pressure.

Poland fears Russia

Poland considers Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine an existential threat to its own security, as well. If Ukraine were to be defeated, Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces would be on Poland's border. "Ukraine must win; Russia must lose" is a common slogan in Poland, but in Germany some politicians can't quite bring themselves to say it. On a visit to Berlin a few days ago, Morawiecki warned that "a Ukrainian defeat could be the prelude to a third world war."

There is broad support for military aid to Ukraine across Poland. According to a survey published by the IBRiS institute in December, 77.5% of respondents favored sending Ukraine military assistance.

Not only has Poland taken in millions of refugees; it has also provided 300 armored vehicles to Ukraine, including more than 230 Soviet-manufactured T-72 battle tanks.

Andrzej Duda (left, smiling, in a suit) shakes hands for the camera with Volodymyr Zelenskyy (serious, in a black sweatshirt) at a meeting in Poland in December.
Duda (pictured in December with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy) says Poland stands with its neighborImage: Jakub Szymczuk/KPRP/REUTERS

In December, the newspaper Rzeczpospolita cited the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in reporting that Poland had supplied €‎1.82 billion ($1.98 billion) in arms and military equipment to Ukraine, putting the country fourth behind the United States (€‎22.86 billion), Britain (€‎4.13 billion) and Germany (€‎2.34 billion).

Poland pledges support

A planned "ring exchange," in which Poland would send tanks to Ukraine and Germany would replenish Poland's supply, did not materialize. Instead, Poland's army procured tanks from the United States and South Korea. According to newspaper reports, Poland now has 249 Leopard A4 and A5 battle tanks and can hand over some of its older models.

At a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Lviv in January, Duda said Poland would give 14 Leopards to its neighbor.

"I'm convinced the decision about the Leopard delivery to Ukraine will be taken shortly," Slawomir Debski, the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told the newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. "America has given the green light." He added: "I am surprised the Germans are still trying to block it. The political damage is enormous, and they're gaining nothing."

The editor-in-chief of Rzeczpospolita, Boguslaw Chrabota, warned that "if Berlin doesn't change its mind and the armaments are not supplied to the beleaguered country, the fires of war will flare up on Poland's borders." He somberly concluded that "Ukraine will be the first victim; the second will be neighboring Poland."

Tuesday's reports may lead to an update of that assessment.

This article was originally written in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects