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Polish-German repair workshop for Ukrainian tanks stalled

Christoph Hasselbach | Aleksandra Fedorska
July 10, 2023

According to an agreement between Berlin and Warsaw, damaged German Leopard battle tanks from the front lines of the war in Ukraine are to be fixed at a workshop in Poland. So why is it still not operating?

Ukrainian soldiers being trained on German tanks
Ukrainian soldiers are training on German tanksImage: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa/picture alliance

The first Leopard battle tanks needing repairs after their deployment in Ukraine have arrived in Poland - but there's nowhere to fix them. Germany and Poland had agreed that they would jointly set up a repair and maintenance center in Poland by the end of May, but it is still not ready.

When the announcement was made by German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius in April, everything seemed to have been settled: The two German tank manufacturers Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) would work together with the Polish state-owned manufacturer PGZ to set up a tank maintenance hub in the city of Gliwice, southern Poland. But as things stand, the three companies have not even finalized a contract setting out how the consortium would work together.

The negotiations are likely to be very tough.

"They need to figure out how the profits will be distributed, who will deliver which technical contributions and what price they will charge for them," Damian Ratka, an arms expert from the website Defence24.pl told DW.

Even the question of spare parts was complicated, Ratka added.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently said there was a shortage of spare parts for the battle tanks, which, needless to say, makes repairing them difficult. The Leopard tanks' complex maintenance requirements mean that all sides must closely coordinate who will be responsible for which spare parts. The Poles have the best good opportunities to contribute spare parts, as they have the right suppliers, like PCO (Przemyslowe Centrum Optyki) and the WB Group. But this puts them in competition with German companies.

Boris Pistorius and Mariusz Blaszczak
Boris Pistorius (left) and his Polish counterpart Mariusz Blaszczak have hit a few snags in their cooperationImage: Kacper Pempel/REUTERS

Poland hopes for lucrative maintenance contracts

Choosing locations is also becoming a point of contention between German and Polish companies. The Polish side fears that international weapons development facilities located in Poland will be restricted in their activities by the German-Polish projects.

For instance, the repair of German Panzerhaubitze 2000 artillery systems meant for Ukraine has now been tied to a Polish location that had originally been reserved for the Polish competitor product, the "Krab" howitzer.

Similarly, it is important to Poland that the relatively well-functioning center for South Korean and Polish K2 tanks and US Abrams tanks, in the western city of Poznan, does not experience any restrictions or disadvantages because of the German-Polish collaboration.

Poland has ordered 366 American Abrams tanks and 1,000 Korean K2 tanks to modernize its armed forces, the majority of which are to be manufactured in South Korea and Poland. Other countries in the region, such as Romania, are also interested in the Korean model.

"In this case, Poland would take over the maintenance of the K2 at Poznan, and the Polish defense industry would benefit greatly from this," Damian Ratka said.

Pistorius: 'Time is of the essence'

There are also problems when it comes to the question of further stationing German Patriot missile defense systems on the Polish-Ukrainian border. These were supposed to remain in Poland only until the end of June.

But Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak recently said during a visit from his German counterpart Pistorius: "We are interested in ensuring that the Patriot systems remain on Polish territory at least until the end of the year."

There are some indications that the location of the Patriot missiles and the German-Polish tank repair workshop will be negotiated as a package deal, i.e., that Germany expects a Polish concession on the Patriots in return for a concession on the maintenance center.

A part of the Leopard 2A4 tank
Sourcing spare tank parts has become a source of tension between Poland and GermanyImage: Philipp Schulze/dpa/picture

During his visit to Poland, Pistorius said that time was of the essence: "It must be clear that repairs [of military equipment] are an essential part of sustainable support of Ukraine."

He pointed out that Germany and Poland were the leading nations in delivering the Leopard tanks and spoke of "intensive, complex negotiations" – often a diplomatic way of saying there had been a dispute. In general, however, cooperation with high-tech companies from Germany is welcomed as an opportunity in Poland.

The negotiations are happening at a time of already tense relations between the two governments. The left-leaning German government, a coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) is facing the conservative, nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government in Warsaw. They view many political topics very differently, be it migration, energy or the issue of military support for Ukraine, a point on which Warsaw has accused Berlin of acting too late and doing too little.

To further complicate matters, election campaigning is underway in Poland, which is due to elect a new parliament later this year. That means the government in Warsaw is taking a tougher stance against Berlin in the hope of scoring political points domestically.

This article was originally written in German.

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