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Ukraine: Will it receive German battle tanks?

September 21, 2022

Ukraine needs modern, Western tanks to continue retaking Russian-occupied territory, according to military experts. There are calls for Germany to forge a coalition in Europe to deliver them.

German Leopard 2 tank
Much of the debate centers on the delivery of modern Leopard 2 tanksImage: Courtesy Canadian Armed Forces/REUTERS

It is showdown time in the German federal parliament, the Bundestag, this Thursday: Lawmakers are scheduled to debate German assistance for Ukraine. And there are indications that a majority is in favor of supplying the country with modern tanks — something that Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Social Democrats (SPD) seem reluctant to do.

The largest opposition party in Germany, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), has put forward a motion for the delivery of Western-designed battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles from industrial stocks to Ukraine. 

If the motion — titled "Defending peace and freedom in Europe — supporting Ukraine resolutely with heavy weapons now," — is put to a vote, cracks in the governing coalition could be revealed, as many deputies from the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) deputies are also in favor of providing more military assistance.

What weapons is the West sending to Ukraine?

Impact of developments on the battlefield

In a surprise announcement, the German Defense Ministry said in mid-September that it would deliver 50 armored Dingo transport vehicles to Ukraine. These would offer frontline Ukrainian soldiers protection from Russian fire.

Ukraine has been calling for Western tanks to use in its fight against the Russian attackers for months. After Kyiv's most recent military successes in the country's northeast, the war is entering a new phase.

"Ukraine currently lacks the equipment to successfully carry out counterattacks, especially in the vast, spacious grassland region. That is why Ukraine is looking for so much help with battle tanks and armored personnel carriers," Nico Lange, an analyst at the Munich Security Conference and expert on eastern Europe told DW.

The pressure on Germany to supply more heavy weapons to Ukraine has grown steadily.

Map showing the progress of the Ukrainian army by September 20, 2022
Ukraine's army has recaptured territory in the east and southeast of the country

But in mid-September, the Bundeswehr's inspector-general, Eberhard Zorn, Germany's highest-ranking soldier, downplayed Ukraine's military success in the northeast of the country in an interview with the weekly Focus news magazine. "I am cautious about using such terms," he said, referring to the Ukrainian army's counteroffensive which had been praised by the US and UK. In the same interview, Zorn warned of Russian attacks on the Baltic States or Finland.

Ben Hodges, a former commander of US forces in Europe, who lives in Germany, described Zorn's statements as a "stunningly poor analysis of Russian capabilities." He said that Finland alone could crush Russian forces in their current state. And Lithuania and Poland, which share borders with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea coast, could "smother" them "in a week." Most Western analysts tend to agree with the US general.

Within Germany's government, the more restrained Social Democrats are facing increasing pressure from their coalition partners – the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP). In an interview with the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper,

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock from the Greens said: "In this decisive phase which Ukraine now finds itself in, I do not consider this to be a decision that should be dragged out  for a long time." She added that in any case, the delivery of "modern battle tanks" such as the Leopard 2 could only be decided collaboratively "in a coalition and internationally."

Baerbock has continually spoken out in favor of solidarity with Ukraine.

This sounds very much like a proposal by theEuropean Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a Berlin-based think tank, for a "Leopard 2 Plan" which is currently making the rounds in the German capital.

It recommends that European countries, which have the Leopard 2 in stock should form a group to provide Ukraine with 90 battle-ready tanks. "After supporting Ukraine's urban defensive fight and boosting its long-range strike capabilities, they should equip its armed forces for maneuver warfare. Heavy armor will be crucial in this next phase of the war," analysts Gustav Gressel, Rafael Loss, and Jana Puglierin recently wrote in a report.

They suggested that the German government should create a "consortium of European Leopard 2 users" for this purpose and explained that 12 European armies and Turkey had more than 2,000 various Leopard 2 tanks between them.

For Nico Lange from the Munich Security Conference, "an association of several European nations that have Leopard 2 battle tanks," could be a way to support Ukraine "on an equal footing" with the US. So far, Washington has delivered the most weapons to Ukraine by a large margin.

Olaf Scholz and an instructor atop a Gepard tank
Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited a training site for Ukrainian soldiers in GermanyImage: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

German weapons deliveries to date

Berlin has been reluctant to provide exact figures regarding deliveries of the most modern weapons systems. In addition to 50 Dingo armored personnel carriers, Ukraine is said to have received an unspecified number of Cobra artillery radar systems and Iris-T air defense systems.

The German Defense Ministry was much more precise when it came to the delivery of 20 anti-aircraft "Gepard" ("cheetah") tanks, for which Berlin received recognition from the US and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian soldiers who will operate the tanks received training in Germany over the summer. According to the ministry, the delivery of an additional 10 Gepard tanks is currently in progress.

Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, from Olaf Scholz's Social Democrat party (SPD), has also announced that Germany will send two more Mars II multiple rocket launchers, including 200 rockets.

Germany is currently working through a list of military supplies that comprises over two dozen items. A majority will come straight from German weapons producers, not from Bundeswehr stocks. These include armored recovery vehicles, bridge-laying tanks, as well as hundreds of trucks and trailers.

According to the government, Germany approved arms exports to Ukraine worth more than €733 million (ca. $723 million) between January 1 and September 19 of this year.

This article was originally written in German.

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