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Ukraine's advances heighten calls for German tanks

September 12, 2022

Germany is now under even more pressure to deliver high-tech battle tanks to bolster the Ukrainian military advance. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his defense minister say it’s not that easy.

Bundeswehr soldier and tank at sunset in Lithuania
Germany is debating stepping up its heavy weapons deliveries to UkraineImage: Killian Bayer/DW

Ukraine's spectacular advances against the Russian invasion over the past few days have increased pressure on the German government to send its state-of-the-art Leopard 2 tanks to the Ukrainian military.

These tanks, built by the Munich-based arms company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, could be vital to supporting troops liberating the regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Rafael Loss, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

"Ukrainian tank crews have shown that they are able to conduct maneuvering warfare and combined operations very effectively," Loss told DW.

Ukraine's battlefield advances were achieved by coordinating "tanks with armored personnel carriers with artillery support … to punch holes in the Russian defenses and to identify weaknesses and exploit them by moving forces quickly," Loss added. "And this is what Ukraine will be having to do over the next months and maybe next year to liberate the occupied parts of Ukraine."

Artillery alone, he said, is only one piece of this puzzle.

Map showing troop movements in eastern Ukraine
The Ukrainian army has reported significant advances

Members of parties in Germany's governing coalition have joined the chorus of demands from the political opposition aimed at Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Defense Minister, Christine Lambrecht.

"I wish the chancellor would change his line," said Bundestag defense committee chairperson Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann.

Delivering Leopard tanks and more Marder infantry fighting vehicles was "unbelievably important and should happen immediately," the politician from the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) told public broadcaster ARD on Monday morning.

In a war situation such as this, she added, "Ukraine's successes can only be underpinned if they have the weapons that they need now."

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann speaks into a DW microphone
Bundestag defense committee chairperson Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann has said delivering Leopard tanks was 'unbelievably important'

Even members of the Green Party, the second biggest party in the government coalition and until last year opposed to increasing German arms exports abroad, have been urging more military help.

"Everyone in the government knows by now that more would be possible," Green Party co-leader Omid Nouripour told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

'Not that easy'

But the German government has remained adamant. Speaking at an event hosted by the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) on Monday morning, Defense Minister Lambrecht explained to a gathering of diplomats and military personnel that Germany inherently has a leading role in Europe.

But she also reminded her audience that her first duty as defense minister was to ensure that Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, was equipped well enough to defend the country.

"It's not so simple just to say: I'll just risk that we won't be able to act, the defense of the country, by giving everything away. No, I won't do that," she said. "But we have other possibilities, from industry, with our partners."

As Ukraine attacks, news of Russian retaliation emerges

Lambrecht added that training Ukrainian soldiers to fight with Leopard 2 tanks would take weeks, whereas deliveries of Soviet-built tanks, like those used in other Eastern European countries, can be sent into battle in Ukraine right away.

She added that all decisions about arms exports would be made in coordination with NATO allies, especially the US and UK.

"It's a process," Lambrecht told the gathered dignitaries and analysts. "Sometimes there's a military-strategical element to it too. To keep talking about what is being delivered, and therefore to let Putin know what is coming, is perhaps not the cleverest idea."

Ensuring Ukraine's survival

But there are counterarguments against all of Lambrecht's points, says defense expert Rafael Loss.

"It's more a question of willingness than formal or informal constraints that are being put on the German government by allies or the situation in Ukraine," he said. "My impression is that Christine Lambrecht and Olaf Scholz are both scrambling in various drawers to come up with new reasons why we shouldn't do a particular thing."

For one thing, he said, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg himself reiterated at the weekend that Ukraine's survival was currently more important than ensuring that NATO's military stores were full.

Leopard 2 A4 tanks sends up a dust storm
There are calls to send German Leopard 2 tanks directly to Ukraine nowImage: Csaba Krizsan/dpa

"Of course, it would undermine the Bundeswehr's own capabilities and mess up the training plans for new tank crews but this is a political decision," said Loss.

Germany is in a uniquely important position to lead the way in providing tanks to Ukraine, partly because both the Bundeswehr and German industry have some available in stock.

There are also some 2,000 such tanks — in various configurations and states of readiness — currently being used by another 12 European armies, meaning the burden could be shared among those countries.

Looming winter

If the Leopard 2 tanks were made available now, it would still take at least two months for them to be battle-ready and at the front lines in eastern Ukraine, 

But the use of the tanks in the upcoming winter months could be critical, Loss said.

While he agrees that there are legitimate concerns about top military hardware like the Leopard 2 falling into Russia's hands, he says it's older versions of the tanks that are more readily available anyway.

Though few in power would say so openly, for many critics, the German government's reluctance to send the Leopard 2 is more about avoiding the unpleasant optics of Russian tanks facing off directly against German tanks.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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