War Stories

The Clash Over Whether to Send German Tanks to Ukraine Is a Pretty Big Deal

Germany’s chancellor insists on waiting for the Americans.

A photo of a tank, and a Ukrainian serviceman, and a man on a bike, in Ukraine.
A broken tank is pulled to a truck near the frontline town of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, in January 2023. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak

Western defense ministers ended their conference at a U.S. air base in Germany on Friday afternoon still unable to persuade Germany to send its best battle tanks, the Leopard 2s, to Ukraine.

The failure marked a rare and potentially damaging jolt to what has been a rapid flow of Western arms—and, still more unnerving, a solid show of Western unity—to help the Ukrainian army fight off the Russian invaders.

The whole episode signals just how much Europe has changed in the 11 months since Vladimir Putin’s invasion—and also how much, in some ways, it hasn’t changed.

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Even just a few years ago, most Western leaders were content that Germany—given its militarist past under imperial and Nazi rulers—sought little role in foreign wars. Now President Biden, most European allies, and many members of Berlin’s government are upset that Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, isn’t seeking a role that’s much bigger.

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Scholz, who took his post just two months before the invasion, has stepped up Germany’s involvement in this war to a startling degree. Almost immediately after Russia’s troops crossed into Ukraine, he bumped up Germany’s defense budget by $100 billion (which the legislature, the Bundestag, approved) and, in the months since, agreed to send many types of weapons to Ukraine. Germany is 2nd only to the U.S. as a supplier of arms and economic aid. But he balked at the Leopard 2 tanks.

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His reasons are complicated: unease over nightmarish images from history of German tanks rolling through the plains of Europe (though now they’d be helping to stave off an invasion, not mounting one); the Social Democratic Party’s fear of alienating Russia or of provoking Putin to escalate the war further; and public opinion, which closely reflects these fears, is evenly split over whether or not to send tanks.

At the same time, Scholz stands alone among the party leaders in his governing coalition. Even the Green Party firmly supports sending Leopards to Ukraine.

Scholz has replied to the pressure by saying he simply doesn’t want to be the first to cross the line of sending tanks—something Ukraine’s allies haven’t done as yet—and therefore wants the United States to send its top battle tank, the M1 Abrams, first.

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Germany wouldn’t be entirely alone if it did send Leopards. Britain has agreed to send 14 of its Challenger tanks, which are very similar to the Abrams and Leopard. But Scholz insists on waiting for the Americans. If Western tanks help Ukraine overrun Russian positions, to the point of threatening Russian territory, Putin, facing an existential threat, could retaliate with tactical nuclear weapons—which only the American nuclear arsenal could deter; therefore, American tanks should be involved in the fight.

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It’s a dubious argument; as long as U.S. or NATO troops aren’t fighting, I don’t see how Putin’s red lines would be triggered by the provenance of the weapons that Ukrainians are firing.

In any case, the problem here is that, as U.S. officials have noted, the Abrams “doesn’t make sense” for the Ukrainian army. It’s a maintenance nightmare; it runs on jet fuel and sucks up 3 gallons per mile (not the other way around); a separate, massive supply line would have to be set up, manned, and defended, just for these tanks. A few years ago, the U.S. Marines gave the Abrams a try, decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, and sent them all back to the Army.

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Still, here’s a modest proposal for the Biden administration: Send Ukraine a handful of Abrams tanks, just as a symbol, if that’s what it takes to prod Scholz to unleash dozens or hundreds of Leopards. (I suggested this to a U.S. official, who told me on background that, at $9 million each, the Abrams would be an awfully expensive symbol, and, more to the point, “we wouldn’t give Ukraine weapons they couldn’t use.” Still …)

In the past week, Poland, the Baltic nations, and Finland—among the 16 countries that have bought Leopards over the years—have said they would send some of their Leopards to Ukraine if Germany refused to give them directly. By law, they would need Germany’s permission to do so, but they have threatened to send the tanks regardless of whether Berlin grants it. Contracts for international arms sales generally forbid third-party transfers without the supplier’s consent. Would Poland and the others break this agreement? Their defense ministers didn’t repeat this threat after the meeting broke up on Friday—though Boris Pistorius, Germany’s new defense minister, said, in what may be a signal of compromise, Berlin would not stand in the way if other countries wanted to do this. He also stressed that Berlin was still weighing the issue’s pros and cons; a delivery may yet happen.

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The clash is a big deal. The tank was invented toward the end of World War I as a way to break through the stalemate of trench warfare—and trench warfare, augmented by ceaseless artillery fire, is one way to describe the savage fighting going on in eastern Ukraine. Both sides have used Soviet-built tanks throughout the war, but many of the vehicles have worn down, and, to gain an edge in the next round, Ukraine needs more tanks—preferably modern, Western-built tanks—especially if Russia mounts an offensive in the spring.

More generally, an army can’t win, or even sustain a solid defense, fighting strictly on the defensive; it needs to mount a counteroffensive. In Ukraine’s case, it needs to do so in order to win back the territory it’s lost—in part for its own sake, in part to bargain from a position of strength if peace talks ever take place. Tanks let soldiers unleash massive amounts of firepower while on the move. The Leopard, Abrams, and Challenger tanks have 120 mm cannons and can move at 40 mph while firing. They also have night vision—which Russian tanks lack—and laser range finders to allow for very accurate shooting.

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Perhaps to compensate for the absence of a decision on Leopards, the Pentagon announced on Friday a new package of military aid to Ukraine—this one worth $2.5 billion—including not only a lot more missiles, rockets, mortars, artillery rounds, and so forth, but also 59 Bradley fighting vehicles (on top of the 109 Bradleys previously sent), 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers, and 53 Mine-Resistant Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles (in addition to the 580 sent earlier). These aren’t tanks, but they’re armored vehicles—equipped with machine guns and anti-tank weapons—that carry infantry troops at high speeds either on their own or alongside tanks. Military offensives are “combined-arms operations,” involving armor and infantry (as well as air power) fighting in tandem.

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In other words, no one could reasonably claim that the U.S. is holding back.

Still, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who made a pitch for tanks before the meeting, has reason to be impatient. Whether the new tanks are Leopards or more Challengers, it will take a few weeks for his troops to train on them, and another few weeks to deploy them in the field and integrate them with other units. (Doing this with Abrams tanks would take a few months.) Meanwhile, the “spring offensive,” when those tanks would come in handy, could start rolling in a couple of months.

The defense ministers did what they could on Friday; few expected them to resolve all the conflicts. The heads of state—Biden, Scholz, and the others—now need to step in and make whatever deals are necessary.

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