Andreas Kluth

Germany Has the Tanks Ukraine Needs. It Must Send Them ASAP

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said it best in a tweet this week: “What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?”

Kuleba and his compatriots, along with their friends all over the world, are celebrating the heroic rout by Ukrainian forces of the Russian invaders in Kharkiv over the previous week. These stunning tactical successes proved, if proof was needed, that the Ukrainians have not only the courage and grit but also the military skill to defeat the increasingly demoralized Russian invasion force — provided they also have state-of-the-art weapons.

In recent months, the Ukrainians have been battering the Russians with Western-made howitzers and high-mobility artillery rocket systems, often aiming those sophisticated guns at coordinates supplied by Western spy agencies. That way, the Ukrainians kept the enemy from advancing — denying Russian President Vladimir Putin victory, though not yet vanquishing him outright.

With this month’s counteroffensive, however, the Ukrainians have started taking back their own territories, turning what was a relatively static war of attrition into an explosively kinetic reconquest. To succeed in this new phase, they’ll require more than howitzers and HIMARs. They’ll need the newest, fastest and meanest battle tanks and armored vehicles on the market, to liberate Ukrainian cities and towns and deploy infantry faster than the Russians can react.

This is where Germany comes in. It has a line of first-class battle tanks called Leopards. First introduced in 1979 and improved ever since, about 2,000 of these agile and lethal predator cats are deployed in Germany’s army and those of 12 other countries in NATO and/or the European Union. Besides the Leopards, Germany also has the smaller Marder (marten) tanks.

Kyiv has been asking for Leopards and Marders since March, and Kuleba renewed that plea in his tweet this week. But Berlin, ever diffident, has so far rebuffed these requests — even as it has supplied all sorts of other kit, including specialized anti-aircraft tanks called Gepards (cheetahs).

The official excuse given by Chancellor Olaf Scholz is that Germany can’t and won’t do anything that’s not coordinated with its allies in NATO and the EU. And it’s true, none of those partner nations has yet sent Western-made (as opposed to Soviet-style) battle tanks. Germany, Scholz is implying, doesn’t want to be the first to do something, lest it get drawn into the conflict or blamed for its escalation.

This is a wimpy line of reasoning. The US, UK, Poland and other allies have, overall, been much more forthcoming than Germany with their help to the Ukrainians. And they all want Germany to do more rather than less — to lead rather than just follow. So they’d be delighted if Germany shipped its Leopards.

Another rationale for holding back is that Germany itself has limited tanks and parts in stock and can’t afford to compromise its own battle readiness. That’s another non sequitur, as the think tankers at the European Council on Foreign Relations point out. They’ve proposed an elegant “Leopard plan” — a consortium in which all European armies using Leopards jointly supply Ukraine and take care of training and maintenance. Besides easing the logistics, that approach would also send a powerful signal of Western unity.

So the Germans have, as Kuleba puts it, “not a single rational argument on why these weapons cannot be supplied, only abstract fears and excuses.” What might those be?

They’re not so abstract, actually. Scholz and other Germans worry about the exact same scenarios that occupy us all. The fear is that Putin, feeling like a cornered rat in defeat, will escalate. He could widen the war beyond Ukraine, use chemical or biological weapons, or even drop a tactical nuclear bomb. Nobody wants to contemplate the possible escalation spirals after that.

But it can hardly be Western — or German — policy to simultaneously keep Ukraine from losing (by sending some weapons) and from winning (by not sending the right ones). Of course, the goal must be to end this war with some sort of diplomatic settlement. But that can only happen once the Ukrainians have prevailed on the battlefield. Until then, the West must call Putin’s bluffs, and Ukraine must keep winning. Germany can help with that. Therefore it must.