The understandable reluctance of Germany to send tanks to Ukraine

Dr Oliver Hartwich
7 February, 2023

It is hard enough to understand the Germans in the best of times. Yet, in these times of crisis and war, even a native speaker may find it difficult to comprehend them.

For weeks if not months, the Western world looked to Germany for a decision on sending tanks to Ukraine. Tanks that Ukraine had repeatedly requested since the beginning of the Russian invasion. For that whole time, it had appeared as if the German government was unwilling to oblige – until Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally caved in.

However, that is only one way of looking at it. The eventual outcome of the tanks question also allows for a different interpretation. One that gives Scholz more credit for helping Ukraine in adverse circumstances.

First, let us examine the conventional viewpoint, which depicts the Germans as perpetual ditherers in the face of an urgent need to support Ukraine.

Shortly after the Russian attack on Ukraine last year, Scholz declared a ‘turning of the times’, pledging support for Ukraine and reorienting German defence policy.

Germany’s security turnaround was much slower than Scholz’s rhetoric suggested it would be. There are several reasons for this.

In the first place, decades of pacifism and disarmament cannot be reversed overnight. Scholz’s own party, the Social Democrats, has a strong faction of militant pacifists headed by Rolf Mützenich, the chair of the party’s group in the Bundestag. When anything military is brought up, their first reaction is suspicion.

Interestingly, Scholz’s coalition partners, the Greens and the Liberals, were much more sympathetic to his new security policy. In addition to Annalena Baerbock, the Green foreign minister, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the Liberal chair of the defence select committee, has also expressed support for weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

In addition to its state of neglect since the end of the Cold War, the Bundeswehr is in an extremely poor condition, which contributed to the slow speed of Germany’s reorientation. In the event of an armed conflict, it would not be in a position to defend the country. As a result, it is not surprising that the military does not wish to further deplete its capabilities by transferring some of its still functioning weapons systems to Ukraine.

Having a hapless defence minister in Christine Lambrecht only compounded the situation. Lambrecht intended to retire from politics before the 2022 electionbut was surprised when she was appointed to Scholz’s cabinet as minister of defence.

Lambrecht has never demonstrated a great affinity for military affairs and has been embroiled in minor scandals and embarrassing situations throughout her time in office. In January, Scholz replaced her with Boris Pistorius after her unavoidable resignation. As a former interior minister and one-time recruit, Pistorius appears more suitable for the position.

As well as these domestic difficulties, Scholz’s hesitancy can also be explained by another factor: fear.

In April last year, SPIEGEL magazine published an interview with Scholz on its cover. The interview was headlined “What are you afraid of, Herr Scholz?” The subtext was Russian threats to Germany should it increase its support for Ukraine. There was indeed a rumour that Putin had privately threatened to strike Berlin with nuclear weapons.

Whether it was wise talk so openly about his fears is a good question. However, it explains Scholz’s slowness in making decisions. Following the bombing of two Nord Stream pipelines and the sabotage of half of Germany’s rail system shortly afterwards, these acts were, quite understandably, perceived as thinly veiled threats.

So much for the conventional explanation for Germany’s delay in delivering tanks to Ukraine.

There is, however, another perspective. One that looks at the outcome of the tanks deal.

When Germany finally agreed to deliver some of its Leopard tanks to Ukraine, Ukraine received more than expected. Due to Germany’s insistence on a broad coalition, the US committed to sending Abrams tanks as well. Whether the Abrams makes much military sense with their high fuel consumption and complicated technical requirements is an important consideration. But, politically, the clear message to Russia is that NATO is united.

There is no doubt that Scholz’s motivation was to prevent Germany from being exposed for its support for Ukraine. As part of the alliance, Scholz even contacted Italy’s new Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, who is clearly not one of Germany’s or Scholz’s great allies. But crucially, Germany desired the assurance of having a nuclear power, the US, right by its side in the conflict with another nuclear power, Russia.

Moreover, Scholz’s choice of the specific Leopard 2 model demonstrates that he fully supports sending tanks to Ukraine.

The Leopard is the Toyota Corolla of tanks. It was introduced in the mid-1960s and has gone through many iterations since. The current version, the Leopard 2, was introduced in 1979 but has been updated continuously since then.

Germany could have provided some older versions to support Ukraine with battle tanks. Instead, the German government selected the more modern A6 model – fourteen of them. The contribution of Germany is substantial – so substantial, in fact, that it further reduces Germany’s ability to participate in NATO, let alone defend itself.

So, in light of the seemingly endless battle tank saga, what is the correct interpretation of Germany’s position?

Is it, as many Eastern Europeans and especially Ukraine perceived, that Germany is still too close to Russia, unwilling to carry its weight and only follow its own self-interests? The dithering, the fleeting excuses for inaction and the often-clumsy diplomacy might suggest as much.

Alternatively, is it possible that Germany, sensitive to its own military weakness and afraid of being exposed to Russia, successfully united NATO, built a large coalition, kept Washington engaged in Europe, and ultimately provided significant assistance to Ukraine?

These questions do not have an easy answer.

One thing that can be said with certainty is that Ukraine now has (some of) the weapons it so desperately needs to defend itself from Putin’s aggression. Another, just as important, is that NATO has presented a united front in standing up to that aggression.

Read more

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates