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Germany has wavered on sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Why does it matter?

The Independent logo The Independent 20/01/2023 Chris Stevenson
Germany Ukraine Weapons © AP Germany Ukraine Weapons

Germany is yet to make a decision about sending its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine – as pressure ramps up from Kyiv.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky says they are crucial to replenish his nation's military hardaware ahead of what he believes will be increased Russian offences in the coming weeks – with intense fighting having already been taking place in eastern Ukraine for weeks.

"If you have Leopard [tanks], then give them to us," Mr Zelensky told German public TV.

What is the hold up in sending tanks – German particularly the Leopard 2 – to Ukraine?

Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has come under increasing pressure to allow the re-export of the Leopard tanks, dozens of which are held by armies across Europe – but cannot be sent to Ukraine with the express permission of Berlin.

Germany has resisted such a move so far, saying Western tanks should only be supplied to Ukraine if there is agreement among Kyiv’s main allies, particularly the United States. Berlin has been trying to strike a balance between ensuring Ukraine can defend itself and not supplying arms that could encourage Kyiv to make attacks on Russia or draw Nato into conflict with Moscow.

Ukraine war: Zelensky urges West to speed up weapons supplies to outpace Russian attacks

While Mr Scholz promised a “sea change” in Germany’s defence and security policy in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his neighbour, that shift has appeared slow to Kyiv and its most vocal allies in Europe including Poland and the Baltic nations – who border either Russia itself or Belarus and Ukraine and fear the threat of Russia's war on its doorstep and futher Russian aggression beyond Ukraine if Kyiv cannot hold Moscow back

The German leader has repeatedly voiced concern over his country being perceived as escalating the war and provoking President Putin, who has hinted he could resort to nuclear weapons. Mr Scholz’s SPD party has a long history of pacifism and a record of promoting closer ties with Russia.

Recent polls also suggest a majority of Germans are opposed to supplying Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks. Germany's history in the Second World War also casts along shadow.

Mr Zelensky has repeatedly said that the tanks are for defending Ukraine, and recovering Ukrainian territory lost to Moscow. Not for attacking Russia directly.

"From Washington to London, from Paris to Warsaw, you hear one thing: Ukraine needs tanks. Tanks are the key to ending the war properly. It is time to stop trembling before Putin and take the final step," tweeted an adviser to Mr Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

Why does Ukraine want the Leopard?

The tank is regarded as one of the West’s best. German defence company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann has built more than 3,500 Leopard 2 tanks since beginning production in 1978.

The tank weighs more than 60 tons, has a 120mm smoothbore gun and can hit targets at a distance of up to five km.

Some 20 nations operate the Leopard 2. This means several nations could each chip in some of their tanks to support Ukraine. This would also make it easier for Ukraine to manage maintenance and crew training.

Nations operating the Leopard include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.

How many Leopards are available?

The Leopard 2 is one of the most widely used Western tanks. But in general, three decades after the end of the Cold War, tanks and other heavy weapons are in scarce supply in most of the West. Many countries drastically reduced their armies after the fall of communism.

Germany has about 350 Leopard 2 tanks today, compared to some 4,000 battle main tanks at the height of the Cold War, German military expert Carl Schulze says.

At the same time, it is all but impossible to buy a large amount of Leopard 2 tanks quickly. Germany’s defence industry is banned by law from producing them for stock-keeping. Countries ordering new tanks need to be prepared to wait two to three years for delivery.

Even if production were ramped up, experts say it could take at least two years for the first new tanks to leave the factory.

What is Germany saying? Is it suggesting other weaponry?

There have been reports in recent days that Germany would supply the Leopard 2s, if the US provide M1 Abrams tanks – something Washington has declined citing the extensive and complex maintenance and logistical challenges with the high-tech vehicle.

The US believes it would be more productive to send Leopards since many allies have them and Ukrainian troops would only have to get trained on that one, versus needing far more training on the more difficult Abrams.

At a summit of Western allies of Ukraine at the Ramstein air base in southwestern Germany on Friday, a German government spokesperson said that the delivery of Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine was never tied to the United States making a similar move with its Abrams tanks

What happens if Germany delays a decision further?

The UK announced last week that it will send Challenger 2 tanks, and has said it's a natural progression of military aid to Ukraine, upping the pressure on Germany – and Poland has been very vocal, suggesting that it would send the Leopard's in their possession even without German approval.

"I do not rule out that we are ready to take such a step," Pawel Jablonski told private radio RMF FM. "At the moment we are trying to make Germany not only agree these tanks being sent by Poland or other countries, but also to do so themselves."

"I think that if there is strong resistance, we will be ready to take even such non-standard action ... but let's not anticipate the facts," he said.

His comments reinforced signals sent by Polish prime ninister Mateusz Morawiecki, who has suggested that Warsaw could send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine as part of a wider coalition if Germany fails to give its approval.

Reuters contributed to this report

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