Defiant Germany denies blocking Leopard tank deliveries to Ukraine

Zelensky said Ukraine will still have to fight to get modern tanks, after allied nations failed to agree handing over German-made battle tanks.

 German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius speaks to the media at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, January 20, 2023. (photo credit: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius speaks to the media at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, January 20, 2023.
(photo credit: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius on Friday denied Berlin was unilaterally blocking the shipment of Leopard main battle tanks to Ukraine but said the government was ready to move quickly on sending them if there was consensus among allies.

Speaking to reporters at a meeting of NATO and defense leaders at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Pistorius denied Berlin was the sole holdout after Poland and other countries said they were waiting for Germany to lift its veto.

"There are good reasons for the (tank) deliveries and there are good reasons against, and in view of the entire situation of a war that has been ongoing for almost one year, all pros and cons must be weighed very carefully," he said, without elaborating on the reasons.

"The impression that has occasionally arisen, that there is a closed coalition and Germany was standing in the way, this impression is wrong."

Pressure has been building on Berlin to provide tanks to Kyiv that Ukraine sees as key in the war against Russia.

 Spanish army tank Leopard 2 of NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group fires during the final phase of the Silver Arrow 2022 military drill on Adazi military training grounds, Latvia September 29, 2022.  (credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS) Spanish army tank Leopard 2 of NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group fires during the final phase of the Silver Arrow 2022 military drill on Adazi military training grounds, Latvia September 29, 2022. (credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)

Zelensky's reaction

Ukraine will still have to fight to ensure a supply of modern heavy armor, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday after allied nations failed to agree on whether to hand over German-made Leopard battle tanks.

"Every day we make it more obvious that there is no alternative to taking a decision about tanks," he said in an evening video address.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier urged allies to dig deeper to support Ukraine, without making specific reference to tanks.

"Russia is regrouping, recruiting, and trying to re-equip," he said at the start of the meeting. "This is not a moment to slow down. It's a time to dig deeper. The Ukrainian people are watching us."

NATO and defense leaders from roughly 50 countries are meeting at Ramstein Air Base, the latest in a series of arms-pledging conferences since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.

Germany has become one of Ukraine's top military supporters in response to Russia's invasion, overcoming a taboo rooted in its bloody 20th century history, but it has not yet agreed to send tanks or allow other countries to send their own German-made tanks.

Scholz's government is wary of taking steps that could be considered to make it a party to the conflict with Russia, sources have told Reuters.

Leopard tanks are seen as especially suitable for Ukraine as they are widely in use, meaning several countries could each chip in some of their tanks to support Ukraine.

Pressure on Berlin

Critics say German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ruling SPD are too slow, waiting for allies to act first instead of assuming Germany's responsibility as the Western power closest to Ukraine.

Public pressure has been building on Berlin.

"The Germans are defending themselves against this like a devil protects himself against holy water."

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki

"Ukrainians will fight! With tanks or without. But every tank from Ramstein means saved Ukrainian lives," Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Telegram.

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday said he was "moderately skeptical" of Germany approving the tanks for Ukraine because "the Germans are defending themselves against this like a devil protects himself against holy water."

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in September had accused Germany of ignoring Kyiv's pleas for Leopard tanks, saying Berlin offered only "abstract fears and excuses" for not providing such military hardware.

Government sources in Germany have said it would move on the Leopard tanks issue if the United States agreed to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine, though a government spokesperson on Friday publicly contradicted that view.

The United States has made clear that it will not be sending Abrams anytime soon, arguing it would be a logistical nightmare for Ukrainian troops to use the American tanks because of the fuel that would be required and maintenance needed.

Pistorius, who is days into the job after his predecessor resigned, emphasized the help that Germany had already given to Ukraine and said the Ramstein conference's priority was providing air defense to stop Russian missiles.

He said Germany was assessing its own military and industry stocks and would be "in a position to react quickly" on shipping tanks to Ukraine.

Several countries will announce sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine on Friday at a meeting at the German Ramstein Air Base, the Lithuanian defense minister said on Thursday.

Poland could send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine even without Germany’s re-export approval, a deputy foreign minister said.

Britain has said that it would send 14 of its main battle tanks along with additional artillery support to Ukraine, a step officials hope will open the door for Germany to make similar moves.

The Kremlin's spokesman said Western countries supplying additional tanks to Ukraine would not change the course of the conflict and that they would add to the problems of the Ukrainian people.