The ramifications of Germany tank stalling to Ukraine - analysis

Germany’s apparent slow playing of this key phase of the conflict will have wider ramifications for which countries rely on Berlin in the future.  

 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.  (photo 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.
(photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)

This year looks to be the year of the tank. This is because Western countries are rushing to supply Ukraine with armored vehicles and focus has now come to spotlight the role of main battle tanks in the war in Ukraine. Kyiv needs tanks and a lot of other munitions and defenses. Germany has appeared to hold up the possible delivery of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, even as countries that use the tank want to send it to Kyiv. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his government was expecting strong decisions from the Western countries on supporting Kyiv. There has been a meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany meant to try to figure out what to do regarding the impasse with Germany.

The US is pressuring Berlin. Poland looks ready to send its tanks anyway. Reports said that Germany's Foreign Minister Anna Baerbock has indicated Berlin will not stand in the way of Leopards being sent by other countries, but Germany has appeared to flip-flop. The country also has a new defense minister. Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Monday that Poland wants to move forward on the tank deliveries.  

So what is at stake here?

Germany seems to be slow playing this issue and it’s not looking good for European, Western or NATO unity. This comes at a bad time because Turkey is also seeking to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. Russia has influence with Turkey. Russia has also worked in the past to influence German leaders and Germany’s foreign policy. This influence goes back to Russia pushing the Nord Stream pipelines, as well as working with former German chancellor Gerhard Schroder. Angela Merkel also appeared to appease Russia when she was in office for almost two decades.  

The current German leadership inherits this past role. It is trying to be pragmatic and modest. It’s not willing to take the risks of the Baltic states, Poland or even Sweden, the UK and France. This may not be due to being “pro-Russia, “ but rather some other contrarian reasons. Some articles have suggested subconscious reasons, such as not wanting German tanks fighting Russians again, a reminder of WWIII. Or perhaps Germany has contrarian types who are either sympathetic to Russia due to Moscow’s role in East Germany or other reasons.  

German Leopard 2 tanks of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle goup attend Iron Tomahawk exercise in Adazi, Latvia (credit: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS)German Leopard 2 tanks of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle goup attend Iron Tomahawk exercise in Adazi, Latvia (credit: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS)

This is problematic because Germany is a major arms manufacturer. The Leopard 2 tank is widely used in Europe, in contrast to the US-made Abrams tank. For instance, Greece, Spain, Turkey, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Austria and Norway use the tank, among others. There are major inventories of the tank in Germany and other countries could supply a few dozen and it wouldn’t harm their own defensive position.  

The Leopard is also widely praised. NPR calls it “one of the most well-reputed battle tanks.” Al-Jazeera calls it “one of the best-performing.” Other publications praise its targeting capabilities and how it can handle different terrain. Built since the 1980s, it has a top speed of some 68km/hr and has a 120mm main gun.  

So what comes next as the West seeks to “free” the Leopards?

Germany has tried to slow play this issue by saying the US should also commit to sending Abrams. But who will fix the Abrams so far from its facilities? The Leopard is widely used so many countries can train Ukrainians and help it with the logistic supply tail that goes along with tanks.  

Even if Germany and others agree to send the Leopards, most countries won’t send more than a few. Therefore the tank issue is more symbolic, it’s about getting all the Western countries on the same page. Germany appears to be a hurdle, and it’s not the only hurdle. Turkey is also a major hurdle and spoiler. However, Turkey, although it is in NATO, is generally understood to not really be in the West. Germany is at the core of Europe and it is a major powerhouse economically and militarily. This means the ramifications of German hesitancy will continue to be a cloud over the war.

It's worth recalling here that Germany didn’t play a tough enough role in the past regarding Russia. It tended to believe that Russia could be managed through diplomacy and it tended to even side against what it saw as bellicose rhetoric from other states. It believed that it was the mature “realpolitik” state and that diplomacy would always work. Berlin also had similar beliefs about Iran. It likes to portray itself as a super responsible country, not bending to emotions and anger, just acting with lots of pragmatism and the kind of conservativism that would have guided German leaders like Bismarck and thinkers like Clausewitz.

Of course, this kind of pragmatism and “realism” is what brings partition of countries and tends to feed the kind of appetite that warmongers like Putin have. Germany’s policies guided Europe for 20 years and in the end, Russia invaded and Berlin’s gamble was wrong. But despite being wrong, Western countries need Germany and they need its economic power and its manufacturing. Smaller economies are not going to produce the things necessary to shore up Kyiv. 

These are the facts. Estonia can send its two dozen 155mm howitzers, and Denmark can send 19 French-made Caesar howitzers but if one wants to have the logistical backup for big mobile guns, like the Panzerhaubitze PzH-200 15mm howitzer on its mobile chassis, one needs the Germans.

Germany as an arms exporter may be behind the US, France, Russia and China, but it has recently been expanding exports and selling some $9 billion worth of arms, according to DW in December 2021. This amounts to something like 4.5% of global arms sales. About half of this is sent outside Europe, but around 30% goes to European countries, including NATO members. Of course, countries like the UK and others export a lot of arms, but having Germany on board is important because of its proximity to Ukraine as a logistical hub.

Supplying war is as important as waging it in many respects, Ukraine will need the supplies this year. Germany’s apparent slow playing of this key phase of the conflict will have wider ramifications for which countries rely on Berlin in the future.