When it was still unclear in late January whether or not Germany would send main battle tanks to Ukraine, the international news cycle was full of scorn and accusations that Berlin was sabotaging the defence efforts of Kiev’s armed forces. What made the situation particularly delicate was the complex legal situation: Germany has a specific law that requires the government’s consent for the re-export of military equipment, even if that equipment is in the possession of another country. In other words, the fact that Poland and Finland, for example, have over 400 Leopard tanks between them was meaningless until Germany granted permission to deliver them to Ukraine.
Naturally, this created a significant incentive for some European countries to vociferously demand the tank transfer, all the while knowing that as long as Germany remained hesitant they would not have to deliver a single model. Once chancellor Scholz approved the deal in late January, however, they were expected to do the same. To German surprise, instead of a swift agreement to deliver significant numbers of tanks, “those European partners who had previously been most vociferous in their demands for Leopard deliveries do not want to commit themselves,” according to the German weekly Der Spiegel.
Two battalions with 88 Leopard 2, the most recent version of the Leopard tank series, are supposed to be made available for Ukraine but — according to the German government — concrete commitments regarding the number of tanks to be delivered are only slowly forthcoming, with countries like the Netherlands still dragging their feet.
Amid ongoing negotiations over the most modern tanks, there is at least more movement when it comes to the delivery of older weapons systems that still need to be repaired and refurbished. Yet even in that case, the first deliveries should not be expected before the summer or autumn.
The issue is that Europe is yet to put forward a coherent strategy on how to deal with the Russian question, and Olaf Scholz’s hopes that Russia can in some form be brought back into the international community — a view he expressed in December of last year — is probably shared more widely behind closed doors than in public communications. The prospects of a long war are increasingly problematic, especially with more and more voices across the Atlantic taking on a critical tone regarding Washington’s continued support for Ukraine.
The RAND Corporation, a leading think tank in the US, recently issued a study that attracted widespread attention, arguing that the United States should avoid “a long war”. Given that the US and Great Britain are responsible for the majority of military support for Ukraine, a change of direction in either of those two countries would severely impede the defence capabilities of not only of Kiev, but of Europe as a whole. As an editorial by the New York Times recently remarked, ‘Europe has missed the opportunity to step up its own defense, and the war has reinforced Europe’s military dependence on the US’.
This tension became even more obvious during the recent incident with the Chinese spy balloon, which highlights that, in the larger geopolitical game, China is the top priority for US policymakers. Further, at some point resources for the European theatre will have to be reduced in order to rebuild US deterrence vis-à-vis Beijing.
In light of these developments, there are understandable fears that the slow delivery of high-end weapons systems could coincide with reduced support from Washington, which remains the most crucial element in any defence strategy for Ukraine. This creates a moral as well as a political dilemma, especially in Western European capitals, where there is a simultaneous desire to support Ukraine and conclude the war. The problem is that Ukrainian victory, or indeed Russian defeat, is tricky to define.
Without a clear set of goals, however, another tank scenario is unfolding, this time around the question of fighter jets. Once again, Chancellor Scholz is leading with a staunch no, but the question remains: for how long can he hold his nerve?