January 24, 2023 - 7:00am

A dispute over proposed deliveries of German-made tanks could herald the start of a new, difficult phase in Western support for Ukraine. With Chancellor Olaf Scholz citing fears that the war will “last a very long time,” German hesitancy indicates a possible re-emergence of realist voices who, looking to the long term, see strategic value in saving what can be saved of old relations with the Kremlin. 

Following extraordinary international pressure over the weekend, Germany’s Foreign Minister indicated Berlin “would not stand in the way” if other countries want to send Leopard tanks to Kyiv, before Scholz again seemed to cast doubt on this late on Monday night. The earlier half-hearted consent showed a determination that no matter what happens, Berlin will not be held responsible for the shift in the calibre of Western military support. 

This might seem nonsensical to onlookers elsewhere in Europe, but it’s consistent with wider Central European perceptions of geopolitics. The German stance on tanks, and other military aid for Ukraine since the war began, bears striking resemblances to the much-maligned Hungarian attitude towards Russia sanctions. Both countries have dithered and delayed, raised as many objections as possible, and then yielded to foreign pressure.  

This gains them nothing right now. But some policymakers may hope that by creating an impression of being unwilling partners to Western support for Ukraine, these countries will be able to salvage what remains of their previously valuable diplomatic ties with Russia whenever a rapprochement becomes possible, however distant that may seem. 

Such intentions would be motivated by power, not cowardice. As Viktor Orbán explained in a speech last year, the “German-Russian energy axis” was pursued and encouraged prior to Russia’s invasion because central Europeans “did not want to make ourselves dependent on the Americans”. Partnership with Russia was long seen as vital to a particular idea of European strategic autonomy that has, Orbán said, been “destroyed by international politics”. 

This, in turn, stemmed from scepticism about notions of “the West” as a monolithic entity comprising states that all share the same strategic interests. And doubts about this narrative are now spurring a rise in dissenting voices elsewhere in Central Europe, too. 

In the Czech Republic, a presidential run-off between former prime minister Andrej Babiš and ex-NATO general Petr Pavel has focused on fears that the country could be dragged into war by its pro-Western government, with the vote being portrayed almost as a referendum on staunchly pro-Ukraine and pro-NATO policies. Babiš has made far-fetched promises about using the presidency to create an international coalition which will bring about a peace settlement in Ukraine, while Pavel has claimed that “permanent peace is an illusion”. 

Meanwhile in Slovakia, a shaky pro-Ukraine coalition government has fallen, and agreement is being sought on a date for snap elections later this year. The leader of the resurgent opposition, Robert Fico, has expressed opposition to support for Ukraine since the war began, and was even blacklisted by Kyiv as a “disinformation” spreader. 

Given the strength of political will elsewhere, Western support for Ukraine will likely be able to ride out these regional swells of discontent. But the German tank dispute has shown that underlying differences in Western attitudes to Russia and Ukraine, which existed long before the invasion began, survive to this day and continue to influence policy. The longer the war goes on, the wider this gap among Kyiv’s allies may become.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz