|The Leopards are free: German-made tanks will, after all, be deployed to fight Russia in Ukraine. Olaf Scholz has decided to provide some of the Leopard 2 heavy battle tanks that Kyiv says it needs to defeat Russia, ending weeks of tension between Berlin and its Nato allies.
A reported U-turn by the US on also supplying tanks appears to have broken the impasse. But it is Scholz’s decision that is pivotal: it means other European countries which operate Leopards have the legal go-ahead to follow suit. Poland, Finland, Spain and the Netherlands are among those now likely to join a “Leopard coalition”.
With Russia thought to be preparing a spring offensive, experts believe Leopard 2 tanks could, if deployed in sufficient numbers, be decisive in helping Ukrainian forces to retake territory and break the stalemate with Russia. Peter Beaumont explains the battlefield significance of the Leopard 2 tanks here.
But why has Germany’s decision on Leopards been such a struggle?
Scholz has long argued that he needed to ensure that Germany and Nato would not become “warring parties” and Germany accused of “going it alone”. This explains the need for American “buy-in”, and until Tuesday night that was absent.
But the Guardian’s Berlin bureau chief, Philip Oltermann, tells me that Scholz’s soul-searching also reflects deep divisions on the question among Germany’s political class and the country at large.
Members of the centre-right opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have accused him in recent days of turning Germany into an international “basket case”. But Scholz’s junior coalition partners the Greens and the FDP (Liberals) also lobbied him openly to consent to Ukraine’s request. The German media has largely backed the send-tanks side. But crucially, even if campaigners chanted “free the Leopards” in the street outside the chancellor’s office, a narrow majority of Germans until recently, opposed sending tanks.
Although it is almost 80 years since the end of the second world war, many remain uncomfortable at the idea of German tanks heading eastward to kill Russian soldiers. Alongside this historical sensitivity, there is nervousness that Germany could, with this decision, be making itself a military target for Vladimir Putin.
In fact, Germany is already one of the biggest suppliers of humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine. But for the most vocal advocates of arming Ukraine with heavy weapons, Leopard tanks have acquired a unique symbolism: the issue has become a test of Germany’s willingness, as Europe’s most powerful nation, to provide leadership and solidarity.
The dilemma encapsulates the broader challenge posed by the “zeitenwende” or “end of an era” that Scholz promised in a speech in the aftermath of the Russian invasion. To surprise at home and abroad, he announced a fundamental shift in which Germany would rebuild its armed forces and pump billions into defence spending.
“He may have over-promised in that speech,” Philip says. “He announced that Germany would be taking a leadership role but the actions don’t always match up.” What the Leopards issue seems to confirm is that Germany is still working out exactly what the new era implies in practice for the country’s role in Europe’s defence and security.
Philip says Scholz’s character and governing style have been a source of exasperation for his less cautious critics: “He is really reluctant to be pressured into action. That has been a trait of his career. He keeps a calm head when everyone else clamours for action. It has been helpful to him in the past, but in this job it can risk being viewed as stubbornness.”
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Associate editor, Europe
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