Pressure is growing on Germany to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, with Kyiv stepping up its pleas and a spat brewing between Berlin and some of its NATO allies.
On Friday, Germany failed to reach agreement with its key Western partners on sending the vehicles, ahead of a potential Russian spring offensive in Ukraine.
But countries are continuing to press the issue this week, while Poland is seeking to build its own coalition to help bolster Ukraine’s military with all-important Leopards.
“Everyone understands the need [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] is in and everyone understands the necessities and that is why there will be a decision soon, whatever it will be,” new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told public broadcaster ARD on Sunday.
Leopard 2 tanks are seen as a vital, modern military vehicle that would bolster Kyiv’s forces as the war with Russia approaches the one-year mark.
But Germany has batted back claims it is dragging its feet on providing military support to Ukraine, and has called on the US to send its own tanks across the Atlantic and into Ukraine.
Here’s what you need to know about the Leopard 2 tanks, the geopolitical squabbling around them, and why they’re so important to the war in Ukraine.
What has Germany decided?
Germany had been expected to announce a decision on sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine on Friday, but instead said it needed more time.
“As far as the delivery of the Leopard is concerned, there is no unanimous opinion,” Pistorius told reporters on the sidelines of a Ramstein meeting with NATO allies that was dominated by the issue of Leopards.
Though Pistorius did announce a new $1.08 billion military aid package for Ukraine, Germany’s stance on the Leopard 2 tanks came as a disappointment to Ukraine’s military – at least for the time being. It followed days of negotiations between the US, other Western partners and Berlin that ended in anticlimax on Friday.
“We are talking about heavy armored weapons that can and must be used for offensive purposes, and we have to weigh up very carefully when to bring them into the equation, and I think it is right to do so cautiously and carefully in the German and European interest and not hastily or recklessly,” Pistorius told ARD on Sunday.
Berlin also said it wouldn’t stand in the way of Poland sending some of its own Leopards to Ukraine. The Leopard was developed in Germany, and as a rule the transfer of German-made armaments to third parties must be approved by Berlin.
But that hasn’t appeased Warsaw, which, along with the US, has led the way in pressing its neighboring country to green light a shipment of Leopards.
“When things seem to be going in a slightly better direction on the subject of heavy weapons for Ukraine, Germany steps in and raises doubts,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the PAP Polish Press news agency on Sunday.
“The enemy is in the east, and we are wasting time on discussions that do not lead to anything good.”
Morawiecki has said Poland would send some of its own Leopards across the border to Ukraine if it can find a “small coalition” of countries to do the same – regardless of whether Germany is part of that bloc.
What are Berlin’s allies saying?
A number of European countries have pledged to send tanks to Ukraine in recent weeks. But before joining them, Germany wanted the US to join the fold by sending its own M1 Abrams tanks.
CNN reported Friday that German officials indicated they wouldn’t send their Leopard tanks to Ukraine or allow any other country with the German-made tanks in their inventory to do so, unless the US also agreed to send its M1 Abrams tanks to Kyiv.
“They have us over a barrel,” a senior Biden administration official told CNN Thursday, adding that the Germans are demanding tanks for tanks, and not budging on considering any other offers the US has made to spur Berlin to send the Leopards.
When asked about the issue during an interview with German public broadcaster ARD Thursday, Pistorius said he was “not aware of such an arrangement.” German government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit said at a press conference Friday that “at no time” was there “an arrangement or a requirement that the one had to take place so that the other could take place.”
“We have talked hundreds of times about the shortage of weapons. We cannot go only on motivation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a virtual appearance at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos on Thursday.
In an apparent swipe at Germany’s stalling, Zelensky added: “There are moments when there is no need to hesitate. When people say – I’ll give you tanks if someone else does.”
Why are Leopard 2 tanks so important?
Thirteen European countries, including Poland and Finland, are already in possession of modern German Leopard 2 tanks, which were introduced in 1979 and have been upgraded several times since, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Many of them have agreed to re-export some tanks to Kyiv, but require Germany’s permission. Representatives for those countries that own Leopard tanks met on the sidelines of the Ramstein meeting, according to the Portuguese Ministry of Defense.
In total, there are around 2,000 Leopard 2 vehicles spread across Europe, at different levels of readiness.
Each tank contains a 120mm Smoothbore gun, and a 7.62mm machine gun; it can reach speeds of 70 km per hour, or 50 kmp/h when off-road, making maneuverability one of its key features. And there is all-around protection from threats, including improvised explosive devices, mines or anti-tank fire, according to its German manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann.
The vast number of units already based near Ukraine, and the Leopard’s relatively low-maintenance demands compared to other models, lead experts to believe the tanks could help Ukraine quickly.
“Leopard 2 is a modern, well-protected main battle tank with good sensors,” Jack Watling, Senior Research Fellow in Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told CNN. “It was originally designed to be maintained by conscripts and is therefore simpler to keep in the fight than some other NATO designs like the Challenger 2. There is also an existing production line to keep Leopard 2s supplied with spare parts.”
Leopards meanwhile run on diesel, unlike Abrams, which makes their fuel consumption more efficient and reduces the number of fuel trucks required to support a battalion.
These are among the reasons why critics of Berlin’s stance say Leopard 2s should be shipped to Ukraine regardless of whether the US decides to send its own M1 Abrams tanks.
“Leopards are available in Europe,” CDU lawmaker Roderich Kiesewetter told CNN on Friday. “Abrams have a lot of logistic support needed, it’s much more costly to deliver (them).
“Germany is isolated in its position,” he said, urging the government to drop its reluctance. “If we want a fair transatlantic burden sharing, we should deliver what is available in Europe.”
Is Germany dragging its feet on Ukraine aid?
The frustration felt by some NATO members toward Germany has bolstered a narrative in some corners that Berlin has been slower than its Western counterparts in offering support to Ukraine.
“(Friday) is a day of celebration in Russia,” Kiesewetter told CNN after Berlin stalled on its decision. “This delay costs lives in Ukraine.”
And Pistorius’ appointment last week raised questions given his previous stances on Russia.
“I don’t know much about Germany’s new Defense Minister. What I do know gives me some anxiety,” Polish leader Morawiecki said in a video interview on his way back from the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. He cited Pistorius’ previous support for easing sanctions against Russia along with his relationship with “close associate” Gerhard Schröder. The former German chancellor was forced to give up his office at the German Parliament (Bundestag) for failing to sever his Russian business ties following Moscow’s invasion.
But German officials have attempted to push back against that disgruntlement. Chancellor Olaf Scholz told delegates at Davos his government is “continuously supplying Ukraine with large quantities of arms in close consultation with our partners.” He spoke of how Germany alone made more than 12 billion euros ($13 billion) available last year and will “continue to support Ukraine as long as necessary.”
Behind the back-and-forth lies Germany’s evolving approach to security and military policy in the wake of Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Modern Germany has been reluctant to become involved in international conflicts, against the backdrop of post-war demilitarization.
But shortly after the Russian invasion began last February, Scholz made an eye-grabbing speech in which he committed to spending 100 billion euros to modernize Germany’s military capacity.
He also vowed that Germany would from now on meet the NATO commitment of spending 2% of its GDP and end its over-reliance on Russian energy, particularly gas. Germany’s position on sending arms to Ukraine has shifted too: in recent months Berlin has sent arms ranging from anti-aircraft Gepard systems to Patriot missile batteries.
Nonetheless, nearly a year into the war, critics say Scholz’s vision has failed to become reality and Berlin has been accused by critics of equivocating on sending weapons to Ukraine.
CNN’s Christian Edwards, Chris Stern, Niamh Kennedy, Antonia Mortensen, Nadine Schmidt, Paula Newton and Radina Gigova contributed reporting.