How many tanks will be sent?
Germany said it will send 14 tanks to Ukraine “as a first step,” and aims to get them into the hands of troops quickly.
Crucially, Berlin’s announcement will likely also encourage other European nations who own Leopards to re-export some of their vehicles. Typically this would require Germany’s approval, and some countries had shown hesitation in sending tanks unless a coalition of nations doing the same could be formed.
“I call on all new partners that have Leopard 2 tanks in service to join the coalition and provide as many of them as possible,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “They are free now.”
Several armies use Leopards. In total, there are around 2,000 Leopard 2 vehicles spread across Europe, at different levels of readiness.
And many of those had already expressed their desire to send some of theirs to Ukraine, with Poland attempting to rally support on the continent in case Germany declined to send theirs.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told CNN affiliate RTL News on Wednesday that his government would “seriously consider” purchasing the 18 Leopard 2 tanks it leases from Germany and sending them to Ukraine. The Netherlands does not own any of the tanks.
Spain has also said it is willing to send tanks in coordination with allies, according to the Spanish news agency EFE, while Norway is reportedly considering a contribution.
“Germany will give the partner countries that want to quickly deliver Leopard 2 tanks from their stocks to Ukraine the corresponding authorizations to transfer them,” Scholz’s government said Wednesday.
Leopards are not the only modern tanks on their way to Ukraine. Germany’s decision on Wednesday sees it join a growing movement among NATO powers to equip Kyiv with vehicles.
Plans being finalized in the US will see around 30 Abrams tanks sent across the Atlantic. Earlier this year, the UK committed 12 Challenger 2 tanks.
What took Germany so long?
Germany’s decision followed weeks of Western pressure, ending a period of deliberation in Berlin that has frustrated its allies and caused exasperation in Kyiv.
German officials wrapped up a NATO summit last Friday with no agreement to send tanks. Instead, officials lobbied for a similar commitment from the US before it would be drawn. Berlin subsequently said it wouldn’t stand in the way of other countries re-exporting their Leopards, but was tight-lipped on its own stance.
Sending tanks into Ukraine was once a red line for Western leaders, who had been generally willing to provide Kyiv with defensive weapons to repel the Russian threat but had shown reluctance to introduce systems that could put Ukrainian forces on the front foot.
The concern early in the war in some corners of NATO was that overstepping in military support would run the risk of escalating the conflict, and possibly even introduce the threat of nuclear attacks.
Nearly one year into the war, however, that calculus has changed — in no small part thanks to Ukraine’s successful counter-offensives toward the end of 2022, and its ability to incorporate new and complex Western weapons systems into its units.
Germany was slower than some of its allies in forcing this change in approach, with new defense minister Pistorius repeatedly calling for more time this week in the face of global pressure, and insisting that sending tanks would come with pros and cons for Berlin.
But Piotr Muller, the spokesman of the Polish government, said Wednesday that “undoubtedly, this diplomatic pressure is changing the German approach, and not only in the case of these tanks.”
How has Russia responded?
Russia reacted angrily to the initial reports that Germany and the US would send tanks to Ukraine, in much the same way it responded to the UK’s earlier decision to send tanks.
Kremlin officials have also sought to cast the sending of tanks as an act of aggression against Russia, fueling their bogus narrative that their so-called military operation is required to defend Russian interests rather than to capture Ukraine.
Russian ambassador to Germany Sergei Nechaev said in a statement Wednesday that Berlin’s decision was “extremely dangerous” and takes the conflict “to a new level of confrontation.”
US and European donations of tanks to the Ukrainian war effort will bring “more suffering” to the country and “bring more tension to the continent,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told CNN Wednesday.
If US-made Abrams tanks are delivered to Ukraine, they will “burn down just like all the others,” and their cost will be a burden for European taxpayers, Peskov said.
But NATO allies supported Germany’s move and have repeatedly resisted Russia’s pretext for its war.
“The right decision by NATO Allies and friends to send main battle tanks to Ukraine. Alongside Challenger 2s, they will strengthen Ukraine’s defensive firepower,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “Together, we are accelerating our efforts to ensure Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace.”
“If we want Ukraine to be able to retake territory, we need to give them more armor, more heavy and modern weapons,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN on Wednesday.
“We need that to ensure that President Putin doesn’t win this war,” he added. “Ukraine has the right to self-defense. We have the right to support them in upholding that right.”