OPINION - Germany under growing pressure to send tanks to Ukraine

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

It’s amazing what the Germans can do when they put their mind to it. Prior to February 2022, the country was heavily reliant on Russian gas to heat its homes and power the mighty industries that make it the fourth-largest economy in the world. Before the war, more than half of its natural gas consumed flowed from Russia, via Nord Stream 1, a pipeline that flowed under the Baltic sea.

Indeed, the government, led by Angela Merkel and supported by her then deputy and now Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was a cheerleader for Nord Stream 2, a second pipeline which would carry gas directly from Russia to Germany. Recently declassified top-secret documents show that Berlin denied this would lead to a greater dependency on Moscow or raise the potential for energy blackmail by Vladimir Putin. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”.

So it’s really rather remarkable that only months later, in a transition that some forecasters said would take years, a third floating liquefied natural gas terminal arrived today in Brunsbüttel, northern Germany. A fourth of seven is due shortly to bridge the gap until permanent facilities come on stream in 2026. The lesson is: Germany can move fast when its interests are aligned.

And it is in this context that Berlin’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine generally, and the deployment of tanks specifically, must be seen. Scholz is facing growing pressure – not just from eastern European nations but the UK and US – to allow its Leopard 2 tanks sold to allies to be sent to Ukraine.

Britain has committed to supplying Kyiv with 14 Challenger II tanks. France is considering a request for Leclerc tanks. Poland, Finland and others are ready to supply German-built Leopards. But, as our Political Editor Nic Cecil reports, Scholz is refusing to give the go-ahead for them to be sent to Ukraine, or for Germany itself to supply Leopards, until the US agrees to provide Kyiv with Abrams tanks.

That is unlikely to happen. Washington says the Leopards, which Germany made in the thousands during the Cold War and exported to its allies, are the only suitable option available in large enough numbers. This has all come to a head at a meeting of Nato and defence ministers from 50 countries in Germany on how to boost military support for Ukraine. With Putin expected to deploy T-14 Armata main battle tanks, Volodymyr Zelensky has pleaded for the West to send it heavy tanks.

Like couples arguing, this US-Germany tank debate is also about something else. While Nato has remained remarkably united, there is an ongoing and wider debate over whether to send ever more sophisticated and long-range weapons to Kyiv that would allow it to attack targets as much as 200 miles away.

As Ukraine and Russia seem set to re-engage in major offensives this spring, the question – as it has been since day one – continues to be how much is the West prepared to do to assist Ukraine without Nato coming into direct contact with Russia? And for Germany itself, how uncomfortable is it prepared to feel by supplying tanks if, even for reasons of pure logistics, the US is not?

Lord Ismay, Nato’s first Secretary General, famously quipped that the alliance was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” On those terms, the enterprise has worked, but on that third one, perhaps a little too well.

Elsewhere in the paper, the NHS is facing its biggest-ever strike on February 6, as Unite has announced that workers from five ambulance trusts in England and Wales will walk out the same day that nurses stage industrial action. Paramedics from the GMB will also strike on that day.

In the comment pages, nobody wants to be cancelled – least of all by their own child – Natasha Devon advises what to do. While Paul Flynn says people won’t forget Justin Welby’s empathy failure on gay marriage.

And finally, people who are more fun and less jet-lagged than me have compiled a list of things to do in London this weekend. Alternatively, stay in and check out one of our film and TV recommendations.

Have good one.

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