A Slovakian soldier gets out of a Bundeswehr Leopard II driving school tank
Ukraine has pleaded for tanks from its Western allies – but the request has caused some difficult conversations within Europe and the US.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested tanks at a meeting with his country’s allies in southern Germany this week, in front of more than 50 countries who were gathered at the Ramstein airbase.
Several nations had already promised to help Ukraine by sending more equipment – but Zelenskyy suggested that was still not enough.
He told defence ministers: “Hundreds of thanks yous are not hundreds of tanks.”
He’s after the German-made Leopard 2 tanks in particular, because they would help Ukraine catch up with Russia’s superior artillery firepower. These tanks are also relatively straightforward to repair, too, making them ideal for use in Ukraine.
So far, both sides have just been using Soviet-era tanks in battle, so using a Leopard tank would give the Ukrainians the upper-hand. It’s one of the world’s leading battle tanks, with night-vision equipment and a laser range finder.
As Minna Alander, research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told the New York Times: “The Leopards are in Europe, they are easy to get to Ukraine and several European countries use them, so they are readily available. Logistics and maintenance would be easier. Spare parts and know-how are here in Europe, so the training of Ukrainian would be easier.”
So, what’s the hold-up?
Germany is reluctant to send its Leopard 2 tanks, or even let other countries provide Ukraine with their own tanks. German law dictates the German government would have to authorise other nations to re-export the goods – and Berlin is worried about escalating the war, or being roped in alone against Russia, rather than with the other Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) allies.
Germany’s defence minister, Boris Pistorius, said: “None of us can say today when there will be a decision for Leopard tanks and what the decision may look like.”
Russia has repeatedly warned Nato allies that it risks being drawn into the war if it continues to support Ukraine, either directly or indirectly.
At the moment, Nato is not directly involved the war.
But, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared to issue a threat over the tanks on Friday when he said that the Western equipment would not change the outcome of the ongoing war, but would “create more problems for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people”.
Ukraine has already been under attack for 11 months, and although it has been putting up an impressive counteroffensive, Russia still controls around 15% of its territory – and is not afraid of bombing civilians.
Zelenskyy has openly criticised Germany’s reluctance, saying: “If you have Leopard (tanks) then give them to us.”
He pointed out they were just for self-defence, not for attacks on Russia.
So far, Germany has only agreed to check for the availability of the tanks, but has not committed to actually sending any.
What are other countries saying?
The UK already planned on sending 14 Challenger 2 battle tanks, but this isn’t enough.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace said he hoped all 50 allies would “hear the message that unlocking the tank is part of 2023”.
Wallace has also played down fears of escalation, saying allies (including Germany) have already provided artillery systems with a longer range than the Leopards.
Meanwhile, Poland has since indicated that it may just offer the tanks to Ukraine without Germany’s position, even though German officials have suggested this would be illegal.
Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski said: “We’ll see. I think if there is strong resistance, we’ll be ready to take even such non-standard action. But let’s not anticipate the facts.”
The US, meanwhile, is reluctant to send its own Abrams tanks because “they were difficult to maintain” and “had a jet turbine”.
Why is this all so important now?
Nato military figures think Moscow is going to have a spring offensive, when the winter weather starts to lift, making combat easier.
It will also have been one year since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 – and Moscow used the weeks leading up to that date to prepare its troops, so may be looking to do the same this year.
The West subsequently sees the next month as a “window of opportunity” for Ukraine to get its troops training up on new equipment and push Russian forces back.
They believe Moscow is running low on ammunition and trained troops, despite efforts to restock.
It’s not clear what might happen next to make Germany change its mind.
But, recent events suggests that if the US shifts on its stance regarding its Abrams tanks, Germany might do the same for its Leopards.
This is what happened earlier in the war – Germany refused to send a Patriot air defence battery but when the US decided to send their own, Berlin U-turned and followed suit.