Ukraine has a new cache of weapons on the way — but not German tanks

Slovakian soldiers climb onto a tank in Bratislava after the handover of a Leopard 2 to Slovakia by the German defense minister on December 19, 2022. | Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

Some allies are becoming frustrated with Germany. Poland has said it will find a workaround to send its tanks.

Ukraine has managed to rally the West once again to supply weapons, including Bradley fighting vehicles, self-propelled Howitzers, and more, a month ahead of the Russia-Ukraine war’s one-year anniversary. Though there’s been an enthusiastic response from many nations, Germany is still holding out on supplying the Leopard 2 tank, which Ukraine says could be key for a spring offensive — and which is causing frustration for NATO allies.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius on Friday at the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany told reporters that his government had not yet agreed to send the tanks or allow third-party nations that own the German-made vehicles to send them to Ukraine for a possible spring offensive. Defense ministers from allied countries met at the US military base Friday to discuss further weapons packages for Ukraine.

Throughout the war there’s been a high level of coordination between NATO and other allies, not just about weapons packages, but on applying sanctions to Russia and other forms of aid for Ukraine. Coordination on weapons packages requires diplomacy, and there are laws and regulations surrounding weapons transfers — hence the meeting at Ramstein and a Thursday confab in Estonia.

However, calls for the Leopard tanks — and disappointment with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz for refusing to allow their release — have overshadowed news of the weapons packages, which are coming as a result of coordination by some 50 countries. On Saturday, the Baltic states — Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — released a statement urging Germany to provide the tanks immediately. “Germany as the leading European power has special responsibility in this regard,” the statement said in part.

On Thursday, the nine nations meeting in Estonia — Denmark, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, the UK, Lithuania, Poland, the Netherlands, and Slovakia — all pledged their support for the larger package announced from Ramstein Friday. Those promises include training, ammunition, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS, namely the Stinger missile), helicopters, and anti-aircraft weapons, among other systems.

“This is a crucial moment,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at the Ramstein meeting Friday. “Russia is regrouping, recruiting and trying to re-equip,” after successful Ukrainian campaigns in Kharkiv and Kherson this fall, he said, adding that “this is not a moment to slow down — it’s a time to dig deeper.”

As Austin noted, Russia could be planning a spring offensive building on this past fall’s mobilization efforts. And after pulling out of the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, the Russian military — notably the Wagner Group mercenary unit, newly designated a transnational criminal organization — has been pushing back in a crushing battle over the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region.

A coordinated weapons package indicates continued Western support

Western and NATO support for the war effort in Ukraine has remained resolute, despite the potential for strain over rising fuel prices caused by sanctions on Russian energy, among other possible pain points. European nations and the US have supplied Ukraine with billions of dollars in weapons systems, training, equipment, ammunition, and humanitarian aid in the 11 months since the war broke out, efforts spearheaded by US leadership.

In the latest package — announced just two weeks after the US pledged its largest-ever tranche of aid to Ukraine — NATO and other partners pledged increased air defenses, like Patriot launchers and missiles from the Netherlands and Germany, in addition to what the US pledged in December. Those systems intercept incoming missiles like those Russia has been using to bombard Ukrainian critical infrastructure.

The US will also send additional Bradley infantry fighting vehicles as well as Stryker armored personnel carriers, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and Humvees — all of which will assist with greater battlefield mobility, particularly as Russian forces use land mines, even in civilian areas.

Sweden is sending its Archer artillery system, a type of howitzer that is extremely precise and easy to use, and allows for rapid redeployment of weaponry. These weapons systems fire long-range projectiles, and the Archer in particular is highly mobile, meaning it can deploy and move quickly. Denmark and Estonia are also donating howitzers.

The UK also pledged 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks — the first Western-style tanks sent to Ukraine during the conflict. Partners had previously provided Ukraine with Soviet-built tanks of its own and from former Warsaw Pact nations that have been decimated after a year of fighting. The new vehicles not only offer Ukraine modern tanks but also put some pressure on other partners to provide tanks of their own.

What’s the holdup in Germany?

Despite the significant new packages partner countries have announced, Germany’s reluctance to provide or allow other partner nations to send the Leopard 2 has become a major point of contention within the partnership.

Germany is refusing to send the Leopard 2 unless the US first sends the M-1 Abrams tank, with Scholz saying Germany won’t “go it alone” on weapons decisions. Critics of that calculus say that Leopards and Challengers are the only vehicles that are suited to the current battlefield, readily available in large numbers and easily maintained with current supply lines.

“The Leopards are in Europe, they are easy to get to Ukraine and several European countries use them, so they are readily available,” Minna Ålander, a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told the New York Times Thursday. “Logistics and maintenance would be easier. Spare parts and know-how are here in Europe, so the training of Ukrainians would be easier.”

The Leopard 2 tank, first introduced in 1979, is in use in 13 countries. There are about 2,000 of them spread across those European nations, all with different tweaks, levels of upgrade, and battle readiness, a September blog post from the European Council on Foreign Relations noted. Germany’s more cautious post-World War II military culture has been a source of blame for Berlin’s hesitance to send the weapons.

While a large number of tanks would be important for Ukraine’s battlefield efforts — Kyiv initially requested 88 Leopard 1 tanks and 100 Marder-type infantry fighting vehicles, another product of the German defense industry — the small number of Challenger tanks coming from the UK won’t be a deciding factor in how and whether Ukraine is able to make major gains against Russia. Tanks offer both protection and firepower, and are able to maneuver in challenging conditions. However, “This isn’t really about one single platform,” Austin said Friday, according to the Associated Press, noting that the armored and fighting vehicles the US is sending will give Ukraine new battlefield capabilities.

US politicians, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), have called on the US to send at least one Abrams to Ukraine in order to force Germany’s hand.

Poland, too, is pushing back, saying it could figure out a way to send its Leopards with or without German approval. “Consent is of secondary importance here, we will either obtain this consent quickly, or we will do what is needed ourselves,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the broadcaster Polstat News last week. Finland is also on board to send its Leopards. Morawiecki on Sunday said that his nation would go around Germany to build a smaller coalition of partners willing to send their tanks. “We will not passively watch Ukraine bleed to death,” he said.

Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states, as front-line countries — some of which, like the Baltic states, were part of the Soviet Union or, like Finland, were subject to Russian and Soviet invasion — have tended to urgently sound the alarm about the need to fend off Russian aggression. “The war is here and now,” Morawiecki said Sunday. “Do the Germans want to keep [the Leopards] in storage until Russia defeats Ukraine and is knocking on Berlin’s door?”

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