Analysis: Why Germany struggles to digest the idea of ​​sending tanks to Ukraine


The past 12 months have forced European leaders to seriously rethink their approach to national security.

If the Russian invasion of Ukraine confirmed one thing, it was that peace on the continent could not be taken for granted. The status quo — decades of low spending and defense is not a political priority — cannot last.

This is particularly true in Germany, which for years spent far less on its military than many of its Western allies but is now reconsidering its approach to defense at home and abroad.

Days after the invasion began last February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered a riveting speech to parliament pledging to spend 100 billion euros ($108 billion) to modernize Germany’s military capability.

He also pledged that Germany would raise its defense spending to 2% of GDP — to meet a target set by NATO that it had missed for years — and end its deep dependence on Russian energy, especially gas.

However, nearly a year later, critics say Schultz’s vision has failed to become a reality. Germany has been accused of inaction when it comes to sending its most powerful weapons to Ukraine.

Criticism has mounted in recent days as US and European leaders have increased pressure on Berlin to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks into Ukraine, or at least allow other countries to do so.

Experts estimate there are about 2,000 Leopard tanks in use by 13 countries across Europe, and they are increasingly seen as vital to Ukraine’s war effort as the conflict drags into its second year. But Berlin must give these countries approval to re-export German-made tanks to Ukraine, and has so far resisted calls to do so.

Scholz insisted that any such plan would need to be fully coordinated with the entire Western coalition, and German officials indicated that they would not agree to transfer the Panthers unless the United States also agreed to send some of its tanks to Kyiv.

On Friday, an important meeting of Western allies in Germany collapsed without a broader agreement on sending tanks to Ukraine, after the country’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, said his government had yet to make a decision.

Pistorius rejected claims that Germany was “standing in the way” of a “unified coalition” of nations supporting the plan. He added, “There are good reasons for extradition and there are good reasons against it… All the pros and cons must be weighed very carefully, and many Allies openly share that assessment.”

Germany’s decision to dig in to send in tanks is likely to go down badly with its allies, both in the near and long term.

“It’s like acid working through layer after layer of trust,” a senior NATO diplomat told CNN on Friday. The diplomat added that Germany’s indecision could have a lasting effect on the rest of Europe and possibly push other members of the alliance closer to the United States, even if Germany is reluctant to do so.

Divisions in the alliance have only grown publicly in recent days — earlier in the week, Poland’s prime minister called Germany “the least active country out of the group, to put it mildly,” and suggested his country might send the Panthers to Ukraine without Berlin’s approval.

For all the criticism of Germany’s indecision about tanks, Berlin has played a crucial role in supporting Ukraine over the past year. The United States and the United Kingdom are the only two countries that have provided more military aid to Kyiv than Germany since the invasion began, according to the Kiel Institute.

German military support to Ukraine has evolved over time. It has abandoned its longstanding policy of not delivering lethal weapons to conflict zones, and recently stepped up deliveries of heavy equipment to Ukraine, including armored infantry fighting vehicles and Patriot missile defense systems.

However, the government sees the tanks as a major step up from the weapons delivered to Ukraine so far, and fears that allowing German tanks to be used against Russia would be seen by Moscow as a major escalation.

Experts say this reticence is due in part to Berlin’s pragmatic approach to the conflict in general, and a relatively timid military stance dating back decades, guided by what Schulz himself described as “the tragic consequences of the two world wars that arose in Germany.”

Germany has been in peacetime for years. We don’t have the procedures or procurement expertise to do anything quickly at the moment. “The truth is that for decades, we’ve seen our defense budget as a gift to our allies because they thought it was important,” said Christian Mölling, deputy director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Whatever happens in Ukraine, Germany will have to ask itself some important questions about security in the coming years. The desire to improve the German armed forces has grown exponentially since the beginning of the war.

Last week, Christine Lambrecht resigned as defense minister amid criticism of her efforts to modernize the military. Lambrecht has struggled to do anything of note with the €100bn Schulz made available to her last year. The head of Germany’s main opposition party, the Christian Democrats, accused the chancellor of not taking his speech last year seriously.

The person who can now spend that money is Pistorius, who German officials see as a safe pair of hands and do the job. The question he and Schultz must answer is how far Germany is willing to go for a serious military presence in Europe.

In December, Germany admitted it would not meet Schultz’s pledge to meet NATO requirements on defense spending in 2022, and said it would likely miss the target again in 2023.

And the military readiness of the army is less than that of some other European powers. According to Rand Cooperation, it would take Germany about a month to fully mobilize an armored brigade, while the British Army “should be able to sustain at least one armored brigade indefinitely.”

Defense experts say Germany will find it difficult to move far or too quickly in its efforts to bolster its army.

“Yes, we’ve committed to spending more on our security, but without any clear idea of ​​what exactly needs to be spent or how it fits into a broader security strategy,” Mulling said.

Mölling also believes that German defense ambitions can be hampered by political will: “Careers have been built on the narrative that Germany is a peace-loving country. The mood is changing and it may be at a turning point, but it would be very difficult to be the leader who pushed to make Germany a player.” key in European security.

European officials and diplomats are pessimistic and believe that the reality of German politics means that it will eventually continue to resist serious defense reform.

It is often said in diplomatic circles that Germany’s 21st-century model of success has been built on three pillars: cheap Chinese labour, cheap Russian energy, and American guarantees of security.

Many believe that this known preference for diplomatic pragmatism and subsequent reluctance to take sides will mean that any defense reforms will be severely limited.

One German official told CNN that it will be difficult for ordinary politicians to break free from old habits: “They have an inherent suspicion against open alignment with the United States and a secret hope that the relationship with Russia can be repaired.”

Berlin has also lent its support to Ukraine in other ways, taking measures to wean itself off Russian gas and setting an example for the rest of Europe, which has seen its overall gas consumption drop since the start of the war. The relatively warm winter in Europe has helped, of course, but preventing Putin from weaponizing energy has been an important factor in Western pressure on Moscow.

But the security map of Europe has been redrawn, as have the dividing lines in international diplomacy. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of another country has shown more clearly than ever that moral values ​​are not universal.

There is no doubt that Germany, the richest country in Europe, has benefited greatly from its policy of keeping its feet in two camps. It is protected by NATO membership while maintaining economic ties with unwanted partners.

That policy has been called for and Germany must now decide exactly what kind of voice it wants in the current conversation about global security. The decisions you will make in the next few years could play a decisive role in determining the security of the entire European continent for decades to come.

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