Why are German leaders so reluctant to give Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine?
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Germany’s Leopard 2 Problem
Many reasons have been given for Berlin’s hesitance. But the simplest explanation also happens to be the best—that, quite understandably, the German government is anxious about precipitating an expansion of the war, which could put Germany’s own national security at risk.
On its face, this might seem like a feeble justification for barring the transfer of much-vaunted Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine’s beleaguered forces.
Last month, it was announced that US-made Patriot missile systems are on the way.
So far, none of these arms shipments have provoked a direct attack on a NATO member.
Why would the dispatch of German-made tanks be any different?
Isn’t it now possible to say with confidence that Russia’s threats against NATO members are nothing but bluff and bluster?
Even if Berlin doesn’t want to draw down its own Leopard 2 fleet, what danger is there in authorizing Poland or some other NATO ally to send tanks that they are visibly eager to part ways with?
These are all fair questions to ask. First, though, it must be acknowledged that Germany is not the only Western power to believe that aid to Ukraine must have limits. Nobody seriously argues, for example, that NATO forces should be sent into battle against Russia. High-ranking NATO officials have consistently dismissed reckless suggestions such as declaring a no-fly-zone over Ukraine or blockading Russian ports. Early on in the war, much was made of the West’s collective unwillingness to send fighter jets to Ukraine.
On the contrary, it is commonly understood that there is a line that, if crossed, would bring NATO and Russia into a ruinous direct conflict. Everyone agrees that this line must never be crossed—a responsibility that rests upon the shoulders of every Western leader.
The problem, of course, is that nobody knows for sure where this theoretical line has been drawn. Would the Leopard 2 be crossing that line? Certainly, Vladimir Putin cannot be trusted on this point. Instead, it requires educated guesswork to know what Russian leaders would indeed view as an intolerable threat to their national security.
To be sure, it is entirely possible that Berlin will conclude that nothing cataclysmic will come from allowing Ukraine to be supplied with Leopard 2 tanks. Units could see action against Russian forces within months, and perhaps Moscow will be forced to grin and bear it. Writing for The Guardian, the political scientist Olga Chyzh has argued that NATO’s strategy is to gradually escalate its support for Ukraine in hopes of eventually convincing Moscow that victory is impossible. Sending Leopard 2 units could be part of this incremental tightening of the screw.
The point, however, is that the German government is reasonable to proceed with caution. While some critics might be frustrated with Berlin’s insistence on a slow and multilateral approach, the desire to avoid a wider conflagration—and anxiety about being singled out for retaliation—should be easy to understand. These are rational responses to a grave security environment.
Those who are blasé about Russia’s implied threats of reprisals should also consider the worst-case scenarios. What if, at some point, Putin concludes that NATO is gunning for his total defeat and removal from power, perhaps even the breakup of Russia? What if the appearance of dozens of German tanks on the battlefield is the catalyst for such a realization?
The result could be catastrophic. If Putin sees no chance of securing his political objectives through the application of conventional force, he could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, order large or small military attacks against a NATO member, or else engage in salami-slicing tactics designed to bait Western powers into being the ones to declare all-out war.
Of course, the likelihood of a Russia-NATO conflict remains low. Russia has strong incentives to avoid World War III. But German leaders can be forgiven for thinking about their country’s fate if the unthinkable were to happen. It should not be forgotten that there are more US troops in Germany than any other European nation, and that American nuclear weapons are housed at Büchel air base, west of Frankfurt. These bases, weapons, and troop formations—not to mention German factories and cities—would be high on the list of targets for Russia’s long-range missiles in the event of a NATO-Russia war.
Indeed, Germany might be considered much more at risk of attack and physical devastation than even Poland or the Baltics, which are closer to Russia but contain far fewer military assets of high value. Yes, Germany has something of a geographic buffer between itself and Russia, but the gap between Berlin and Belarus (now little more than a satellite of Russia) would not feel so wide with Russian missiles raining down.
Nor should it be overlooked that, for some Germans, the threat posed by Russia is hardly hypothetical. Russian troops occupied parts of East Germany for nearly forty years between 1945 until 1994. Before that, Germany fought against Russia in both world wars, conflicts of appalling scope and intensity. Today, Russia is a much weaker power after 12 months of bloody quagmire. But it will always be a nation capable of casting a long shadow over German security.
Nobody should doubt that Germany’s leaders want to see Russia defeated, Ukraine liberated, and Europe whole and free. But nor should anyone be surprised that Berlin sometimes sees the situation in Eastern Europe differently from Warsaw or London.
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As with so much else in world politics, where you stand on the issue of arming Ukraine invariably depends upon where you sit.
Author Expertise and Experience: Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.