Amid the smoke of war, power in Europe is shifting decisively to the east | Jonathan Eyal

While Germany’s Olaf Scholz was dragging his feet over tanks for Ukraine, the Baltic states and Poland gained moral ground

Huffing and puffing and occasionally fluffing his words during months of tense diplomatic negotiations, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has finally agreed to supply Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. The numbers involved are not impressive; as things stand, only 14 German tanks will get a fresh lick of paint with Ukrainian military markings. Still, his decision has removed a significant obstacle to Ukraine’s rearmament. Finland, Poland, Portugal and the Netherlands have already announced that they will transfer some of their Leopards and Norway and Spain are not far behind.

The Leopard tank contingent could, therefore, end up being quite substantial, providing Ukraine with the ability to flush out Russian troops from their dugouts, thereby injecting much-needed mobility into a war of attrition that currently allows Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to kill civilians and pulverise Ukraine’s economic infrastructure systematically and primarily with impunity.

Nato governments are relieved that Scholz has finally made the right choice, albeit only after trying everything else. The United States and Europe are “fully, thoroughly, totally united”, President Joe Biden joyfully claimed after the German tank decision became known.

And reports from Berlin indicate that, far from being apologetic about his dithering, Scholz believes that he has acquitted himself well. He kept his Social Democratic party united on a profoundly controversial question. He also persuaded the Americans to supply their tanks alongside Germany’s.

Sadly, much of this positive narrative is wishful thinking, for it ignores both the abrupt collapse of Germany’s influence in Europe and the continent’s profound strategic transformation because of the Ukraine war.

The decision to supply Ukraine with tanks amounts to a significant deepening of western military involvement in the conflict; Ukraine’s western backers have agreed to take a higher risk because they concluded – correctly – that allowing Putin’s war of attrition to continue is far riskier.

But this is just the first in many further escalatory steps that Nato governments are certain to face in the coming months, regardless of how the war develops. If the inevitable Russian spring offensive against Ukraine proves more successful than currently feared, demands will grow for the supply of fighter jets to Ukraine’s armed forces. So will suggestions of an even more direct Nato involvement in defending Ukraine’s skies. Today, that’s unthinkable. But then, supplying western tanks was also taboo until recently.

Conversely, if the anticipated Ukrainian offensive does better than Nato military planners anticipate, the question of the liberation of occupied Crimea – with the expected fleeing of hundreds of thousands of Russian settlers from the peninsula – will arise. And so would the risk that the Putin regime will resort to a nuclear escalation in order to stave off total humiliation and collapse.

Scholz’s propensity to take every strategic decision far too late and only under duress has already seriously damaged European security. But it could be catastrophic to the critical choices facing Nato in the months ahead. The chancellor has done little to explain to ordinary Germans what the impending delivery of tanks means for his country’s engagement or how he views the next steps in the war. Unsurprisingly, his public opinion remains divided, with “half of Germans sitting in the tank and the other half seeking to jump out”, as the Russian-born writer Wladimir Kaminer aptly put it.

The only proposition Germans now accept is that Scholz lacks leadership qualities; the latest opinion polls indicate that only a quarter of voters consider him a strong leader. So, far from being transformative, Germany’s tank decision offers no reassurance that the future strategic choices of Europe’s most significant and wealthiest nation will be reached with the speed or the determination that will be increasingly necessary.

Nor is there a serious appreciation in Berlin of how much Germany will need to adapt to the fundamental changes that have taken place in Europe because of the Ukraine carnage.

The continent’s strategic centre of gravity has shifted decisively from its western tip, where Germany and France used to decide matters, and towards central and eastern Europe. Throughout the Ukraine war, pressure from countries such as the Baltic states and Poland forced Berlin into making a choice. These nations have gained moral authority because they were far more lucid and realistic about the danger of an imperial Russia and are also exercising a more direct and practical influence over the continent’s decision-making.

This means that some of the old dreams about promoting a “European strategic autonomy” distinct from the US are redundant; Scholz indirectly acknowledged Europe’s dependence on the US last week by demanding that American tanks accompany German ones into Ukraine. It also means that Franco-German plans to uphold a clear distinction between countries in or out of institutions such as the European Union and Nato must be abandoned.

Britain remains a critical player in European security, notwithstanding Brexit. Despite the absence of any formal security connection with the EU, its reputation, footprint and influence in the conduct of the Ukraine war are far more extensive than that of either France or Germany. And, conversely, no future stability and security for Ukraine are feasible without that country becoming – in substance, if not in form – a member of both the EU and Nato.

Germany’s real task is to acknowledge this fundamental European transformation. Instead, Scholz still seems to believe that, as he recently put it, if Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine, “we can come back to a peace order that worked and make it safe again”.

This is utter nonsense. Germany will reassert its European importance when the guns eventually fall silent and the world looks to Berlin’s deep pockets to help with Ukraine’s reconstruction. But Germany will struggle to influence the reshaping of Europe’s security map.

• Dr​ Jonathan Eyal is associate director, strategic research partnerships, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk

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Jonathan Eyal

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