Ukraine frustrated as Germany holds back decision on supply of tanks

Poland says lives will be lost because of Berlin’s inaction, as summit breaks up without progress over Leopard 2s

Germany has declined to take a decision on whether to give Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine at a special international summit, prompting frustration in Kyiv and a warning from Poland that lives could be lost because of hesitation in Berlin.

It had been hoped in Europe and the US that Germany would at least allow Leopards owned by countries such as Poland and Finland to be re-exported, but despite days of pleading, Berlin’s newly appointed defence minister said no final decision had been taken.

Instead, Boris Pistorius said on the sidelines of the 50-nation meeting at the Ramstein US air force base in Germany on Friday that he had asked his ministry to “undertake an examination of the stocks” of the tanks available.


Although it was the closest Germany has come to suggesting it might be contemplating the use of the tanks in the conflict, it provoked a number of pointed comments from Ukraine and its allies as the meeting broke up without progress on what has come to be seen as the core issue.

Zbigniew Rau, Poland’s foreign minister, said Ukrainian lives would be lost because of Germany’s reluctance to act. “Arming Ukraine in order to repel the Russian aggression is not some kind of decision-making exercise. Ukrainian blood is shed for real. This is the price of hesitation over Leopard deliveries. We need action, now,” he tweeted.

Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said after the meeting that there was “not a long time” available to provide Ukraine with extra equipment before the expected renewed offensives on both sides as the weather improves. “We have a window of opportunity between now and the spring,” he added.

The chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, said: “This year, it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine.”

Milley told reporters that a “continued defence stabilising the front” would be possible, but that would depend on the delivery and training of military equipment to Ukraine.

Prior to the meeting, Ukraine’s president said pointedly that his country was waiting for a “decision from one European capital that will activate the prepared chains of cooperation on tanks”. In an address, Volodymyr Zelenskiy added it was “in your power” to at least make a decision in principle about tanks.

Poland, which had said it could donate its own Leopard 2 tanks without seeking permission from Germany, said it had participated in a meeting of defence ministers of 15 countries to make progress on the topic.

Mariusz Blaszczak, the country’s defence minister, said he was still “convinced that coalition-building will end in success”.

Berlin is at the centre of the tanks debate because it has yet to allow the re-export of any of the 2,000-plus German-made Leopard 2 tanks owned by Nato countries, holding out for the US to agree to send some of its own Abrams tanks in addition.

The US argues that its Abrams tanks, which run on jet engines, are fuel-inefficient and so difficult to supply, but earlier this week the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, directly asked the US president, Joe Biden, to send US tanks in return for sending its own Leopard tanks.

Yet Berlin said on Friday it had backed away from such a demand, leaving Germany to carry on considering the issue in isolation. Steffen Hebestreit, a German government spokesman, said Scholz was not making the decision on the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks dependent on whether or not the US delivered its M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

“At no time has there been any deal or demand that one thing would follow on from another,” the spokesperson said. “I find it difficult to imagine a German chancellor dictating any conditions or making demands to an American president.”

Berlin, he further insisted, did not expect Poland to carry out its threat to deliver Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine unilaterally, without receiving the necessary export licence from Germany. Hebestreit said: “All our partners will surely want to behave in a law-abiding way.”


There had been hope that Germany might, as a compromise, allow export licences to be issued to European owners of the Leopard 2, while withholding its own Leopard tanks.

But in the end that too was dashed at Friday’s meeting of 50 western defence ministers in the Ukraine international contact group. Ukraine says it wants 300 tanks to help force out the Russian invaders in the spring, although western analysts say the supply of 100 would be enough to make an immediate difference.

Zelenskiy had begun the meeting, arguing that urgent action was necessary because “Russia is concentrating its forces, last forces, trying to convince everyone that hatred can be stronger than the world”.

It was vital to “speed up” weapons supplies, Zelenskiy added, because the war with Russia amounted to a battle between freedom and autocracy. “It is about what kind of world people will live in, people who dream, love and hope.”

Earlier this week, Britain said it would donate 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, while Poland said it wanted to follow suit with a similar number of German-made Leopard 2s. Finland has said it wants to donate tanks, while France has indicated that it is considering supplying some of its own Leclerc armoured units.

But it is the Leopards that are considered crucial because they are the dominant tank model in Europe. Germany itself has 321 Leopards in active service, plus another 255 in storage, out of a Nato total of more than 2,300.

Austin also announced a fresh $2.5bn (£2bn) military aid package to Ukraine, including 59 more Bradley fighting vehicles, on top of 50 already announced earlier this month, and 90 Stryker eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers and 350 Humvees.

The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the war in Ukraine was escalating, and argued that Nato countries were playing a direct role in the conflict, although the western military alliance is not at war with Russia.

“It really is developing in an upward spiral. We see a growing indirect, and sometimes direct, involvement of Nato countries in this conflict,” Peskov said.

“We see a devotion to the dramatic delusion that Ukraine can succeed on the battlefield. This is a dramatic delusion of the western community that will more than once be cause for regret, we are sure of that.”


Dan Sabbagh and Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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