The Polish government has requested Berlin’s permission to send its Leopard tanks to Ukraine after the German government appeared to say it would not block their export.
The submission of the application by Warsaw increases pressure on German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to make a swift decision after he avoided the issue at an international meeting of defence ministers on Friday.
Boris Pistorius, Germany’s new defence minister, said on Tuesday morning he expected Germany to react quickly to the request. On Friday he had indicated that Berlin was unlikely to stand in the way of other countries, namely Poland, Finland and Spain, sending their own tanks, even as Germany avoided making a decision.
A German government source has said it would treat the Polish application with the “required urgency” and that a decision could be made within one to two weeks.
Poland’s defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, confirmed the move on Tuesday morning on Twitter, writing: “Germany has received our request.”
Warsaw’s initiative is expected to give other countries in possession of the tanks, and which had indicated their readiness to send them to Ukraine, the impetus to follow suit. It also increases pressure on Berlin to announce that it will send its own stocks of the German-made tank. Błaszczak called on Berlin to “join the coalition of countries which want to support Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks”. There are believed to be more than 2,000 of the tanks in Europe.
The application was submitted to the German economy ministry, as confirmed by government sources who told Spiegel that the paperwork was “correct and complete”. Poland has specifically asked for the export licence for 14 tanks. Under the purchase agreement it has to acquire Germany’s permission, as the land where they were manufactured, to export them.
The defence ministry will be in charge of the decision-making process.
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, had announced his intention to put in the application on Monday. On Friday, Warsaw had even threatened to go ahead and send its tanks to Ukraine without permission from Germany, in a reaction to Scholz’s failure to make an announcement, despite widespread expectations that he would use the meeting at the Ramstein military base to do so. A German government spokesperson had told Poland that to do so would be unlawful under the terms of the purchase agreement.
The German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, appeared to pave the way for Warsaw to make its request on Sunday when she told French television in a surprise statement that Germany would not block the export of Leopard tanks to Ukraine from third countries. She said: “At the moment the question has not yet been asked but if we were to be asked we would not stand in the way.” It is still unclear whether her statement was made in agreement with Scholz or was in deliberate defiance of his position.
Speaking on Tuesday after a meeting in Berlin with the Nato general secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, Pistorius said: “I expect that a decision will be reached shortly.”
He said that an inventory of the Leopard 2 battle tanks, which he announced on Friday, was taking place to answer detailed questions concerning spare parts, maintenance, ordnance and restoration of the weapons systems, which Kyiv first requested last April, before they could be deployed.
“We are in the process of preparing all of that now,” Pistorius said. “And in case of our decision being a positive one we will then be ready to act quickly.”
He said he had “expressly encouraged” all Nato partners in possession of the Leopard tanks to start training Ukrainian soldiers as soon as possible in their use. Pistorius added that the German government would not “stand in anyone’s way”, but said Germany could go ahead with concrete training and deployment plans only “once our decision about how to deal with the Leopard tanks has been reached.”
Armin Papperger, the chief executive of Rheinmetall, the manufacturers of the tanks, confirmed that 29 Leopard 2A4s due to be sent to Slovakia and the Czech Republic as part of a multilateral exchange programme – in which those countries are to give their Soviet-era weaponry to Ukraine and receive modern replacements from Germany in return – could be ready by March but that it would be up to Berlin to decide what to do with them. The tanks are currently being refurbished by Rheinmetall.
Papperger confirmed that the company has a further 22 tanks that need an extensive overhaul and are not likely to be ready before the end of the year. He added: “Some of these tanks have been standing around unused for up to a decade and their hatches left open so that they have gone mouldy inside.” They would have to be taken apart, cleaned and painstakingly reconstructed “like you would a car”, he said.
The impatience towards Germany because of its apparent indecision over the tank question has been considerable. The tabloid Bild noted in its Tuesday edition that the international indignation towards Berlin was huge, with the word “scholzen” or “scholzing”, in a play on Scholz’s name, being used in the west “as a synonym for procrastination, making excuses and stalling” while, meanwhile, “Russian propagandists in contrast are appreciatively celebrating Scholz”.