Germany finally agrees to provide Ukraine with Leopard tanks, Russia warns of ‘historical responsibility’

The long-awaited decision came after U.S. officials said a preliminary agreement had been struck for the United States to send M1 Abrams tanks to help Kyiv push back Russian forces

January 25, 2023 05:54 pm | Updated February 03, 2023 04:33 pm IST - Berlin

The German government has confirmed it will provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks and approve requests by other countries to do the same. File

The German government has confirmed it will provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks and approve requests by other countries to do the same. File | Photo Credit: AP

After weeks of hesitation that saw growing impatience among Germany's allies, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced Wednesday that his government would provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks and approve requests by other countries to do the same.

Also read |Lessons from Russia’s Ukraine war

In a statement, the government said it would initially provide Ukraine with one company of Leopard 2 A6 tanks, which comprises 14 vehicles, from its own stocks. The goal is for Germany and its allies to provide Ukraine with a total of two battalions, or 88 tanks.

Mr. Scholz said Germany was “acting in close coordination” with its allies.

The long-awaited decision came after U.S. officials said a preliminary agreement had been struck for the United States to send M1 Abrams tanks to help Kyiv push back Russian forces entrenched in the east almost a year since the start of the war.

Mr. Scholz had insisted that any move to provide Ukraine with powerful Leopard 2 tanks would need to be closely coordinated with Germany's allies, chiefly the United States.

By getting Washington to commit some of its own tanks Berlin hopes to spread the risk of any backlash from Russia.

Ekkehard Brose, head of the German military's Federal Academy for Security Policy, said tying the United States into the decision was crucial, to avoid Europe facing a nuclear-armed Russia alone.

But he also noted the deeper historic significance of the decision.

“German-made tanks will face off against Russian tanks in Ukraine once more,” he said, adding that this was “not an easy thought” for Germany, which takes its responsibility for the horrors of World War II seriously.

“And yet it is the right decision,” Mr. Brose said, arguing that it was up to Western democracies to help Ukraine stop Russia's military campaign.

Kremlin responds

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described German and U.S. intentions with the tanks as a “a rather disastrous plan”.

“I am convinced that many specialists understand the absurdity of this idea,” Mr. Peskov told reporters Wednesday.

“Simply because of technological aspects, this is a rather disastrous plan. The main thing is, this is a completely obvious overestimation of the potential (the supply of tanks) would add to the armed forces of Ukraine. It is yet another fallacy, a rather profound one,” the Kremlin official said.

Mr. Peskov predicted “these tanks will burn down just like all the other ones.... Except they cost a lot, and this will fall on the shoulders of European taxpayers.” he added.

The Russian embassy in Germany said that Berlin was abandoning its “historical responsibility to Russia” arising from Nazi crimes in World War II. In a scathing statement, the embassy said that the tank deliveries would escalate the conflict to a new level and lead to “permanent escalation”.

“This extremely dangerous decision takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation and contradicts the statements of German politicians about the unwillingness of the Federal Republic of Germany to be drawn into it,” Ambassador Sergei Nechayev said.

“It destroys the remnants of mutual trust, causes irreparable damage to the already deplorable state of Russian-German relations, and casts doubt on the possibility of their normalization in the foreseeable future,” he added.

German coalition welcomes move

Members of Mr. Scholz's three-party coalition government welcomed the news ahead of the official announcement.

“The Leopard's freed!” said German lawmaker Katrin Goering-Eckardt, a senior Green party lawmaker.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a member of the Free Democratic Party who chairs the parliamentary defence committee, said the news was “a relief for a mistreated and brave Ukraine”.

“The decision to approve (other countries' requests) and supply the Leopard 2 was arduous, but unavoidable,” she said. Ms. Strack-Zimmermann had been one of the loudest voices calling for a swift decision on arms supplies to Ukraine.

Two smaller opposition parties criticised the move, however. The far-right Alternative for Germany called the decision “irresponsible and dangerous.”

“Germany risks being drawn directly into the war as a result,” its co-leader, Tino Chrupalla, said. The party, known by its acronym AfD, has friendly ties to Russia.

The Left party, which also has historic links to Moscow, warned of a possible escalation in the conflict. “The supply of Leopard battle tanks, which ends a further taboo, potentially takes us closer to a third world war than in the direction of peace in Europe,” the party's parliamentary leader, Dietmar Bartsch, told German news agency dpa.

Zelensky tells Scholz ‘sincerely grateful’ for German tanks

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked his German counterpart Olaf Scholz for Berlin’s decision to deliver powerful Leopard tanks and grant approval for other countries to send some from their own stocks.

“German main battle tanks, further broadening of defence support and training missions, green light for partners to supply similar weapons. Just heard about these important and timely decisions in a call with Olaf Scholz,” Mr. Zelensky said on Twitter, adding that he was “sincerely grateful to the Chancellor and all our friends”.

German voters divided

Recent opinion polls showed German voters split on the idea. The pressure on Mr. Scholz mounted this week after Poland formally asked Germany to approve sending Leopard 2 tanks from Polish stocks to Ukraine.

Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, accused Germany of “delaying, being evasive and acting in a way that is difficult to understand" when it came to supplying tanks, and went so far as to claim that Berlin appeared not to want to help Ukraine.

Other European nations have also indicated willingness to part with their own battle tanks as part of a larger coalition.

Germany news weekly Der Spiegel reported that Berlin could initially approve the supply of one tank company, comprising 14 vehicles.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made clear late Tuesday that he hoped to receive a more substantial number of tanks from western allies. “It is not about five, or 10, or 15 tanks. The need is greater,” he said.

After Germany’s announcement, Kyiv welcomed the move. “The first step on tanks has been taken. Next, the ‘tank coalition’. We need a lot of Leopards,” the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration Andriy Yermak said on social media.

(With inputs from agencies)

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