Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 20 January 2023. © Richard Kemp
Kyiv had hoped for a clear green light from Germany at the Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting at Ramstein air base on Friday to provide them with Leopard 2 battle tanks. Instead, the new German defence minister, Boris Pistorius, equivocated all day, at one stage saying it could take a month to reach a decision.
That sort of procrastination might be acceptable in peace time, but this is a war in which every day counts. We’re almost one year into the most deadly conflict in Europe since 1945 and Germany has been an unreliable partner since the start. First, they only wanted to send 5000 helmets while other countries quickly dispatched lethal weapons; now they have been dithering over tanks, dividing NATO, putting all of the West in a difficult position and – worst of all – jeopardising Ukraine’s war effort.
Poland leads a group of Western countries that want to send in some of the Leopards they bought from Germany. Technically they need permission from Berlin to do so. Yet such is the strength of feeling that the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Thursday that this country may send the German-made tanks to Kyiv without this approval. ‘Consent is a secondary issue here,’ he remarked.
The contrast between Warsaw and Berlin could not be greater. Poland has done exactly what Germany should have done and promised to do. It’s becoming a European military superpower: with a far smaller GDP it already has more tanks and howitzers than Germany and is on course to have a much larger army, with a target of 300,000 troops by 2035, compared with Germany’s current 170,000 which shows little realistic signs of increasing any time soon. In fact, the German chancellor is already backtracking on promises he made in the wake of Putin’s invasion, admitting last month that his intention to meet NATO’s minimum 2% of GDP defence spend starting this year is unlikely to be achieved until 2025 at the earliest.
The Poles have also embarrassed Germany with their fearlessness. On paper, due to its history in the Soviet Union and geographical proximity to Ukraine and Russia, Poland has far more to fear from Russia than Germany. Yet within weeks of Putin’s invasion Warsaw had sent more than 200 Soviet-era T72 tanks to Ukraine as well as self-propelled howitzers and rocket launchers. Even in the face of Russia’s subsequent ferocious attacks against its neighbour, Germany continues to quiver at the prospect of provoking Putin, with Scholz telling US lawmakers at Davos this week that he fears blowback from the ‘escalation’ that could ensue from Germany alone allowing modern Western tanks into Ukraine.
This makes no sense. Britain is about to deploy a squadron of Challenger 2 battle tanks and Germany itself has already deployed highly potent artillery that has done severe damage to Russian forces, as well as promising Marder infantry fighting vehicles – a ‘light tank’ that can pretty much pack the punch of a main battle tank with its guided missiles. It may be counter-intuitive, but anyone who understands a dictator’s mind knows that weakness, not strength, provokes aggression, and giving Ukraine the means to inflict greater damage on Putin is less, not more, likely to encourage him to widen the war.
Germany’s other excuse is its past. Vice chancellor Robert Habeck says: ‘You know our history, and we are a little bit more reluctant there for understandable reasons.’ This is no more than another pretext for inaction driven by fear. There is simply no comparison between Germany hurling tank armies against Russia in a war of aggression in 1941 and agreeing for its tanks to be sent to defend a European ally under vicious assault 80 years later. Germany broke its post-World War 2 taboo on deploying combat forces in Kosovo in 1991 and Afghanistan in 2002, and Leopard tanks operated by Denmark saw combat against Bosnian Serb forces in 1994.
In any case, now is not the time for equivocation. To resist Russia’s imminent offensive, and to retake territory already lost to Moscow, Ukraine’s most burning need is for tanks. A significant tank force could make the difference between victory and defeat for Ukraine, both physically and psychologically, as it fights against massed Russian armour. Kyiv does not have the luxury of time as the Russian steamroller gathers pace. Deploying tanks is not something that happens overnight. Machines have to be prepared and transported, crews have to be trained and exercised, the immense logistics backup has to be put in place.
Britain has taken ‘action this day’, as Churchill would have put it, by its decision to send Challenger tanks to Ukraine, while Germany has shown its true colours at Ramstein. Poland – plus Lithuania, Finland, Denmark and the other countries willing to dispatch their Leopards to the fight – should not wait another month to see whether Berlin is willing to authorise their release. They should send them now and worry about the repercussions from Berlin later.
Image: Wikimedia Commons