Germany's Tank Debate Why Is the Chancellor Taking So Long?

The pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz to deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine is growing daily. But the German leader is keeping quiet, hesitating and stalling. What's he thinking, and does he have a way out?
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz: Unrest is growing within his coalition over his reticence to sending tanks for Kyiv.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz: Unrest is growing within his coalition over his reticence to sending tanks for Kyiv.

Foto: FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS

On Sunday evening in Paris, the German chancellor and the French president gave a joint press conference at the Élysée Palace. Sixty years earlier, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle had sealed the end of the enmity caused by two world wars in these magnificent halls, and Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron spent the weekend celebrating that achievement and invoking the Franco-German friendship.

It would actually have been a prime opportunity for the chancellor to announce more weapons for Ukraine and to hold out the prospect of Leopard battle tanks for Ukraine’s defensive fight against Russia. Kyiv has been begging for the tanks and allies who have Leopards in their arsenals have been pressing Berlin to grant the necessary approval. Scholz's coalition partners have also been demanding that the Social Democrat change his tune.

But on Sunday evening, the chancellor neither announced any battle tanks nor did he explain why he continues to block their delivery. Instead, he looked back, offering a summary of the arms assistance Germany has given to Ukraine so far. Multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft tanks, self-propelled howitzers. "The U.S.A. is doing a lot, Germany is also doing a lot," Scholz said. The chancellor also said that Germany would be unwavering in its support for Ukraine.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris

Foto: BENOIT TESSIER / POOL / EPA

Scholz’s silence on the tank issue has become a problem. The atmosphere within the government coalition in Berlin is extremely rocky at the moment, while impatience - indeed, bewilderment - with the German chancellor’s hesitation is growing in Washington.

Frustration within Scholz's government has been most vocally expressed by Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Defense Committee in German parliament and a member of the Free Democratic Party, which is a junior coalition partner to Scholz's SPD. She described the chancellor's communication on the tank issue as "disastrous." History, she told public broadcaster ZDF, "is looking at us and Germany has, unfortunately, just failed."

When it comes to Berlin's ties with Washington, DER SPIEGEL sources say there was an intense exchange between the two partners at last week's meeting of Ukraine backers in Ramstein, Germany, even if it didn't erupt into an outright row. Washington is irked that Berlin is making the delivery of German tanks contingent on the United States providing similar weapons. Especially given that the U.S. government is skeptical of sending its own Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine. Washington says the tanks are too technically and logistically demanding to send.

So, why is Scholz holding back? What is preventing the chancellor from releasing Leopard battle tanks? What is he afraid of?

Scholz appears to believe that, even as everyone else seems to be working themselves into a frenzy, he is sticking to his principles. On Monday, his spokesman reaffirmed those principles: namely that Germany should support Ukraine, that it should prevent a war between Russia and NATO and that is should avoid going it alone through unilateral weapons decisions. Officials in the Chancellery are of the view that if Germany were to move forward and supply Leopard battle tanks without the U.S. making a similar move, it would essentially represent a unilateral move by Berlin.

The Chancellery is attaching great importance to possible Leopard deliveries – not only in political terms, but also militarily. Leopard tanks would provide the Ukrainians with a real advantage over the Russians, because the tanks are clearly superior to the Russian T models, particularly because of their range. Whereas Russian tanks can only fire within a radius of 1,500 meters, the Leopards have an effective radius of several kilometers.

Germany wants to help Ukraine, but it wants to do so without endangering its own population. Indeed, Scholz’s principles are in stark conflict with each other. "It’s a matter of life and death," his spokesman says. And given what is at stake, his staff stresses, it is only natural that the chancellor is carefully weighing his options. But Scholz is not sharing his thoughts with the public. Instead of presenting the pros and cons, Scholz seems willing to accept the image forming of him both at home and abroad of a weak leader who is acting cold-heartedly toward Kyiv.

"Every day of delay is the death of Ukrainians,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted on January 21.

"The German government isn’t ruling out the delivery of Leopard tanks. It just hasn’t yet made a decision."

German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit.

Britain’s recent announcement that it will provide 14 older Challenger 2 main battle tanks apparently is not regarded by the German government as a significant leap forward from previous military aid. Meanwhile, French President Macron hasn’t yet announced the provision of any French Leclerc battle tanks, nor has he ruled them out. Neither has Scholz. "The German government isn’t ruling out the delivery of Leopard tanks,” Germany’s government spokesman said on Monday. "It just hasn’t yet made a decision."

At the meeting in Ramstein on Friday, expectations were initially high that Germany would allow third countries to export Leopard tanks. Boris Pistorius of the center-left Social Democrats, who became Germany’s new defense minister last week after his predecessor resigned, had stirred Germany’s partners when he announced the night before that Berlin would decide on the issue "in the next few hours or tomorrow morning.” In the end, though, no decision was made. In part, apparently, because the pressure on Germany behind the scenes wasn't so great, after all. Several other countries that are backing Ukraine reportedly expressed skepticism about Leopard deliveries.

But the impression of contradictory statements from the German government remained. A further example came on Sunday evening. While Scholz and Macron met, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on French television that the German government would not block Poland from sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine if Berlin received a request to that effect from Warsaw. Despite Warsaw’s vocal criticism of Germany, the official request was only submitted on Tuesday.

Baerbock, who has long advocated Western battle tanks for Ukraine, had apparently struck a nerve with the Poles. On Monday morning, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced his intention to ask Berlin for permission.

Avoiding Unilateral Moves

But the foreign minister’s statements on Sunday had not been coordinated with Scholz and the federal government in Berlin. Officials in Scholz’s Chancellery are still considering the conditions under which battle tanks could be send to Kyiv. But they seem keen to avoid a repeat of the approach taken with the recently agree-to decision to send Marder infantry fighting vehicles. At the beginning of January, Scholz and U.S. President Joe Biden announced plans to supply Kyiv with Marder and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. For Berlin and Washington, it was a simultaneous and equivalent step. This time, though, the Americans apparently aren’t going along with the idea of sending equivalent battle tanks. Scholz, in turn, doesn’t want Berlin to take unilateral action. There will be "no going it alone,” he has said on numerous occasions.

Scholz’s staff is now considering what a future arms package for Ukraine might look like that includes German Leopards – and something qualitatively comparable from the United States. In their view, that’s the only way to avoid having the dispatch of Leopards look like a unilateral action. There are likely two reasons for Berlin’s reluctance to do so. On the one hand, Berlin is seeking to prevent giving Russian President Vladimir Putin an excuse to portray the West as divided.

And on the other, there is concern that Putin might come to regard Germany as being the primary enemy. Specifically, Scholz's people are worried that, no matter who supplies Leopards to Ukraine, Russia will see them as German tanks. Berlin wants other countries to provide tanks as well so that the risk is diversified.

Scholz is without a doubt saddled with a great responsibility. The chancellor pointed that out himself during a closed-door meeting of the SPD’s national party executive on Monday. According to participants, the Social Democrats debated the tank issue for about an hour. Participants say that Scholz repeated his usual arguments: that he doesn’t want to escalate the situation and that Germany should not go it alone. The chancellor also noted the public’s approval of his approach, noting that there is no majority support in German polls for tank deliveries to Ukraine. Scholz also complained that media reporting on the issue has been one-sided.

A Backsliding Chancellor?

The chancellor came across as defiant to meeting participants, but also clear in his course. Scholz’s SPD is still backing the chancellor, but dissatisfaction is growing over his communication. According to participants, several people at the meeting voiced frustration at the chancellor's lack of openness.

Critics of Scholz accuse him of constantly drawing red lines that he eventually crosses anyway. Early in the war, he said Ukraine was to receive no weapons at all, then no heavy weapons and, finally, no tanks. He then proceeded to break one taboo after the other. Was Scholz constantly backsliding? Sources close to the chancellor say the German leader is simply adapting to a dynamic situation and that there is no playbook for the expansion of military aid to Ukraine.

Berlin and Washington have taken identical approaches in the past year: They have carefully prodded in search of Putin’s red line. First anti-tank weapons, then artillery, then anti-aircraft defense and, most recently, infantry fighting vehicles: Military aid has been adapted to developments in the war and increased in doses, not abruptly. And that’s likely how it will continue.

By the end of the week, Defense Minister Pistorius has stressed, the inventory his ministry is taking of Leopard tanks will be available, an audit to determine how many of the tanks are available, what condition they are in and when they could be deployed. The question is no longer whether the tanks will go to Kyiv, but rather when.

The Chancellery wants to provide clarity within a few days.

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