Berlin refused to give in to pressure to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, despite urgent appeals from allies at a high-level defence meeting in Germany, aimed at co-ordinating the West’s support to Ukraine’s war effort in the face of Russian onslaught.
Germany’s new defence minister Borius Pistorius told reporters at a US military base near the southwestern city of Ramstein that his government was “carefully balancing pros and cons”.
“I’m sure there will be a decision in the short term,” said Mr Pistorius, who did not rule out the delivery of German battle tanks to Ukraine in the future. “Nothing is ever for ever,” he said.
Mr Pistorius remained evasive about the reasons behind Germany’s hesitations. “We don’t fear anything,” he said. “We have [a] responsibility for our population in Germany and Europe.”
He said that it was not up to him to decide whether other countries like Poland or Finland could send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and denied reports that Germany was unilaterally blocking the delivery.
“To be frank, I’m not allowed to grant that licence because it’s the role of another ministry and the chancellor,” he said.
Countries that own such tanks need Germany’s approval before sending them to a third country.
Speaking from Ramstein, Polish defence minister Mariusz Blaszczak said that he hoped that Germany would give his country the needed permission.
“In half an hour I’ll have a meeting with my German colleagues so we’ll discuss this,” he said. “We want to create a coalition of countries which have Leopard tanks and we want to build a coalition of donors of these tanks.”
Mr Blaszczak comments came one day after Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that he might press forward without Germany’s green-light.
Mr Pistorius said the German government would be ready to move quickly on the issue if there was consensus among allies.
Earlier in the day, he said he was “not aware” of a package deal reported by several media outlets alleging that Germany would only send its Leopard 2s to Ukraine if the US also sent its M1 Abrams.
Defence experts previously told The National that Abrams are too difficult to operate and run on specialised fuel.
Germany’s Leopard 2 is the only European-made tank that has the capacity to be scaled up easily and enable large-scale training. There is also easy access to ammunition and spare parts.
Mr Pistorius rejected claims that Germany was letting down Ukraine by not approving the transfer of Leopard 2s, and said that “we will support Ukraine [as] long as it’s necessary and the war is over”.
Speaking to defense officials on Friday morning via video-link, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an impassioned plea for more Western battle tanks.
Mr Zelenskyy thanked allies for their latest military assistance packages, but said his country needs tanks to repel Russian invaders.
Make the meeting a “Ramstein of tanks”, Mr Zelenskyy told the defence chiefs, calling for future gatherings to “go down in history as a Ramstein of F16s and long-range missiles”.
“I can thank you hundreds of times, but hundreds of thank yous are not hundreds of tanks. I can’t use words instead of guns that are needed against Russian artillery.
“Every unit helps to save our people from terror, but time remains a Russian ally.
“We have to speed up,” he added.
Speaking on the sideline of the meeting, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg refused to address tensions caused by Germany’s hesitations and said that consultations would continue.
“Today there are new announcements [and] if you put them altogether, it’s a big significant increase in the combat capabilities for Ukraine, with more advanced air defence systems but also a wide range of different types of armoured vehicles,” he told reporters.
Ukraine is at a pivotal moment in its war against Russia and is preparing for a possible new Russian offensive in the coming months.
It needs a large quantity of equipment, including artillery and tanks, as well as to achieve its aim of reclaiming occupied territories.
“The frontlines have stabilised and there is a need for support to Ukraine to enable them not only to survive but to retake their territory to win this war,” said Mr Stoltenberg.
He said he believed that Ukraine would be able to take back territory this year. “That’s why Nato allies and partners are providing sufficiently more support to Ukraine, also heavy mechanised capabilities,” he said.
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin kicked-off the Ramstein meeting with a new package of military hardware worth $2.5 billion.
This includes additional National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, eight Avenger air defence systems and 59 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and ammunition.
It is the 30th US package to Ukraine since Russia invaded 11 months ago, said officials.
This brings total US security assistance to Ukraine to more than $26.7 billion, said Mr Austin.
The US will also provide Ukrainian forces with training.
“Russia is regrouping recruiting and trying to re-equal. This is not a moment to slow down it’s a time to dig deeper,” said Mr Austin.
“The Ukrainian people are watching us, the Kremlin is watching us, and history is watching us.”
Yet the package from the US does not include the ATA long-range missiles that Ukraine has requested.
The missiles, which can travel up to 300km, could enable Kyiv to strike Russian supply routes and depots far behind the front line that are beyond the reach of current Himars rocket systems.
But, western partners also fear that despite assurances Ukraine could use long-range weapons to hit deep inside Russian territory or Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
A number of other western nations offered new shipments of weapons before the gathering.
Britain announced it would send 600 Brimstone missiles, Denmark said it would donate 19 French-made Caesar howitzers and Sweden promised its Archer artillery system, a modern mobile howitzer requested by Kyiv for months.
Finland announced on Friday a €400 million ($433 million) military aid package, but said it would not include Leopard tanks.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that western countries supplying tanks to Ukraine would not change the course of the conflict, but instead add to the problems of the Ukrainian people.
“We see an adherence to the dramatic delusion about the possibility of Ukraine having success on the battlefield,” Mr Peskov said.
He claimed the war was “developing in an upward spiral” for Moscow.
Updated: January 20, 2023, 3:34 PM