Photo: Moritz Frankenberg/Associated Press
Leave it to Olaf Scholz to do the right thing on Ukraine—after he’s exhausted all other possibilities. The German Chancellor on Wednesday finally announced Germany will send 14 Leopard-2 battle tanks to Ukraine, after weeks of desperate pleas from Kyiv and mounting pressure from Berlin’s Western allies.
Mr. Scholz also said he will issue the necessary permits for other countries, notably Poland, Finland and Spain, to re-export some of their Leopards. This will help Kyiv as it prepares for an expected spring offensive as Russia’s invasion enters a second year—one reason Ukraine has been asking for battle tanks for months.
The belated decision overcomes what was a growing fissure in the NATO coalition aiding Ukraine. Poland applied for export permission while threatening to send some of its Leopard tanks without Berlin’s approval. The U.K. had already announced it is sending 14 Challenger tanks, and other European countries are eager to do the same. Germany risked becoming a pacifist European outlier.
Mr. Scholz’s move also calms a political uproar inside Germany as leaders in every other mainstream party, most in the media, and some members of Mr. Scholz’s own Social Democrats (SPD) demanded Leopard shipments. Alas, this probably isn’t the end of German dithering on aiding Ukraine. Despite promising a strategic turning point last February, Mr. Scholz resisted sending Cheetah anti-aircraft tanks last year, and he has hemmed and hawed over other military aid before ponying up.
This often results from divisions in the SPD, where a vocal Russophile wing seems to worry that supporting Ukraine too vigorously could provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin into some new escalation or even a nuclear attack. Bluster from Mr. Putin’s Russian allies about nuking Berlin after the Leopard decision is aimed directly at this crowd.
This explains Mr. Scholz’s constant need to surround himself with allied political cover before he dares challenge the SPD left. In this case he demanded that the U.S. supply its top-line Abrams tanks so it wouldn’t appear that Germany was going it alone. Washington delayed but finally agreed, with the Pentagon announcing Wednesday that it will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks, or one tank battalion, to Ukraine on an unspecified timetable.
But the U.S. announcement is less helpful than meets the headline because the tanks won’t be driving onto C-17s from U.S. stocks. Instead they’ll be delivered through the military procurement process, which will take months or longer. This delay is hard to understand given that the Marines are decommissioning their Abrams tanks as they adapt to becoming a more mobile, dispersed force. Why not send those? At least the Leopards can be deployed sooner, which will help Ukraine this spring.
The tale of the tanks is all typical of the Biden Administration’s Ukraine decisions over the last year. It resisted calls to supply lethal drones only to send them under pressure from Congress and media critics; the same with Himars rocket launchers, Patriot missile-defense batteries, and now with tanks.
We appreciate the need to keep the alliance together, but Europe will never move without firm U.S. leadership. The U.S. and NATO have a major strategic interest in seeing Russia fail to subdue Ukraine, which includes pushing the invaders out of the territory they’ve taken by brutal force. The faster Ukraine can achieve that objective, the better for everyone except the Kremlin.
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Appeared in the January 26, 2023, print edition as ‘Tanks Break Through German Lines.’