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Why is Germany Delaying Leopard-2 Delivery to Ukraine?

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Why is Germany Delaying Leopard-2 Delivery to Ukraine?

After the much-awaited Friday meeting at Ramstein US Air Base in Germany, the entire collective West is bashing Germany for its indecisiveness with respect to sending and allowing others to transfer German-made Leopard-2 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) to Ukraine. A good number of leaders and political experts call this particular German policy decision weak, contradictory, inconsistent, historically insensitive, morally problematic, disingenuous and counter-productive. This might well be the case. However, Germany’s reluctance is not without good reason either.

As the de-facto leader of Europe, there are economic, strategic, logistical, historical and political reasons for Germany’s “foot-dragging”, which many of its European partners believe should be made in the affirmative in a heartbeat. Approximately 6000 German enterprises, to put things into perspective, were represented in Russia till 2014 (Crimean conflict). A good number of these enterprises stopped doing business in Russia after that, but a greater number remained and continued operations. These companies generated revenues worth billions of dollars from the Russian market for the German economy, which played a significant role in making Germany the largest economy in Europe.

The situation changed drastically for German businesses and enterprises after 24 February 2022, when massive and unprecedented economic sanctions were levied against the Russian economy by the West in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine War. There was a significant scaling down of German trade and commercial activities in Russia. According to Russian Ambassador to Germany Sergey Nechayev, “bilateral trade and economic ties have already sustained a serious blow”. He stated that cooperation is being phased out by the German side while working formats and organisational institutions are being scrapped. However, Ambassador Nechayev also mentioned that many German companies are trying to stay on in the Russian market and work with their Russian partners in an attempt to maintain cooperation tools that took years to create.

Strategically, Germany knows that supplying Ukraine with Leopard-2 MBTs will be considered “crossing a red line” by Russia since this transfer has the potential to turn the tide in Ukraine’s favour.

Despite sanctions, a significant number of German companies continue to operate and do business in Russia, including Continental, Hochland, TOM Tailor, Playmobil, HeidelbergCement, AET Handels GmbH, Hoffmann Group, Bosch, Bohle AG, and Adidas. Companies like Puma continue deliveries to Russia via Belarus. Moreover, companies like Allianz, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim and Volkswagon have meaningfully reduced “exposure” in Russia and stopped non-essential production in the country, but offices are still operating.

Strategically, Germany knows that supplying Ukraine with Leopard-2 MBTs will be considered “crossing a red line” by Russia (an indication already given by Kremlin) since this transfer has the potential to turn the tide in Ukraine’s favour and inflict massive damage on Russia (militarily and strategically). This will come with its own costs for Germany from Russia in the coming years.

This explains the German propensity to persuade Washington to take the lead in sending its own MBTs (Abrams) to Ukraine before it can make a final decision regarding “letting the Leopards go”. This will also help Germany share the responsibility in case the war escalates and spills over into NATO territory. Moreover, by bringing the US into this equation, Germany will no longer remain the sole target of Russian response either. It also seems like the German policymakers continue to give strategic priority – as always, to the long-term relationship with Russia.

Logistically, Germany is not in a position to replace Leopard-2 MBTs in its own stock and stocks of other European partners who plan on transferring these tanks to Ukraine. Despite its formidable industrial potential and capacity, the slashing of the defence budget over the years and the subsequent reduction in German manufacturers’ capacity, Germany, at the moment, is incapable of industrially manufacturing Leopard-2 MBTs quickly and on a large scale. Additionally, the thinking of “tanks being military obsolescence” also played a part in scaling down the production of such military technology.

Currently, 16 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) plus European Union (EU) members use Leopard-2 tanks, such as Türkiye, Greece, Spain, Poland and Finland, which have more than a hundred pieces. In contrast, others like Denmark and Norway have 50 or fewer. Germany knows very well that if Ukraine is immediately supplied with Leopard-2 MBTs in considerable numbers, it will leave the contributors highly vulnerable and deplete their stocks. Especially at a time when there is a clear escalation in the conflict, and there is a probability of allies nearing aid fatigue.

With economies in recession, internal domestic political pressures in different European countries, and energy prices touching the sky, replenishing Leopard-2 stocks in Germany and other European countries will be an uphill task, especially on an emergency basis on which it is currently required.

Furthermore, there is also the factor of conflicting armament policy interests at play here. The US military-economic interests are also behind Germany’s decision not to allow others to send its Leopard-2 MBTs to Ukraine yet. If Germany decides to give the green signal, Europeans will send Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine. This will enable the US to offer its own tanks as a replacement and ultimately allow the US a chance to gain a foothold in the European armaments market and oust the German competition. This will not only generate more revenue for US military-industrial complex but will also increase the EU’s economic and security dependence on the US.

Additionally, it will also majorly reduce Berlin’s political influence on its allies in NATO and the EU as its industry will get replaced by the US. Case in point: Poland’s massive purchase of US military technology and equipment after 2014 (Crimean annexation) and the current state of German-Polish bilateral relations.

Politically, Germany is also stuck between a rock and a hard place. Its hands are tied when it comes to its pacifist post-World War II orientation and posture. However, one can argue against Germany’s selective pacifism by pointing out West Germany’s massive military build-up during the Cold War era, its hosting of the US nuclear weapons on its soil, its military interventions as part of NATO coalitions in Serbia in the 1990s and later in Afghanistan. Germany, in 2014, sent rocket-propelled grenades to Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Iraq, targeting the Yazidis. The German defence industry has sold arms to dictators as well.

The mounting pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz from opposition parties to support Ukraine more substantially, and simultaneous pressure from the public, which insists on a more diplomatic approach, has also contributed to Berlin’s hesitation and “foot-dragging” on the Leopards issue.

The majority (52%) of the German population believes in continuing to practise restraint while facing an international crisis. In comparison, 68% think that Germany should rather not play a military leadership role in Europe. Moreover, opinion asymmetry exists between Germany’s western and eastern states. Germans in eastern states have a softer stance towards Russia, while Germans in the western states have a slightly tougher stance towards Russia.

At the moment, it seems like the German government is adhering to public opinion. However, many experts believe that major successes of German foreign policy came after former German chancellors made decisions that were contrary to the popular views during those times. Historically, the “ghosts of the past”, especially with regards to the German experience in the World Wars, idiosyncrasies of its past leadership, appetite for conflict and cultivation of a cautious peace-oriented culture over decades (which includes economic integration) also play a vital role in German decision-making, particularly when it comes to becoming an active party to a conflict.

In conclusion, there are multiple reasons for German indecisiveness in providing Ukraine with German Leopard-2 MBTs. Given past experiences, it seems that Germany might allow the transfer of Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine in the coming days or at least in a couple of weeks. But to be fair, the pressure applied by other NATO and EU partners on Germany also seems to be bigoted and hypocritical to some extent, especially the pressure coming from France, the UK and the US, who, despite having the requisite industrial and economic wherewithal avoid sending in their respective tanks (by offering different excuses) and who also have a large number of their enterprises operating and doing business in Russia to date.

Taimur Fahad Khan

Taimur Khan is working as a Research Associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). His research focuses on non-traditional security issues and foreign policy analysis.

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