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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Shame Of A Nation: History Will Judge Germany For Holding Back Tanks From Ukraine

A retired German general spells out in clear language what the choice is for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and what the long-term consequences of half-hearted support for Kyiv as it battles for survival against the Russian invasion.

Photo of German Army Leopard 2 A7V tanks

German Army Leopard 2 A7V tanks

Klaus Wittmann*


BERLIN — The German television newscaster cheerfully predicted last Friday morning: “Today the German evasive maneuvers are ending...” And yet, the high-level meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group at the Ramstein military base, proved this prophecy completely wrong.

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The burning issue of Germany stalling and blocking the approval of battle tank deliveries to Ukraine continues to burn.

As intense as the international pressure was, Berlin has once again refused to make a commitment. Rhetoric about the difference between what one wants and what one can achieve, the endless counterarguments, the citing of numbers...none of it however, make them any more credible. In reality they are excuses, with which Chancellor Olaf Scholz shirks the responsibility which, after all, the great, prosperous Germany will not be able to escape.

[A Sunday evening comment by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock that Berlin "would not stand in the way" of other countries providing German-made Leopard tanks is only provisional, and still mentions nothing about Germany sending its own tanks.]

The final decisions are ultimately in the hands of Scholz, and one wonders if he is unable to be swayed from an idea he's committed to. Or perhaps he continues to listen to Angela Merkel’s former advisor, General Erich Vad, who said before authorizing the sending of tanks to Kyiv, it would first have to be clear whether the Russian forces should be driven out of Ukraine at all.

The only plausible explanation is that Scholz and parts of his Social-Democratic Party take the Russian threats seriously. Hadn’t the chancellor claimed in the summer before the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee that the delivery of infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine would cause "a terrible escalation?" This mindset seems to have been overcome for those vehicles, but why now the completely artificial limit is drawn on battle tanks?

Other allies are ready to hand them over for the simple reason that Ukraine urgently needs them in its fight for survival.

Leopard nations

Now the Defence Minister Boris Pistorius has announced an "inventory" of existing Leopard tanks (number, models, condition) before any decision is made. Why didn’t that take place long ago, including preparations for training, maintenance and so on? The recognition of how much time was lost since the Bundestag resolution of April 28, allowing the transfer to Ukraine of "heavy weapons," doesn’t seem to impress the chancellor.

And why is such an inventory not set up on a Europe-wide basis, as an introduction to the long-proposed joint supply of battle tanks by a "consortium" of the 13 "Leopard nations?"

Nobody is "going it alone," as so feared by Scholz's Social Democrats — and yet Germany should finally take the lead.

Photo of demonstrators holding signs asking for Olaf Scholz to deliver tanks to Ukraine

Protest asking for Olaf Scholz to deliver tanks to Ukraine

Alina And/Oleksandra Matviichuk via Twitter

Lack of empathy

It is utterly scandalous that the German government is blocking the battle tanks from arriving in Ukraine. The justification that "no applications have been submitted yet" is ridiculous: Formal applications are, of course, only submitted when the nations concerned, which have made their intentions publicly clear, do not have to expect a refusal.

It all leaves one ashamed of the German government.

This attitude will not soon be forgotten - after all, the attitude towards Germany in the Baltic states is still shaped today by the fact that for many weeks after the start of the Russian offensive, Estonia was denied permission to supply Ukraine with old artillery pieces from East German stocks. Moreover, in the eyes of many of Germany's allies, this ongoing refusal to take the lead is an about-face from the famous Scholz "Zeitenwende” declaration that the Ukraine war was a "turning point" for Germany's role in the world.

It all leaves one ashamed of the German government, because it shows a basic lack of empathy towards the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

Ukraine is currently facing constant air attacks against the civilian population and vital facilities, a loss of momentum in the recapture of stolen territory (not least because its pleas for armored combat vehicles have gone unheeded for months), cruelly high human casualties, and Russian preparations for renewed large-scale offensives by means of superiority in manpower and firepower.

None of this can be reversed without the appropriate military capabilities, and that clearly must include German-made tanks.

Meaning of leadership 

Should Ukraine one day be dismembered, subjugated and wiped out, do we want to have to say to ourselves that our help was half-hearted, that we only acted under pressure and did not do everything we could?

If the chancellor is worried about fluctuations in public opinion with his party, he should raise this question again and again, and at the same time make it clear that if Vladimir Putin achieves his goals, the cost to us, too, will be much higher than anything we currently have to "endure" in terms of inflation and energy prices.

So we can say that Olaf Scholz has prevented Germany from "going it alone," as he understands it. But within NATO and the European Union, Germany has suddenly gotten quite lonely. One must fear for what the long-term consequences are for the nation's reputation. A leader acts very differently.

*Retired Brigadier General Dr. Klaus Wittmann teaches contemporary history at the University of Potsdam.

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