war in Ukraine
How isolated is Scholz in tank poker?
Some push, others procrastinate, and some keep their distance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is at the center of the dispute over the supply of battle tanks – and is silent. Is he really that isolated?
Should Ukraine receive Western-style main battle tanks to push back the Russian attackers? Or can this lead to an escalation and dangerous expansion of the war? In Germany, this question has meanwhile grown into a tangible coalition dispute. Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) is coming under increasing pressure on the international stage.
When his new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (SPD) had to explain to his new colleagues at the US air base in Ramstein on Friday that Germany is still undecided on the tank issue, he didn’t feel so alone. “There is no uniform opinion,” he said. “The impression that has occasionally been given that there is a closed coalition and that Germany is standing in the way is wrong.” Is that correct?
So far, there is only one country that has decided to equip Ukraine with Western-style main battle tanks: Great Britain. 14 examples of the Challenger 2, which has been used by the British armed forces since the mid-1990s, are to be delivered to the war zone. Before the Ramstein conference, the British government wanted this decision to be taken as a signal to its allies and hoped that other countries would follow suit. “I would like nothing more than to see the Ukrainians armed with Leopard 2,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said at the weekend. So far, however, the calculations of the British have not worked out.
The top dog is Poland, which has 247 Leopard 2 tanks. Two weeks ago, President Andrzej Duda rushed forward with the announcement that he wanted to deliver around 14 copies to Ukraine. Since the tanks come from German production, the federal government has to approve the export. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on Monday that he would officially apply for such a permit. This puts the government under further pressure.
Poland is determined to deliver even with a German no. “If the Germans are not in this coalition, we will still move our tanks to Ukraine along with others,” Morawiecki said. It is unclear which countries that could be. So far, only Finland – like Poland, a neighboring country to Russia – has signaled its willingness to give up some of its 200 or so Leopard 2s. The other states that are putting massive pressure on Germany are the three Baltic countries. But you don’t have Leopard 2 yourself.
Because every Leopard 2 delivery to Ukraine must be approved by Germany, Chancellor Scholz has a key role to play. For this reason, tank supporters regard him as a top procrastinator. What others criticize as procrastination, he calls level-headed. Scholz has always emphasized that Germany and NATO must not be drawn into this war. He obviously sees escalation potential in a main battle tank delivery and is therefore continuing to consult with the most important allies France and the USA.
French President Emmanuel Macron has not yet decided whether he wants to give up his Leclerc tanks. The USA would not mind if the European allies delivered Leopard 2 tanks. However, they consider their own M1 Abrams to be less suitable for a war mission in the Ukraine for various reasons: high fuel consumption, long transport routes, more complicated supply of spare parts.
The problem: Scholz always took the last qualitatively new steps in arms deliveries together with the Americans. And he definitely wants to stay there.
In addition to Germany, 13 European countries have Leopard 2 tanks. Many of these countries are keeping a low profile in the debate. For example the Czech Republic. Germany’s neighbor received one Leopard tank from Germany as part of the so-called ring exchange – as compensation for a delivery of Soviet-designed T-72 tanks to the Ukraine. However, 13 more are to follow and the Czech Republic should have little interest in the fact that these are now primarily given to the Ukraine.
Another example: Greece has more Leopard tanks than any other country in Europe: around 350 Leopard 2 and 500 Leopard 1. The government in Athens has no interest in selling tanks because it feels threatened by NATO partner Turkey. Athens therefore prefers to keep a low profile in the discussion about supplying main battle tanks to Ukraine.
The interim result of the debate is exactly what Russia wants: Western disunity.