Germany finally realises that Ukrainians are not just fighting for themselves

Berlin's delay in supplying Kyiv with crucial Leopard tanks was based on historical trauma and economic fears

A German Leopard 2 tank in action during a visit by the country's defence minister to Bundeswehr tank battalion 203 at the Field Marshal Rommel Barracks in Augustdorf last week. AP
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It took a while, but Germany’s recent decision after weeks of pressure from western allies, not only to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine but also to allow other countries such as Poland to send their own Leopards, is groundbreaking.

It’s a significant weapons upgrade for the Ukrainians that could prove to be a major turning point in the almost year-long war. The decision by Chancellor Olaf Scholz “to support Ukraine but at the same time, avoid an escalation between Russia and Nato” ended what many in Brussels and Washington saw as Germany’s deep stubbornness.

The tanks and other “combined arms” – such as long-range artillery that provides support from behind the front lines – are essential to break through heavily fortified front lines. The Germans say they want to quickly create two tank battalions – about 88 Leopard battle tanks for several thousand Ukrainian soldiers. They will start the training as soon as possible.

Germany’s commitment, which came after tough negotiations, received a response from other nations. Almost immediately after the announcement, the US said it would provide the Ukrainians with 30 of their own M1 Abrams tanks.

The Leopards mean more than just allowing Ukrainian troops to fight more efficiently on the ground. In the east and the south of the country, Ukrainian soldiers have far fewer tanks than the Russian invaders. The Ukrainians have recaptured some territory, but east of the Dnipro river the Russians are digging in.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in 2022. The Ukrainian government has been critical of Germany's position during the conflict with Russia. Getty

The Leopard 2 means they can lead more effective offensives against Russia’s war machine. But it is also a clear message of European and Nato unity and filling in the cracks that were beginning to show between member states. The tanks are symbolic of solidarity with Ukraine and healing a rift with other countries, such as Poland. At one point, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, compared Germany’s resistance to a devil who “protects himself against holy water”.

The view in Kyiv was that Germany has not been their best friend. Berlin’s reluctance is partially based on fear of their past trauma – and of an escalation of the war – but it is also economic. German companies do a lot of business in Russia. Before the invasion, they were exporting goods worth more than €26 billion ($28.39 billion). The concept that trade goes hand in hand with peace emerged from the ruins of the Second World War.

Even though Russia’s invasion of Crimea halted some production, by 2020 it was estimated that 4,000 German companies invested in Russia, not to mention their relations with Gazprom.

Does Mr Scholz’s decision to finally send tanks make Germany a warring party to the conflict?

Last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – or the “special military operation” as Mr Putin insists on calling it – was a heavy blow for many German companies. Car makers such as BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler halted production. There is also the matter of about 280,000 employees of German businesses in Russia at the time of the invasion.

In addition, there is the long trauma from the Soviet dominance and occupation that followed the Potsdam Agreement in 1945 and East Germany becoming the German Democratic Republic in 1949. That lasted until the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. Even in Berlin today, those who grew up behind the wall still refer to themselves as “Ossies.”

“When the war broke out in Ukraine, we Germans felt the fear of Russia acutely,” one Berliner told me.

But does Mr Scholz’s decision to finally send tanks make Germany a warring party to the conflict? Germany will not have boots on the ground, so it’s hardly a declaration of war. But according to the Kremlin, the Leopard 2 commitment apparently does.

"Everything the alliance and the capitals of Europe and the United States do is perceived in Moscow as direct involvement in the conflict," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said recently. He also told a CNN correspondent that the tanks would “increase the suffering of the Ukrainians”.

All of this leads up to the question of the spring offensive. The war is nearly one year old – a year of terrible pain for Ukrainians who have endured power cuts, missiles, destroyed cities and horrific atrocities. It is believed that 100,000 soldiers from both sides have been killed since the start of the invasion. The Russian strategy has been to exhaust the Ukrainians by mobilising and sending in more and more troops (many of them ill-trained and ill-equipped).

Germany’s decision is also based on the ability to go hand-in-hand into the conflict with the might of the US, Ukraine’s greatest friend.

“They feel stronger and more capable with the US standing right beside them as they take that step,” Heather Conley, from the German Marshall Fund, told PBS News.

Germany’s fears of escalation are not unfounded. The tanks do not pose a threat to the Russian homeland, but they do pose a threat to Russian forces who are illegally in Ukraine. If all goes to plan, and training is efficient, the Leopards will be on the ground and operational in two to three months.

Meanwhile, in the freezing and muddy trenches, the slow grind of war continues. Ukrainian soldiers are bracing for a Russian push to capture the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – Mr Putin’s primary goal. Ukrainian military officials say they expect it any time between the end of January and March.

Russia predictably responded with anger to the news of the tanks. They promise more suffering, and that this act will be a burden for European taxpayers. But if Ukraine needs to take more territory, they need the Leopards.

“We need to give them more armour, more heavy and modern weapons” Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said last week.

Germany has finally awoken to the view that Ukraine is fighting not just for themselves and their own territorial integrity, but for democracy. The Leopards are powerful fighting machines but they are also symbolic of an unbeatable alliance.

Published: February 07, 2023, 7:00 AM