Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said the indirect route meant Ukraine would receive former Soviet weapons from ex-Warsaw Pact countries that “can be delivered and operated immediately”.
It comes amid frustration over what Germany’s critics see as slow and opaque weapons exports to Ukraine and accusations that it is failing to pull its weight in the western alliance.
Pressed for answers on a visit to Estonia, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Germany had “no taboos” about sending arms but could not deliver all the weapons it would like to be able to give to Ukraine.
She said this was because of shortfalls in its own stocks, for example of helicopters that are also needed for UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, and because of the training and maintenance needed to operate some of its kit.
Ukraine rejects the suggestion that modern Nato equipment would be useless because its troops would need months of training in how to use it, while Estonia has boasted that it is outpacing allies such as Germany in helping Ukraine.
But Ms Baerbock said at a press conference in Tallinn alongside her Estonian counterpart Eva-Maria Liimets that equipment such as German Leopard tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles “just don’t work from scratch”.
She said Germany was willing to pay for the necessary training but that countries in the former Soviet sphere of influence were better placed to deliver weapons from their own inventories right now.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government insists it is acting in concert with allies and that other western countries are acting similarly.
It has drawn up a list of goods that Ukraine could order directly from German manufacturers – although Kyiv’s disgruntled ambassador in Berlin said some of the weapons desperately needed by Ukraine were not included.
Ms Lambrecht told German TV that the government would ensure that Ukraine received more weapons in time for an anticipated onslaught in the next two weeks as Russia aims for military victory by early May.
“We’re talking about tanks, we’re talking about armoured vehicles,” she said. “There are various possibilities that individual countries have.
“We guarantee that we will help with backfilling so that countries in Eastern Europe can ensure their own security.”
German military chiefs have said they are reaching the limit of what they can supply from their own stocks, a fact attributed to Ms Baerbock by underinvestment under previous governments.
Mr Scholz hopes to put that right with a one-off €100 billion ($108bn) pot to upgrade the armed forces and a longer-term commitment to spend more than 2 per cent of GDP on defence, the Nato target.
But in the meantime, Germany does not have helicopters going spare and needs some for other missions, said Ms Baerbock, who this month travelled to Mali and Niger where German peacekeepers are stationed.
“I’ve just been to Africa where we highly need helicopters for the future UN missions and there we face the same problem, as Germans, that we do not have enough helicopters,” she said.
“Things we would like to deliver, we cannot deliver immediately. We are trying to explain what our challenges are. This is sometimes hard for politicians if you really want to do something and then reality is different.”