German MPs on Thursday approved the shipment of heavy weapons to Ukraine, cementing a shift away from a cautious stance that had angered Kyiv and led to accusations that Berlin was failing to pull its weight in the western alliance.
A motion passed by 586 votes to 100 gave the green light to sending “heavy weapons and complex systems” which Germany had previously held back on the grounds of logistical problems and for fear of escalating the conflict.
It calls on ministers in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition to speed up weapons deliveries which Ukraine has described as too slow and bureaucratic at a time when Russian missiles are falling on the country.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said the vote marked "the return of German leadership".
Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said Ukraine would receive German anti-aircraft tanks, such as the Gepard vehicles offered earlier this week, in shipments going further than previous supplies of defensive weapons.
In an emotive message before the vote, Mr Habeck acknowledged that Russian soldiers, some of them young conscripts who “had better things planned than laying down their lives for Putin”, would die at the hands of such weapons.
But “not making this choice would pile even more guilt on us,” he said. “Even if you do nothing, you’re taking part in the killing.”
Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats, Mr Habeck’s Green party and their third coalition partner, the Free Democrats, all supported sending heavier weapons after MPs from their own ranks had voiced frustration at the slow progress.
The opposition conservatives also supported the motion but criticised Mr Scholz for not having acted earlier and seeming to sneer at critics who demanded more weapons shipments.
“For weeks, the chancellor has stalled, evaded and left open the question of whether weapons should be delivered to Ukraine,” said opposition leader Friedrich Merz.
“If the government had taken a clear and consensual position on these issues in recent days and weeks, and if the chancellor had said this clearly and unambiguously, this motion and debate would have been unnecessary.”
Some Nato allies welcomed Germany’s move to send more weapons, with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda declaring it an “important policy shift” after Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht announced the Gepard tanks would be sent to Ukraine.
A poll this month found that 55 per cent of Germans supported sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, including most supporters of all the governing parties.
Mr Scholz, who was in Japan on Thursday and did not take part in the parliamentary debate, had initially been praised for responding to Russia’s invasion by approving the export of weapons to Ukraine for the first time and promising to upgrade the German military.
It marked a significant shift in German policy after its deep-lying postwar pacifism and conciliatory stance towards post-Soviet Russia had constrained it from arming Ukraine before the war broke out.
But critics grew increasingly frustrated at what Ukraine saw as half-hearted weapons deliveries that failed to protect the country from Russian aggression.
Alongside Germany’s hesitancy to ban energy imports from Russia and cut it out of the international payments system Swift, the cautious stance on weapons led to accusations that Mr Scholz was damaging his country’s reputation.
The chancellor has largely kept details vague on weapons exports but has spoken of wanting to prevent any escalation that “leads to a Third World War”.
Ministers have also highlighted technical problems, such as the training needed to operate advanced weapons, and shortages in Germany’s own stocks after years of underinvestment in military hardware.
The government has focused instead on refilling the stocks of former Eastern Bloc countries who send Soviet-era equipment to Ukraine, mirroring similar moves by other Nato countries.
Berlin has also offered 2 billion euros ($2.1bn) for Ukraine to place orders directly with weapons manufacturers in Germany.