Western Disarray Over Leopard 2 Tanks Behind for Now

January 25, 2023

On January 20, the US-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group met at Ramstein Air Base in Germany under the chairmanship of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The meeting, attended by more than fifty nations and NATO’s Secretary General Stoltenberg, was the eighth in a series of meetings initiated in April 2022, to discuss efforts to provide military support to Ukraine.

Western allies pledged billions of dollars in weapons for Ukraine but the reports about the meeting almost exclusively focused on Germany’s hesitancy to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, leading to confusion. It was reported in this connection that Germany would lift its objections if Washington were to send its own Abrams tanks. But this was denied by Secretary Austin. It was also said that Abrams tanks are considered by many experts to be unsuitable for the conditions in Ukraine.

Following the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark A. Milley held a press conference and took questions. The questions were more about supplying Ukraine with Leopard tanks than anything else.

Secretary Austin said the meeting focused on Ukraine’s needs for air defense and armor.  Regarding air defense, he said several countries have come forward with key donations that will help protect Ukraine’s skies, cities, and citizens, France and Germany and the UK have all donated air defense systems to Ukraine and that includes a Patriot battery from Germany coming alongside America’s contribution of a Patriot system.

On armor, he said that the allies are pushing hard to meet Ukraine’s requirements for tanks and other armored vehicles; mentioned the UK’s significant donation of Challenger 2 tanks for Ukraine, adding that this will be the first introduction of Western main battle tanks into Ukraine. In response to questions regarding the Leopard 2 tanks, he carefully avoided language that could offend Germany.[i] 

The pressure to ensure Germany’s agreement to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine came particularly from Warsaw. On Tuesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called for a brave decision by Germany. And Polish Defense Minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, announced that Poland has formally asked Berlin for permission to transfer its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

Finally, today, Chancellor Olaf Scholz confirmed, in remarks before the Bundestag, that Germany will send Ukraine 14 Leopard 2 tanks, train Ukrainian military personnel to operate them, and allow other countries to send their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

A CNN analysis said:

“It is a momentous decision, partly because these – unlike the air defense systems, or the anti-tank missiles – are not defensive weapons. Like the artillery and rocket systems that preceded them, they are intended to hit Russia’s troops hard in a ground offensive. But unlike those systems, they are unequivocally about Ukraine retaking territory. This is new, and fierce, and it portrays a NATO unafraid.”

Moreover, President Biden announced that the US plans to send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. But it is unlikely for these to reach Ukraine at least before fall.

Canada, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Spain, and Turkey also own Leopard 2 tanks, as well as non-NATO nations Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland. So, the path is open for countries to provide Ukraine with the 300 Leopard 2 tanks it wants.

Many observers agree that artillery and tanks would weigh heavily in a protracted war in Ukraine. Indeed, this is the case. Nonetheless, the intense pressure put on Berlin in recent weeks to forgo its longstanding policy of not sending arms supplies to conflict zones raises the question whether this was just about meeting Ukraine’s understandable battlefield needs or had a political dimension as well.

Could it be that Washington orchestrated an effort to pressure Germany into providing Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks not only to counter a new Russian offensive but also to underline Washington’s incontestable leadership in the conflict with Russia, and to eliminate the prospect of any bilateral dialogue between Moscow and Berlin, and perhaps even Paris, and thus force Russia to look at Washington as its single Western interlocutor when peace talks become inevitable to end the bloodshed in Ukraine?  And why did Warsaw confront Germany on the Leopard tanks issue more than any other NATO member?

A brief look at the past:

On August 23, 1939, German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop held talks in Moscow with Stalin and Molotov which resulted in the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty. Under the secret protocols of the Treaty, the USSR and Germany divided the territory lying between them into two spheres of influence: the USSR was awarded Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, while Lithuania and most of Poland went to Germany. Hitler was enabled to invade Poland at the moment of his choosing, and he did this on September 1. When he refused to withdraw, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Second World War had begun.

Only on September 15, did Moscow and Tokyo agree to end military hostilities on the Soviet-Manchurian frontier. Two days later, Red Army forces invaded eastern Poland.[ii]

When the war ended the European continent was divided.

NATO was created on April 4, 1949, by the US, Canada, and Western European nations to provide collective security against the Soviet Union.

On May 6, 1955, West Germany joined NATO.

On March 25, 1957, the European Economic Community was created.

On January 22, 1963, a treaty of friendship between France and West Germany, was signed by President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer at the Élysée Palace. (Last week, President Macron and Chancellor Scholz celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty in Paris.)

Throughout the Cold War, NATO remained the pillar of security of Western Europe, and members of the EEC and then the EU enjoyed unprecedented prosperity under its security umbrella.

In eastern Europe, it was a different story until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the following waves of NATO and EU expansion.

Today France and Germany, despite being adversaries in the two world wars are allies and partners. And understandably they wish to have a say in Europe’s future security architecture and probably believe that a post-Putin Russia, preferably on the path to democracy, somehow has to be part of that. Consequently, they may wish to keep their lines of communication open with Moscow.

Poland joined NATO on March 12, 1999. Are Germany and Poland allies and partners? I believe that the best answer would be, “Both countries are members of NATO”. And this explains why Poland and the Baltic states have been at the forefront of the criticism directed at Berlin for taking time to carefully weigh its decision regarding the supply of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

The Federal Government website says that Germany provides lethal and non-lethal military support to Ukraine, including deliveries from the Federal Armed Forces, as well as supplies from German industry financed from the Federal Government’s funds for security capacity building. Funding for this initiative amounts to a total of 2.2 billion Euros for the year 2023 (after 2 billion Euros for 2022).[iii]

At the joint press conference with Secretary Austin in Ramstein, General Milley stressed that over his 43 years in uniform, this is the most unified he has ever seen NATO. Looking at the future, he also said:

“So from a military standpoint, I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all — every inch of Ukraine and occupied — or Russian-occupied Ukraine. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen; doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it’d be very, very difficult.

“But I do think at the end of the day this war, like many wars in the past, will end at some sort of negotiating table, and that’ll be determined in terms of timing by the leaders of both countries, both Russia and Ukraine.”

Yet some Western observers continue to raise the possibility that Ukraine supported militarily by the West might eject Russia not only from the territories it occupied during the past year but Crimea as well. Russia officially annexed Crimea on March 21, 2014, and the Western reaction was confined to non-recognition. To put it bluntly, restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea is a chimera.

Perhaps looking at the Crimea example, President Putin made a miscalculation and launched the invasion of Ukraine and the West has so far shown unprecedented solidarity. Thus, many are raising the possibility of a “Ukrainian victory” or “Russia’s defeat” although these terms are not yet clearly defined.

Would Russia’s failure to achieve a regime change in Kyiv be declared a victory at some point? Or, would Russia have to be ejected from all the Ukrainian territory it occupied since February 24, 2022? Could the US, the UK, Poland, and the Baltic states be after a “sufficiently weakened” Russia to declare “victory”? If this is the case, at what point would Russia be regarded as “sufficiently weakened”? Have NATO allies consulted in depth on their war objectives and arrived at specific conclusions? If not, when is that going to happen? Is the West following a policy of strategic ambiguity?

Russian officials have strongly reacted to Berlin’s decision on Leopard two tanks.

And Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of President Vladimir Putin and President of Russia from 2008-2012, recently made Moscow’s clearest threat to use nuclear weapons if it loses in Ukraine. “The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war,” Medvedev said. “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

For this post, I chose to use the title “Western Disarray Over Leopard 2 Tanks Put Behind for Now” because at this stage Ukraine demands 300 Leopard tanks to confront Russia and regain territory. But it is more than likely that Kyiv would continue to ask for more Leopard 2 tanks perhaps putting Berlin again in a quandary.

Looking at the difficulties experienced by the West in supplying Kyiv with Leopard tanks from a Middle East perspective, I only hope that the Ukraine Defense Contact Group’s future would prove better than that of the “Friends of the People of Syria Group” which had brought together 83 countries and international organizations in Istanbul on April 1, 2012.

As the West sends billions of dollars worth of arms to Ukraine to ensure a victory over Russia, at least 157 people died in Afghanistan’s harsh winter, under the rule of the victorious Taliban.


[i] https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/3273771/secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-and-general-mark-a-milley-press-confere/

[ii] Robert Service, Russia (Penguin Books, 1998), pages 256-257.

[iii] https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/military-support-ukraine-2054992


About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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