Why the Leopard 2 tank is so important for Ukraine
(CNN) — Germany has failed to reach an agreement with its main Western allies on sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, despite mounting pressure from NATO and Kyiv to increase its military aid ahead of a possible Russian spring offensive.
“Not all of us can say today when a decision will be made and what that decision will be on the Leopard tanks,” newly appointed Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters on the sidelines of a high-level defense meeting at the Ramstein airbase in Germany.
The stance will disappoint Ukraine’s military, at least for now, and follows days of negotiations between the US, other Western partners and Berlin that ended in encouraging news on Friday.
Leopard 2 tanks are seen as a vital modern military vehicle that would bolster Kyiv’s forces as the war with Russia nears the one-year mark.
But Germany has responded to claims that it is slow to provide military support to Ukraine, calling on the United States to send its own tanks across the Atlantic and into Ukraine.
Here’s what you need to know about the Leopard 2 tanks, the geopolitical disputes surrounding them, and why they are so important to the war in Ukraine.
What has Germany decided?
Germany was expected to announce a decision on sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine on Friday, but instead said it needed more time.
“As far as the delivery of the Leopard is concerned, there is no unanimous opinion,” Pistorius told reporters on the sidelines of the Ramstein meeting.
“There are good reasons for surrender and there are good reasons against it. And given the general situation of a war that has been going on for almost a year, all the pros and cons have to be weighed very carefully, and many allies explicitly share that assessment,” he added.
Pistorius said he had instructed officials to conduct an audit of Germany’s stock of Leopard 2 tanks so the country can “act quickly” in the event of a “positive decision.”
Pistorius was named defense minister on Thursday, but his first hours in office were dominated by calls from the US and other NATO partners to give the green light to sending Leopard 2 tanks.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had planned to “put pressure on the Germans” to allow the tanks to be transferred to Ukraine during his meeting with Pistorius on Thursday. This would give Kyiv the “critical time capability” to counter any possible Russian offensive in the spring, a senior US defense official said ahead of those talks.
However, a meeting of Western allies in Germany on Friday failed to get Berlin to make a conclusive decision.
Why is Berlin at odds with NATO allies?
Several European countries have pledged to send tanks to Ukraine in recent weeks. But before joining them, Germany wanted the US to join the group by sending its own M1 Abrams tanks.
CNN reported Friday that German officials indicated they would not send their Leopard tanks to Ukraine or allow any other country with German-made tanks in their inventory to do so unless the United States also agreed to send its M1 Abrams tanks to Kyiv.
“They have put us in a difficult position,” a senior Biden administration official told CNN on Thursday, adding that the Germans are demanding tanks for tanks, and are not budging on any other offer the US has made to incite Berlin to send the Leopards.
When asked about the issue during an interview with German public broadcaster ARD on Thursday, Pistorius said he was “not aware of such an arrangement.” German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit told a news conference on Friday that “at no time” was there “an arrangement or a requirement that one had to take place in order for the other to take place.”
But Berlin’s refusal to commit to sending the tanks openly infuriates other NATO leaders.
Paweł Jabłoński, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, said in a radio interview with RMF on Friday morning that Germany has a “fundamental problem” with the plan. And the Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, assured the day before that, on military aid, “those who have been least proactive so far are the Germans.”
“We have spoken hundreds of times about the arms shortage. We cannot rely solely on motivation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday during a virtual appearance at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
In an apparent criticism of Germany’s stagnation, Zelensky added: “There are moments when there is no need to hesitate. When people say: I’ll give you tanks if someone else does.”
Why are Leopard 2 tanks so important?
Thirteen European countries, including Poland and Finland, are already in possession of modern German Leopard 2 tanks, which were introduced in 1979 and have been upgraded several times since then, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Many of them agreed to re-export some tanks to Kyiv, but they require permission from Germany. Representatives of countries that own Leopard tanks met on the sidelines of the Ramstein meeting, according to the Portuguese Defense Ministry.
In total, there are around 2,000 Leopard 2 vehicles spread across Europe, at different levels of readiness.
Each tank contains a 120mm smoothbore gun and a 7.62mm machine gun; It can reach speeds of 70 km/h, or 50 km/h when off-road, making maneuverability one of its key features. And there is comprehensive protection against threats, including improvised explosive devices, mines or anti-tank fire, according to its German manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann.
The large number of units already located near Ukraine and the Leopard’s relatively low maintenance demands compared to other models lead experts to believe that the tanks could help Ukraine quickly.
“The Leopard 2 is a modern main battle tank, well protected and with good sensors,” Jack Watling, a senior research fellow in Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told CNN. “It was originally designed to be maintained by recruits and is therefore easier to maintain in the fight than other NATO designs such as the Challenger 2. There is also an existing production line to keep Leopard 2s stocked with spare parts. replacement”.
Meanwhile, the Leopards run on diesel, unlike the Abrams, which makes their fuel consumption more efficient and reduces the number of fuel trucks needed to support a battalion.
These are some of the reasons why critics of Berlin’s position say Leopard 2s should be sent to Ukraine regardless of whether the US decides to send its own M1 Abrams tanks.
“Leopards are available in Europe,” CDU lawmaker Roderich Kiesewetter told CNN on Friday. “The Abrams need a lot of logistical support, it is much more expensive to deliver them.
“Germany is isolated in its position,” he said, urging the government to drop its reluctance. “If we want fair transatlantic cargo sharing, we must offer what is available in Europe.”
Is Germany expanding aid to Ukraine?
The frustration felt by some NATO members towards Germany has reinforced the narrative in some corners that Berlin has been slower than its Western counterparts to offer support to Ukraine.
“(Friday) is a day of celebration in Russia,” Kiesewetter told CNN after Berlin deadlocked on its decision. “This delay costs lives in Ukraine.”
And Pistorius’s appointment this week raised questions given his previous stances on Russia.
“I don’t know much about Germany’s new defense minister. What I know causes me some anxiety,” Polish leader Morawiecki said in a video interview as he was returning from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He cited Pistorius’ past support for easing sanctions against Russia along with his relationship with “close associate” Gerhard Schröder. The former German chancellor was forced to resign from his position in the German Parliament (Bundestag) for not breaking his commercial ties with Russia after the invasion of Moscow.
But German officials have tried to push back on that discontent this week. Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz told delegates in Davos that his government “continuously supplies Ukraine with large quantities of weapons in close consultation with our partners.” He talked about how Germany alone made more than 12 billion euros (US$13 billion) available last year and “will continue to support Ukraine as long as it is needed.”
Behind the comings and goings is Germany’s evolving approach to military and security policy in the wake of Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Modern Germany has been reluctant to become involved in international conflicts, in the context of post-war demilitarization.
But shortly after the Russian invasion began last February, Scholz made a splashy speech pledging to spend 100 billion euros to modernize Germany’s military capabilities.
He also promised that, from now on, Germany will honor NATO’s commitment to spend 2% of its GDP and end its excessive dependence on Russian energy, particularly gas. Germany’s position on arms shipments to Ukraine has also changed: In recent months, Berlin has shipped weapons ranging from Gepard anti-aircraft systems to Patriot missile batteries.
Yet almost a year into the war, critics say Scholz’s vision has not been realized and critics have accused Berlin of being wrong to send arms to Ukraine.
CNN’s Christian Edwards, Chris Stern, Niamh Kennedy, Antonia Mortensen, Nadine Schmidt, Paula Newton and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.