Germany failed to reach agreement with its key Western allies on sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, despite growing pressure from NATO and Kyiv to step up its military aid ahead of a potential Russian spring offensive.
“We all cannot say today when a decision will be made and what that decision will be on Leopard tanks,” newly appointed Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters on the sidelines of the high-stakes defense meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday.
The stance will come as a disappointment to Ukraine’s military – at least for now – and follows days of negotiations between the US, other Western partners and Berlin that ended in anticlimax on Friday.
Leopard 2 tanks are seen as a vital, modern military vehicle that would bolster Kyiv’s forces as the war with Russia approaches the one-year mark.
But Germany has batted back claims it is dragging its feet on providing military support to Ukraine, and has called on the US 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 squabbling around them, and why they’re so important to the war in Ukraine.
Germany had been 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 the delivery and there are good reasons against it. And given the overall situation of a war that has been going on for almost one year now, all the pros and cons have to be weighed very carefully, and that assessment is explicitly shared by many allies,” he added.
Pistorius said he had instructed officials to carry out an audit of Germany’s stocks of Leopard 2 tanks so the country can “move quickly” in the event of a “positive decision.”
Pistorius was only appointed Defense Minister on Thursday, but his first hours in the job were dominated by calls from the US and other NATO partners to greenlight the shipment of Leopard 2 tanks.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had planned on “pressing the Germans” to allow the tanks to be transferred to Ukraine during his meeting with Pistorius on Thursday. This would give Kyiv the “capability in a crucial moment” to counter any potential Russian spring offensive, a senior US defense official said ahead of those talks.
Nonetheless, a meeting of Western allies in Germany on Friday failed to push Berlin over the line.
A number of European countries have pledged to send tanks to Ukraine in recent weeks. But before joining them, Germany wanted the US to join the fold by sending its own M1 Abrams tanks.
CNN reported Friday that German officials indicated they wouldn’t send their Leopard tanks to Ukraine or allow any other country with the German-made tanks in their inventory to do so, unless the US also agreed to send its M1 Abrams tanks to Kyiv.
“They have us over a barrel,” a senior Biden administration official told CNN Thursday, adding that the Germans are demanding tanks for tanks, and not budging on considering any other offers the US has made to spur Berlin to send the Leopards.
When asked about the issue during an interview with German public broadcaster ARD Thursday, Pistorius said he was “not aware of such an arrangement.” German government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit said at a press conference Friday that “at no time” was there “an arrangement or a requirement that the one had to take place so that the other could take place.”
But Berlin’s refusal to commit to sending the tanks is openly exasperating some 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 Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the day before that, on military aid, “the ones that have been the least proactive so far are the Germans.”
“We have talked hundreds of times about the shortage of weapons. We cannot go only on motivation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a virtual appearance at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos on Thursday.
In an apparent swipe at Germany’s stalling, Zelensky added: “There are moments when there is no need to hesitate. When people say – I’ll give you tanks if someone else does.”
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, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Many of them have agreed to re-export some tanks to Kyiv, but require Germany’s permission. Representatives for those countries that own Leopard tanks met on the sidelines of the Ramstein meeting, according to the Portuguese Ministry of Defense.
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 per hour, or 50 kmp/h when off-road, making maneuverability one of its key features. And there is all-around protection from threats, including improvised explosive devices, mines or anti-tank fire, according to its German manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann.
The vast number of units already based near Ukraine, and the Leopard’s relatively low-maintenance demands compared to other models, lead experts to believe the tanks could help Ukraine quickly.
“Leopard 2 is a modern, well-protected main battle tank with good sensors,” Jack Watling, Senior Research Fellow in Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told CNN. “It was originally designed to be maintained by conscripts and is therefore simpler to keep in the fight than some other NATO designs like the Challenger 2. There is also an existing production line to keep Leopard 2s supplied with spare parts.”
Leopards meanwhile run on diesel, unlike Abrams, which makes their fuel consumption more efficient and reduces the number of fuel trucks required to support a battalion.
These are among the reasons why critics of Berlin’s stance say Leopard 2s should be shipped 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. “Abrams have a lot of logistic support needed, it’s much more costly to deliver (them).
“Germany is isolated in its position,” he said, urging the government to drop its reluctance. “If we want a fair transatlantic burden sharing, we should deliver what is available in Europe.”
The frustration felt by some NATO members toward Germany has bolstered a narrative in some corners that Berlin has been slower than its Western counterparts in offering support to Ukraine.
“(Friday) is a day of celebration in Russia,” Kiesewetter told CNN after Berlin stalled on its decision. “This delay costs lives in Ukraine.”
And Pistorius’ appointment this week raised questions given his previous stances on Russia.
“I don’t know much about Germany’s new Defense Minister. What I do know gives me some anxiety,” Polish leader Morawiecki said in a video interview on his way back from the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. He cited Pistorius’ previous support for easing sanctions against Russia along with his relationship with “close associate” Gerhard Schröder. The former German chancellor was forced to give up his office at the German Parliament (Bundestag) for failing to sever his Russian business ties following Moscow’s invasion.
But German officials have attempted to push back against that disgruntlement this week. Chancellor Olaf Scholz told delegates at Davos his government is “continuously supplying Ukraine with large quantities of arms in close consultation with our partners.” He spoke of how Germany alone made more than 12 billion euros ($13 billion) available last year and will “continue to support Ukraine as long as necessary.”
Behind the back-and-forth lies an Germany’s evolving approach to security and military policy in the wake of Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Modern Germany has been reluctant to become involved in international conflicts, against the backdrop of post-war demilitarization.
But shortly after the Russian invasion began last February, Scholz made an eye-grabbing speech in which he committed to spending 100 billion euros to modernize Germany’s military capacity.
He also vowed that Germany would from now on meet the NATO commitment of spending 2% of its GDP and end its over-reliance on Russian energy, particularly gas. Germany’s position on sending arms to Ukraine has shifted too: in recent months Berlin has sent arms ranging from anti-aircraft Gepard systems to Patriot missile batteries.
Nonetheless, nearly a year into the war, critics say Scholz’s vision has failed to become reality and Berlin has been accused by critics of equivocating on sending weapons to Ukraine.