Why Olaf Scholz holds the future of the Ukraine conflict in his hands

The outcome of the war may depend on whether Germany agrees to send Leopard II tanks to Kyiv or allow other allies to re-export theirs

SENIOR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, IN KYIV

20 January 2023 •

German chancellor Olaf Scholz
German chancellor Olaf Scholz CREDIT: AP

Friday’s Ramstein meeting of Ukraine and its allies will discuss the hardware of war.

There will be pledges of howitzers and personnel carriers, air defences and mortar radars, ammunition consumption and rocket-propelled logistics chains. Everything that Kyiv needs to continue its resistance against Russia’s invasion.

But one question will loom above all others. Will Germany agree to send Leopard II tanks? Or at least allow other allies to re-export theirs?

The outcome of the entire war could ride on the answer.

“Basically it is about being able to do the counter-offensive. Tanks mean we have a better chance to do a large-scale counter-offensive, and [some Western countries] are happy to help because they actually believe Ukraine can do that,” said Andrii Zagogodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister.

“And if we do not start a counter-offensive, the Russians will. They are preparing for a new offensive right now, and we cannot lose the initiative. That’s why we are quite openly saying ‘guys, help us now while Russia is weak’.”

In other words, Olof Sholz’s refusal so far to release the Leopards is a battlefield decision. And not one favourable to Ukraine.

That does not mean he secretly wants Russia to win or the war to drag on, however.  

The chancellor seems to be frozen by two contradictory urges: a desire for Ukraine to succeed, and an aversion to becoming the first German leader since the Second World War to effectively authorise a blitzkrieg.

His Hamlet-like indecision finds voice in his vow that Germany will not “act alone” – which so far has been an excuse for not acting at all.

The tragedy is that he must.

Ukraine needs tanks soon, and it needs them in sufficient numbers to punch through the defences Russia has slashed into the tortured topography of the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The Leopard II – plentiful, widely available in Europe, and easy to fuel and arm – is the only tank that fits the bill.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz walks past a Leopard II main battle tank of the German armed forces during a training exercise
German chancellor Olaf Scholz walks past a Leopard II main battle tank of the German armed forces during a training exercise CREDIT: AFP
The Leopard II is easy to fuel and arm
The Leopard II is easy to fuel and arm CREDIT: AFP

Not the US Abrams, which is possibly the most fuel-hungry land vehicle on the planet and would have to be shipped all the way across the Atlantic.

Nor Britain’s bespoke Challenger II, with relatively small numbers and rather fussy ammunition requirements.

Only Germany makes the Leopard II. Only Germany’s chancellor can sell them to Ukraine, or sign the export licences for others to do so.

Allies are trying to help.

Britain’s decision to send 14 Challenger II tanks is meant to give Mr Sholz the political space to at least sign the export licences.

But neither Joe Biden nor Rishi Sunak can make the choice for him.

Behind the leopards looms an elephant: there is another, even bigger, question that no one wants to acknowledge.

Does Germany – or the West in general – really want Ukraine to win the war? And if so, how?

Ever since the war began, Western officials have tip-toed around the question of how it ends.

The eloquent non-answer favoured by Western diplomats – whichever government they represent – is that it is up to Ukraine to decide what victory looks like.

This, as many of them will happily acknowledge in private, is a cop-out.  

No one wants to talk about it, because no one wants to disagree in public. And everyone knows there are disagreements.

Some countries, mostly on Nato’s eastern flank, are clear: Ukraine’s stated war aim of liberating every inch of its territory, including Crimea, is the only way to a lasting peace. They’re increasingly frustrated with more cautious allies.

Others will bluntly tell you the Ukrainians are being “maximalist” in their public demands, that no one wants to risk “escalation” (a euphemism for nuclear war) by marching on Crimea, and that the Western allies will not allow it to happen.

The Leopards debate is not really about Crimea. But it has thrown fresh light on the lack of a common strategic vision for victory.

Thanks to Vladimir Putin’s intransigence and Ukraine’s convincing victories in Kharkiv and Kherson last year, that is beginning to change.

Slowly but perceptibly, the centre ground of Western thought is shifting from merely putting Ukraine into a stronger position at the negotiating table to actually pushing the Russians out of the country.

Even leaving the Crimea question aside, that brings the West a step closer to the strategic plan Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has publicly outlined.  

“There was a problem even with the word victory,” said Mr Zagorodnuyk, reflecting on the change. “The first Western guy to mention victory was Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, on April 26. But then it was toned down all the way to ‘Russia should not succeed’ or ‘Ukraine shouldn’t lose’.”

“Now the situation is changing, and people we never expected are using the word. Like Macron. Macron is saying ‘victory’ all the time now.”

Western officials who do not want to discuss war aims often point out it is events on the battlefield that will dictate the shape of peace.

They are right. But they are not passive observers. If they want Ukraine to win, they can make it happen. Releasing the Leopards would be a start.

8 comments

  1. Does the vole-like Scholz really hold Ukraine’s survival as an independent unitary state in the balance, as Roland Oliphant says? What does everyone here think?
    Does Scholz really have “an aversion to becoming the first German leader since the Second World War to effectively authorize a blitzkrieg?”
    A blitzkrieg is a surprise attack. So this is not that. It’s simply the victim of a genocidal fascist power attempting to preserve its existence.
    Someone might like to remind the execrable Scholz that his foul country murdered 10 million Ukrainians in WW2, paid no reparations and has facilitated putler’s devilry both financially and politically.
    Better do the right thing now Scholz, you blathering piece of crud.
    Regardless of that, Britain, as a Budapest signatory, must now, as Hamish Breton-Gordon so eloquently stated yesterday, send all 300 of our Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine right away.
    I get the feeling that Ukraine must win right now. Because US support looks set to waver or even decline.

  2. The US should not allow exports of F-35s to Germany until they allow exports of Leopards to Ukraine.

    Germany without more F-35s will not have the same negative consequences as Ukraine without tanks.

    I don’t care if the contract was just signed- find some reason to tear it up.

  3. I honestly think some Western officials should be executed.
    If I were Biden, I would say: “Don’t worry, Schol-Z, I will make it easy for you. If you don’t supply Leopards, I will nuke Berlin ! So now you don’t have to worry about nuclear escalation anymore. Have a nice day, mr. Ribbentrop!” *ends call*

  4. I think Leopards are badly needed, but I think there are other ways. Yes, sending Abrams or Challenger tanks will have a lot of logistical challenges, but it is not as if they cannot be overcome. Also there are French Leclerc tanks which are about as good.

    Also, Poland has a lot of Twardy tanks which are based on the T-72. They are easy for Ukraine to maintain and operate and are still excellent tanks. I think Ukraine already has some of them.

    And we shouldn’t pretend that Ukraine currently has absolutely nothing. They probably still have Europe’s largest tank fleet, although they are old and losses will be great during a counter offensive.

    But I mean, also without 1000 Western tanks they can pull it off, as their current stock will also be used during the counter offensives.

    Yes, without Leopards 2 this hell will take longer and with more issues, but we shouldn’t pretend that all depends on this one tank.

    • Sir Bert, “Also, Poland has a lot of Twardy tanks which are based on the T-72. They are easy for Ukraine to maintain and operate and are still excellent tanks. I think Ukraine already has some of them.”
      ~Yes, PT-91 Twardy Tanks have been delivered to Ukraine.

      Article “…the US Abrams, which is possibly the most fuel-hungry land vehicle on the planet and would have to be shipped all the way across the Atlantic.”
      ~Poland is already receiving M1A2 tanks and is setting up logistics needed. The more upgraded versions are on back order, but Poland should be given the go ahead to send some into Ukraine even if just to bolster northwestern flank to force Germany’s hand. Time is of the essence and this needs to happen now. U.S needs to send more even if earlier variants of M1A2 to plug any Polish gaps that leaves as well as creating parts and trainer stockpiles. More simulators should also be sent to Poland and the simulators they have sent to Ukraine.
      If it takes moving a mountain and divine intervention for Germany to give go ahead to provide and allow transfer of Leopard 2s, I pray the hand of God Almighty move this mountain out of the way that Ukraine gets more than enough tanks to drive the rashists from Ukrainian territory. In the Name above all names be it so.
      Matthew 17:20
      “…For truly I say to you, if you have faith as of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. And nothing will be impossible for you.”
      Psalm 20:7
      Some trust in chariots and others in horses, but we trust in the Name of the LORD our God.

  5. Also, I don’t want to hear the words Challenger 1 or Leopard 1.
    These are extremely old tanks, Ukraine doesn’t need them. They are about as good as what Ukraine has now, except for Ukraine having spare parts / experience for their current models of tanks while they don’t have this with these old Western beauties.

  6. God help Ukraine if the sissy Olaf Scholz really holds the future of the Ukraine conflict in his hands.
    But I doubt it.
    The West in general could send whatever it wants whenever it wants, and this includes the Abrams. The excuses about maintenance issues, fuel hoggishness, and logistics are just that; excuses.
    NATO, in particular the United States military complex, has been set up to react to any war, anywhere on this planet. We already have many military units and material in Europe and had Abrams on the continent since the 1980s, for instance. We have the capability to send a large amount of military gear anywhere we want, and this in a fairly short time frame. We can use navy ships or air force transport planes. Our capabilities are tremendous. There’s only one tiny little thing preventing us from flexing our muscles even a little. The reason is known as a sleepy Joe Biden.
    As for germanytsan, it’s a shadow of its former self. Many more people on this planet will eventually see the pipsqueak in its soul as time goes by. This war exposed a large part of it already. Its sorry performance regarding Ukraine has been evident since at least 2014.

What is your opinion?