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
By Roland Oliphant, SENIOR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, IN KYIV
20 January 2023 •
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.
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.
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.