German hesitation is costing Ukrainian lives
An interview with Roland Freudenstein, Vice President and Head of GLOBSEC Brussels. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze for RFE/RL’s Georgian service.
VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: As things stand right now, no decision on sending tanks to Ukraine has been approved at the Ramstein meeting. How much of the blame should we place at Germany’s door for such a decision?
ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: A lot. The German refusal to make a decision is a new low point. And I couldn’t say it’s a low point in western security policy, but it is very much a low point in German foreign security and defence policy. And it is disastrous in so many aspects.
What’s the reasoning behind this reluctance?
First of all, there is the character of our Federal Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, with a certain Hanseatic stubbornness. The more he is pushed, the less he is ready to do what others expect of him. But we have learnt from the new defence minister of Germany today that in fact this government is thinking about exporting Leopard main battle tanks to Ukraine. Yet it refuses to make a decision the moment everybody expects them to do so. So one thing is stubbornness. The second factor, and probably politically much more relevant, is the fear of escalation in this war. We all know that Russia has not escalated against NATO; not after artillery systems were delivered; not after sophisticated air defence systems were delivered; not even after tanks and other military equipment from the former Warsaw Pact countries were delivered. So all this has taken place without Russian escalation against NATO. Why should there be one now with the provision of main battle tanks? Unfortunately, the fear of escalation to the “World War Three” scenario with nuclear consequences is deep in the minds of the decision-makers in the Chancellor’s Office and especially in the Social Democratic party in Germany.
Adding to this is the third factor – a general reluctance to believe that anything military can do any good. Hence there is a reluctance to engage in confrontation with an enemy power which is based on the wrong lessons from history, from the Second World War. That is the belief that that nothing good can come from military power in general, that military is evil. In fact, the idea that the military can be the only way to fight evil is alien to this mindset. Fortunately, I would not say that the vast majority of Germans think like this. But there is a sufficient group of Germans, especially in the strongest party in our government, the Social Democrats, who think exactly like this.
Apparently Germany is also stopping, or not greenlighting, other countries who want to deliver the Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks, including Poland, Finland, Czechia and Slovakia, which announced they are prepared to do so. Surely that cannot be justified by the usual excuse that we have been hearing, that the German stocks are low as it is. So why this refusal?
What we are seeing here is a hide and seek game. The German government keeps saying and has been especially emphasising for the last couple of days that there is no formal request for the re-export of the Leopard to tanks to third countries like Ukraine. Whereas those countries are making the political announcement that they want to do so. Poland has done so. Finland has done so; and the Spaniards have done it several months ago, in fact last summer. The Spaniards had 14 Leopard 2 tanks in their depots. They were willing to send them to Ukraine. Allegedly, these were also in a bad state. But that became clear later. Now, the Spaniards informally asked the German government, can we give these to Ukraine and the chancellor’s office immediately responded: do not even ask for it publicly and formally, if you want to remain our friends. They spoke from socialists to socialists, so there was a particular party solidarity component in this and the Spaniards refrained. So this is what I call hide and seek? The Germans are unofficially discouraging all the allies from formally asking, and then the German government turns around to the TV cameras and says, “we haven’t received a formal request”. This is the most cynical way of dealing with the whole thing.
That sounds like something that would not look out of place in the British satire Yes, Prime Minister – except in the German version…
Absolutely. One day, I am sure, when the worst is over in this war, there will be a lot of reckoning and some of it will be comedy – very, very tough comedy – about the psychosis that obviously rules the German Kanzleramt in Berlin. But let me just make one more point. What will happen now? I think some countries, especially Poland, will export these Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, no matter what Germany says. There is nothing Germany can really do about it. It’s politically impossible for Germany to sanction Poland. But the political damage is tremendous. Germany is absolutely losing terrain as we speak – in Central Europe, politically speaking, but not only. The Nordics are shaking their heads. I think even the French are now more further along the curve than the Germans when it comes to solid military support to Ukraine in those areas that they need most, which is tanks. The Americans don’t know what to say. The Brits, of course, chuckle into their fists because they can export 14 Challenger tanks which is, to be honest, very limited; certainly not a decisive military contribution for Ukraine. But still, they can do so and look like heroes in the West.
Whenever I think we have reached a low point; I am surprised to see that we can get even lower. It’s unbelievable how this government has managed to waste all this. And last but not least, let’s remember that this German hesitation is costing Ukrainian lives, this hesitation means the death of people that should not die in this Russian invasion. In fact, the first request by Ukraine to get German Leopard tanks, the Leopard 1 as well as Marder infantry fighting vehicles, came back in March 2022. And incredibly, a limited number of the Marders was approved just a couple of days ago, and the Leopard 1, not to mention the Leopard 2, is still not coming. Unfortunately, that is the reality.
Speaking of Americans, what do you make of this “eye for an eye” approach? Apparently, Germany will agree to the Leopards if the United States will provide the Abrams…
It’s a tank for a tank approach – a Leopard for an Abrams. Ultimately, this goes back to the hide and seek I discussed earlier. The cynical reality, at least with some decision-makers in the German government and Scholz, is very simple. They know that the Americans will not export Abrams to Ukraine because the logistics to support them are terribly complicated. Those tanks guzzle kerosene, not diesel like the Leopard. The Abrams needs refined petrol and tons of it. It also has a very long training period for soldiers. The Abrams is a very complex weapon system. And it probably does not have the rigid quality that the Leopard has. So knowing that the Americans are not going to export the Abrams to Ukraine, the Germans can say that we don’t care whether Poland, Finland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, or whoever wants to give Leopards to Ukraine; we look at America. And as long as America does not give the tanks to Ukraine, we will not provide Leopards. This also implies that the Biden administration fears a nuclear war if the Abrams tanks go to Ukraine; that’s the implication here, which is of course bullshit. On the other hand, one might ask, why didn’t the US just export a handful of Abrams tanks to Ukraine, not even to send them to the frontline. My fear is that in that case, if five Abrams tanks go to Ukraine, then only five Leopard tanks would be sent from Germany.
What does it say about Germany and the Zeitenwende when the Chancellor’s name becomes a verb – to scholz, scholzen, doing a Scholz: in other words, to promise something, then find or invent any excuse not to deliver?
There is a gram of unfairness in this general accusation that Germany is not doing enough. Germany is doing more than most people perceive. It’s in the first place in continental Europe. The United States and the United Kingdom are still ahead. But Germany is clearly number three in absolute numbers. Germany is doing a lot. So I would frame this more in terms of two steps forward, one step back. Or maybe in a different metaphor: you cannot turn around a huge oil tanker 180 degrees with just one movement of the rudder. It is a longer process, and it has certainly begun. But we are not where we should be fast enough and decisively enough. And this is totally unfortunate.
The refusal to give Ukraine the Leopard 2 tanks, or main battle tanks in general, has led to this unfair assessment of German weapons deliveries. If there had been a rational approach by the German government, following the experts’ advice, who long ago developed a model for what they call the “Leopard Coalition” in Europe. If that had been followed, we wouldn’t have this political fallout, this terrible damage to the cohesion of the Alliance, to the Ukrainian ability to defend itself and to Germany’s political credit with its allies, most of all in Central Europe. I do see a light at the end of the tunnel in the recent statement by our defence minister that Germany is at least checking what the abilities are to deliver; exactly how many do we have; and what kind of state are they in and so on. Of course, it should have happened a year ago. But the fact that this is beginning shows me that at some point in the next couple of weeks, there will be not only German permission for others to export Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, but there will also be a decision to deliver a limited number, somewhere between 10 and 20 Leopard 2 tanks, and maybe other Leopard 1s further down the line.
So it really looks like a familiar story by now. Germany is dragging its feet, then greenlighting it, then dragging its feet over how many and how fast to deliver…
Exactly. There is a Yes, Minister sequence from the British show, a very famous one, where the advisor explains that first we deny there is a problem. Then step two is we say nothing can be done about it. Step three is that we might have done something, but now it is too late. This is exactly what we see in Germany. In the end, the Leopards will come, but the political capital is wasted, and most tragically, human lives on the Ukrainian side are lost.
Roland Freudenstein is Vice President and Head of GLOBSEC Brussels. Previously and since 2008, he was Policy Director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the think tank of the European People’s Party in Brussels.
Vazha Tavberidze is a Georgian journalist working with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.
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