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Why Is Germany Scared to Send Leopard 2 Tanks to Ukraine?

The German government is anxious about precipitating an expansion of the war, which could put Germany’s own national security at risk. Could the Leopard 2 tank spark a crisis with Russia?

Leopard 2 Tank
Leopard 2 Tank

Why are German leaders so reluctant to give Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine?

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Germany’s Leopard 2 Problem

Many reasons have been given for Berlin’s hesitance. But the simplest explanation also happens to be the best—that, quite understandably, the German government is anxious about precipitating an expansion of the war, which could put Germany’s own national security at risk.

On its face, this might seem like a feeble justification for barring the transfer of much-vaunted Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine’s beleaguered forces.

After all, Western nations have already sent billions of dollars worth of lethal aid to Ukraine, from long-range rocket launchers to air defense systems.

Last month, it was announced that US-made Patriot missile systems are on the way.

So far, none of these arms shipments have provoked a direct attack on a NATO member.

Why would the dispatch of German-made tanks be any different?

Isn’t it now possible to say with confidence that Russia’s threats against NATO members are nothing but bluff and bluster?

Even if Berlin doesn’t want to draw down its own Leopard 2 fleet, what danger is there in authorizing Poland or some other NATO ally to send tanks that they are visibly eager to part ways with?

These are all fair questions to ask. First, though, it must be acknowledged that Germany is not the only Western power to believe that aid to Ukraine must have limits. Nobody seriously argues, for example, that NATO forces should be sent into battle against Russia. High-ranking NATO officials have consistently dismissed reckless suggestions such as declaring a no-fly-zone over Ukraine or blockading Russian ports. Early on in the war, much was made of the West’s collective unwillingness to send fighter jets to Ukraine.

On the contrary, it is commonly understood that there is a line that, if crossed, would bring NATO and Russia into a ruinous direct conflict. Everyone agrees that this line must never be crossed—a responsibility that rests upon the shoulders of every Western leader.

The problem, of course, is that nobody knows for sure where this theoretical line has been drawn. Would the Leopard 2 be crossing that line? Certainly, Vladimir Putin cannot be trusted on this point. Instead, it requires educated guesswork to know what Russian leaders would indeed view as an intolerable threat to their national security.

To be sure, it is entirely possible that Berlin will conclude that nothing cataclysmic will come from allowing Ukraine to be supplied with Leopard 2 tanks. Units could see action against Russian forces within months, and perhaps Moscow will be forced to grin and bear it. Writing for The Guardian, the political scientist Olga Chyzh has argued that NATO’s strategy is to gradually escalate its support for Ukraine in hopes of eventually convincing Moscow that victory is impossible. Sending Leopard 2 units could be part of this incremental tightening of the screw.

The point, however, is that the German government is reasonable to proceed with caution. While some critics might be frustrated with Berlin’s insistence on a slow and multilateral approach, the desire to avoid a wider conflagration—and anxiety about being singled out for retaliation—should be easy to understand. These are rational responses to a grave security environment.

Those who are blasé about Russia’s implied threats of reprisals should also consider the worst-case scenarios. What if, at some point, Putin concludes that NATO is gunning for his total defeat and removal from power, perhaps even the breakup of Russia? What if the appearance of dozens of German tanks on the battlefield is the catalyst for such a realization?

The result could be catastrophic. If Putin sees no chance of securing his political objectives through the application of conventional force, he could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, order large or small military attacks against a NATO member, or else engage in salami-slicing tactics designed to bait Western powers into being the ones to declare all-out war.

Of course, the likelihood of a Russia-NATO conflict remains low. Russia has strong incentives to avoid World War III. But German leaders can be forgiven for thinking about their country’s fate if the unthinkable were to happen. It should not be forgotten that there are more US troops in Germany than any other European nation, and that American nuclear weapons are housed at Büchel air base, west of Frankfurt. These bases, weapons, and troop formations—not to mention German factories and cities—would be high on the list of targets for Russia’s long-range missiles in the event of a NATO-Russia war.

Indeed, Germany might be considered much more at risk of attack and physical devastation than even Poland or the Baltics, which are closer to Russia but contain far fewer military assets of high value. Yes, Germany has something of a geographic buffer between itself and Russia, but the gap between Berlin and Belarus (now little more than a satellite of Russia) would not feel so wide with Russian missiles raining down.

Nor should it be overlooked that, for some Germans, the threat posed by Russia is hardly hypothetical. Russian troops occupied parts of East Germany for nearly forty years between 1945 until 1994. Before that, Germany fought against Russia in both world wars, conflicts of appalling scope and intensity. Today, Russia is a much weaker power after 12 months of bloody quagmire. But it will always be a nation capable of casting a long shadow over German security.

Nobody should doubt that Germany’s leaders want to see Russia defeated, Ukraine liberated, and Europe whole and free. But nor should anyone be surprised that Berlin sometimes sees the situation in Eastern Europe differently from Warsaw or London.

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As with so much else in world politics, where you stand on the issue of arming Ukraine invariably depends upon where you sit.

Author Expertise and Experience: Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. SVB

    January 23, 2023 at 8:35 am

    Great analysis, thank you!

    No one should forget that Russia is good at cyber warfare, and Germany is particularly vulnerable with its density of infrastructure and industrial installations, a mix of modern and outdated equipment and sometimes a lack of consistent disaster prevention due to federalism.

    Anger Putin, and the economic cost could be extremely high even without any outright war or military engagement.

  2. John

    January 23, 2023 at 9:04 am

    There is a quick solution to this conundrum: Biden should agree to providing 50 M1Abrams tanks. Then Germany and Poland and other Nato states would quickly follow w Leos.
    All this Biden talk how complicated the M1 is is laughable. It is used by many nations around the globe, uses too much gas though.
    Without the US acting, Germany should not do one thing. With the West not providing Ukraine better weapons, 2 million Russian soldiers will be at the Polish border in 12 months.
    The feeble US, playing to loose

  3. PubliusNaso

    January 23, 2023 at 10:23 am

    Author makes good points. However Finland and Poland are more exposed to the salami slice scenario and they have offered Leopard tanks. Finland does not even have NATO protection right now.

    There are huge risks in the event of a stalemate or a Russian victory. The main risk is the loss of credibility to the web oa alliances that sustain the western order. What would potential allies such as India, Vietnam of Phillipines think if the West would decline to fully support Ukraine when it is clearly within the West’s capacity to do so, without shedding blood but just by providing military hardware?

  4. George

    January 23, 2023 at 10:30 am

    The most logical and thoughtful writing about this situation that I have read. As pointed out, it is very difficult for us to understand the depth of feeling about the Eastern Front in World War 2. The Great Patriotic War, is according to fiends who have visited Russia, very important to the Russian people, as it should be.

  5. Zhebrakovsky Sergiy

    January 23, 2023 at 11:41 am

    East Germany was occupied not by modern days Russia, but by Soviet Union. It consisted of 15 formally independent countries. One of these was Ukraine.
    Ukraine and Belarus are UN members from very first day of UN existence. Their membership is appreciation of their role and huge losses in fighting nazi Germany

    This is deeply wrong to associate modern day Russia and former Soviet Union. Also there are no any legal reasons to believe that modern days Russia inherited Soviet Union.

  6. rs908

    January 23, 2023 at 11:58 am

    “ The result could be catastrophic. If Putin sees no chance of securing his political objectives through the application of conventional force, he could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, order large or small military attacks against a NATO member, or else engage in salami-slicing tactics designed to bait Western powers into being the ones to declare all-out war.”

    The result is already catastrophic; a war in Europe in which hundreds of thousands have already died. Furthermore, how is catastrophe averted by allowing Ukraine (and Russian minorities) to bleed out in the Donbas through a grinding bloodbath. Furthermore, what happens if Putin eventuall sacrifices enough blood and treasure to turn the tide in his favor, is that not a catastrophe? No. Our only hope is that Russia begins to see its own defeat in Ukraine and is therefore forced to make peace. If Putin is truly capable and willing to use nuclear weapons, it is hard to see how we wouldn’t eventually get to this same place in any case. Better to stand firm and give Ukraine the weapons it needs to win a decisive victory and restore some semblance of deterrence.

  7. Mario

    January 23, 2023 at 12:45 pm

    Germany is not scared. Germany drags a stigme of its Panzers destroying everything in Russia. But that complex must fall. It is true that the absolute evil was the Nazi armies, as it is true that, today, the Russian forces are. They will end up understanding it and the Leopards will arrive in the Ukraine. For the sake of good people.

  8. GhostTomahawk

    January 23, 2023 at 12:47 pm

    Continuing to support this war only prolongs the suffering of the Ukrainian people people and continues the economic hardship of the entire world… for what??? So ultra wealthy globalist corporations can bilk the public treasuries of western govts??

  9. Rob

    January 23, 2023 at 5:05 pm

    I believe there are yet a few other reasons why Germany is this reluctant. Germans are very thorough at what they do. And after having lost two wars they have learned there lesson. So they want partners to agree on a real strategy instead of being lured into a war step by step.
    Other than Poland (and the Baltic states) if Ukraine loses Germany will not be at the direct front if Ukraine loses. Germany therefore believes it has little to no chance of talking any sense into Poland, Finland and Lithuania, Estonia or Latvia once the decision to supply Ukraine with tanks is made. Now it can press for ‘rationality’.
    In addition Germany minister has a ‘personal’ interest in buying time. The present minister of Defence was just appointed a week ago. His advisors will first like to brief him on an strategy and the state of the German army. If he would not have stood his ground, he would have been considered weak. Which would undermine his authority in upcoming decisions.

  10. pagar

    January 23, 2023 at 9:41 pm

    Germany made the decision to wage war against moscow in 1941 with its panzer armies but the end result was a million babies born out of wedlock to german women in 1946.

    Should germany repeat the 1941 error. No. Simply no. Never !

  11. CYK

    January 24, 2023 at 8:07 am

    Germany is still want to have an United Europe including Russia to counter the influence from US and China

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