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Germany agrees to send its Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine after weeks of pressure

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stands next to a Leopard 2 main battle tank of the German armed forces while visiting an army training center in Ostenholz, Germany, on Oct. 17, 2022.
David Hecker
Getty Images
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stands next to a Leopard 2 main battle tank of the German armed forces while visiting an army training center in Ostenholz, Germany, on Oct. 17, 2022.

Updated January 25, 2023 at 8:43 AM ET

BERLIN — After weeks of intense pressure from allies, Germany has agreed to allow its state-of-the-art Leopard 2 tanks to be donated to Ukraine, in a marked shift from its leaders' reluctance to significantly increase military support to help the country fight Russia.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, speaking to parliament Wednesday, defended the length of time it took to reach the decision.

"Ladies and gentleman, that is the right principle. We are dealing with very effective weapons systems, and it is the right thing for us to never provide these weapons systems on their own, but always in close cooperation," Scholz said.

Hours later, President Biden said the United States will be sending its main battle tanks to Ukraine as well, a move that's widely believed to have helped open the door for the German government and more allies to deliver tanks.

Germany will initially send a company of 14 tanks, and Ukrainian crews will soon begin training on them in Germany, said Steffen Hebestreit, a spokesman for Scholz. Germany will also authorize other countries that have their own stocks of Leopard 2 tanks to export them to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has long-asked for the tanks, welcomed the decision. He wrote on Telegram that Germany's donation of the tanks pave the way for Ukraine's western partners to supply similar weapons. "I am sincerely grateful to Olaf Scholz and all our friends in Germany," he wrote.

But the celebration was dulled in Ukraine, as air raid sirens went off in Kyiv just as Scholz began speaking to parliament.

Among the countries willing to export their stockpiles of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine are Finland and Poland, which Tuesday officially requested that the German government issue an export license for its battle tanks.

German weapons companies manufacture the Leopard 2, and the German government legally has the final say over how and where the tanks are used, even when other countries offer to export them.

Russia blasts decision

In his daily briefing delivered shortly before the German announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any western tanks delivered to Ukraine would "burn like all the others" — adding that the U.S. and its European allies were wrong to think the tanks would influence the outcome of the war.

"I'm sure that many specialists understand the absurdity of this idea. Technologically, this is a failed plan," said Peskov. "This is an overestimation of the potential that this will add to the Ukrainian army."

Meanwhile, Russia's Ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, issued a statement accusing Berlin of pushing the conflict in Ukraine into uncharted territory.

"This extremely dangerous decision takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation," said Nechayev.

"Once again, we are convinced that Germany, like its closest allies, is not interested in a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis but instead is set on permanent escalation with limitless pumping of deadly arms to the Kyiv regime."

Germany wanted to work with allies

Scholz had consistently refused to give the go-ahead for his country or others to export Leopard tanks to Ukraine, saying Western tanks should only be supplied to Kyiv if there is agreement among key allies, particularly the United States.

One reason "is because there has not really been a clear majority in the German electorate electorate for sending tanks," said Sudha David-Wilp, who heads the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. "Two, he's had a lot of pressure within his own party about getting dragged into the war. And then I guess there is also a genuine fear about what this would trigger on the part of Russia."

U.S. officials had been pressing Germany to send Leopard tanks but previously said the Biden administration was not sending the American-made tanks because of challenges with training and maintenance.

Berlin is also hesitant to supply arms that would enable Kyiv to carry out attacks on Russian soil or that could potentially draw NATO into a broader conflict with Moscow. Scholz has asserted throughout the nearly 11-month Russian invasion of Ukraine that Germany is already one of Ukraine's biggest financial supporters.

"Germany will not go it alone, Germany will act together with its allies and especially with our trans-Atlantic partner, the U.S. Anything else would be irresponsible in such a dangerous situation," the chancellor said at an event sponsored by his center-left Social Democratic Party on Jan. 9 in Berlin.

For months, public opinion in Germany has backed Scholz's refusal to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine. But according to a Forsa survey last week, German public support for supplying battle tanks to Ukraine grew to its highest level ever: 46% of those polled are in favor of delivering Leopard tanks and the same percentage is against it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 24, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story misspelled Steffen Hebestreit's name.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.