(Bloomberg) -- Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s cautious approach to sending Leopard battle tanks – or allowing other countries to export their own stocks of the German-made military vehicles – to Ukraine is confusing allies and creating splits within his own government.
Three Baltic states over the weekend called on Germany as Europe’s leading power to quickly change course. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mykhailo Podolyak, was more outspoken, saying that indecision “is killing more of our people.”
Allies have expressed concern that Scholz’s slow decision-making could prolong the conflict and undermine his pledge of pushing ahead with a more assertive German defense policy, described by him as a Zeitenwende, or historic turning point. And over the past week, two of the chancellor’s ministers appeared to contradict the government’s public stance on the issue.
“At this point there are no good arguments saying why battle tanks, why air defense systems can’t be provided,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told reporters ahead of a Jan. 23 meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels. “The argument of escalation doesn’t work because Russia keeps escalating.”
With Ukrainian and NATO officials expecting a possible intensification of the fighting this spring, Kyiv has been pleading for Germany and allies to send the modern battle tanks, which could help Ukrainian forces both defend their land and regain lost territory by breaking through Russian front lines.
German law requires approval for the re-export of military equipment, meaning the hundreds of Leopard tanks in Europe can only be sent to Ukraine with Berlin’s permission.
Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, said on Friday that Berlin could move quickly if an agreement with other countries is reached and added that allies could start training Ukrainian soldiers on the vehicles.
Eleven months into the war, Germany will begin taking inventory of how many Leopards are available, so Berlin can move swiftly if it decides to ship them, Pistorius said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF on Tuesday.
“Because if a yes comes, which could happen in the next few days, this is necessary to allow us to act quickly and begin with training,” Pistorius said.
One of the reasons for Scholz’s cautious approach on sending new categories of heavy weapons to Ukraine is his insistence that Germany will avoid any unilateral decisions and will always act together with its allies, with US backing a crucial element.
“We never go alone,” Scholz said in an interview last week with Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait.
The chancellor has pledged to continue shipping more heavy weaponry to Ukraine, but he has also stressed Germany and its allies must avoid an open conflict with Russia that could lead to a nuclear war.
“We need to do everything to avoid a direct military confrontation between NATO and a heavily armed superpower such as Russia, a nuclear power,” Scholz told Der Spiegel magazine in an interview last year. “I will do everything to avoid an escalation that could lead to World War III – there can be no nuclear war.”
Until recently, German officials always made clear in private conversations that Germany would only send or allow others to deliver the German-made Leopard to Ukraine if the US provides its M1 Abrams main battle tank. But Berlin has since changed course and now says there is no link between sending Leopards with the US equivalent.
Over the weekend, cracks within Scholz’s coalition started to become apparent. Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock told a French broadcaster that Germany wouldn’t “stand in the way” if Poland decided to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, contradicting the government’s official stance.
In Berlin, Baerbock’s words created confusion. German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit made clear that so far Poland had not made a formal request and added that any such request would entail an “administrative procedure” in the National Security Council and not in cabinet. The government expects Germany’s partners to comply with international law in this respect, Hebestreit said.
Baerbock is member of the Green party, which is generally hawkish when it comes to weapons deliveries to Ukraine. But also within Scholz’s own Social Democratic Party, there are a growing number of critics who would like to see their chancellor taking a clear stand on Leopard tanks.
Pistorius acknowledged for the first time over the weekend that Ukraine will need battle tanks to regain occupied territory from Russia. “It’s totally clear that tanks and offensive movements will be needed with regard to Donbas and Luhansk,” he told public broadcaster ARD.
But Pistorius also made clear that it was not his, but rather the chancellor’s decision to send those tanks to Ukraine. “The decision will depend on many factors and will in the end be made in the chancellery,” the SPD politician said.
Scholz’s spokesman, however, defended the chancellor’s reluctance by pointing out that a hasty decision could have unforeseen results. One should think carefully “before taking a step that one later bitterly regrets,” Hebestreit said.
--With assistance from Natalia Drozdiak.
(Updates with German defense minister in the eighth paragraph.)
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