Scholz holds up German tank deliveries to Ukraine
BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is delaying a final decision over whether to give Ukraine high-end tanks for its battle against Russia, despite pressure from several other top officials, according to four people familiar with the deliberations.
The plan, pushed by Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock — both senior members of the Green party — would involve about 100 tanks. It comes amid a growing acceptance in Berlin and other Western capitals that Russia’s war in Ukraine could drag on for months or years, and as Kyiv directly appeals for such equipment.
A decision on the matter was initially expected this week. But it’s now in limbo as the Social Democrat chancellor — much to the frustration of his governing coalition partners — argues Germany should first reach a common position with Western allies on the subject before delivering such heavy military equipment, the officials said.
“We setting in motion everything that’s right and sensible,” the chancellor told the Bundestag on Wednesday when asked about tank deliveries. Yet Scholz added that it was important for him to coordinate among EU and NATO partners to ensure “that we provide such military support in the same way, and that no one is rushing ahead — including Germany.”
He added: “I believe that this is precisely an issue where it would be a grave mistake for Germany to take a special role and a special path.”
NATO foreign ministers discussed military support for Ukraine on Wednesday and Thursday but did not offer any specifics regarding tank supplies.
Previously, German officials had ruled out delivering more complex Western military equipment like tanks to Kyiv — despite Berlin’s historic decision in February to deliver anti-tank and air defense missiles to Ukraine — reasoning it would take weeks or months to train Ukrainian soldiers to use them.
Yet as it appeared the war would likely last longer, officials say they started to consider battlefield supplies that Ukraine could use at a later stage. Russia is currently regrouping, pulling back forces from Kyiv, and likely plotting a major offensive in eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks, according to Western officials.
The chancellor’s hesitation has caused a backlash from his coalition partners, the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). While Cabinet members have so far refrained from public criticism — Baerbock has only indicated to reporters that she’s in favor of delivering more advanced weapon systems — lawmakers have been more outspoken.
The Greens’ Anton Hofreiter, chair of the Bundestag’s European Affairs Committee, said it was important that Germany shows “leadership” in the EU and NATO and does not hide behind other countries.
“I’m in favor of repealing the German Cabinet decision not to supply heavy weapons as soon as possible,” Hofreiter told POLITICO.
The FDP’s Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Bundestag’s Defense Committee, also urged Scholz in an interview with the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper to “swiftly” approve the delivery of tanks. Leading lawmakers from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the main opposition party, have also pushed for supplying tanks.
Social Democrat Michael Roth, the chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, backed the chancellor’s argument, saying that “we need an understanding within NATO on the delivery of heavy equipment such as tanks.”
However, he indicated that he would like Germany to find a way to move forward with the plan: “What Ukraine currently needs must be delivered.”
While the Czech government has reportedly already sent Ukraine Soviet-era tanks and armored personnel carriers, which are identical to models the Ukrainian army already uses, the German tanks would mark a new level of Western heavy weaponry in the war.
Germany is specifically considering sending “Marder” light tanks, armored vehicles equipped with anti-tank missiles. The German defense company Rheinmetall has signaled it could provide 100 such tanks, which are currently standing on the firm’s grounds, officials said.
Politicians are also discussing whether Berlin could similarly supply its world-class, heavy-combat “Leopard” tanks to Ukraine. “Rheinmetall reportedly has not only Marder standing around but also heavier weapons,” said the Greens’ Hofreiter.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, told Deutschlandfunk radio on Thursday that Kyiv is “expecting” Berlin to deliver Marder and Leopard tanks, as well as the anti-aircraft “Gepard” tank.
“The lists are there, the German government knows about them, but unfortunately it remains silent until today,” Melnyk said.
There are logistical problems, though: Germany would need to train Ukrainian soldiers to use these tanks, teach mechanics how to maintain them and ensure a supply of munitions and spare parts, the officials said.
Strack-Zimmermann warned that such steps could not be done on Ukrainian soil “because under international law, we would then be a party to the war.” Baerbock, the foreign minister, said earlier this week that Berlin was seeking to solve “technical problems in the delivery and use” of more advanced weapons for Kyiv.
Another practical problem: Because the tanks standing on the Rheinmetall grounds are largely decommissioned military material, they would have to be refurbished before being sent to Ukraine. One workaround could be to instead send identical models from the German army to Ukraine and later replace the army’s tanks with the refurbished ones.
However, one official from Germany’s Defense Ministry, led by Scholz’s Social Democratic Party colleague Christine Lambrecht, cautioned that such a step could affect Germany’s immediate military capabilities within the NATO alliance.
Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute think tank in Berlin, argued that Germany, which has faced criticism for opposing tougher energy sanctions on Russia because of its dependency on Russian gas, should compensate for this by delivering tanks.
“I think it’s of central importance for German credibility that we don’t put the brakes on everywhere, but that there is also an area where we lead,” he said. “And especially if it is currently impossible for Germany to stop the gas payments, which bring Putin billions, in the foreseeable future, then battle tanks would be a good alternative.”