The German chancellor avoided committing to the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine at the Davos summit on Wednesday, although she kept the door open to a positive decision at a special summit of Western defense ministers on Friday.
Olaf Scholz did not mention Leopard tanks at all when a Ukrainian delegate asked him “why the hesitation” in signing off on their re-export – prompting a clearly frustrated Ukrainian president to warn the same forum against the delay.
The German leader argued that his country is “strategically linked” to the US, France and other “friends and partners” and that any decisions on weapons must be part of a collective effort to help Ukraine win the war.
“We work together with them, we talk to them,” Scholz said, referring to Germany’s allies. “We never do something alone, but together with others, especially the US, which is very important in this joint task of defending Ukrainian independence and sovereignty.”
A few minutes later, the Ukrainian president delivered a speech via video link at the same forum, calling for immediate action. Volodymyr Zelensky said the world “must not hesitate” to help his country fight the invaders, adding: “The time the free world uses to think is used by the terrorist state to kill.”
About 50 Western defense ministers from the Ukrainian Contact Group will gather Friday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, in a meeting chaired by US Secretary Lloyd Austin, to discuss and coordinate future military aid to Kiev.
Earlier this month, the US and Germany jointly announced that they would send Bradley and Marder combat vehicles to Ukraine, and some sources said they believed something similar could happen later this week.
Poland and Finland have said they want to send Ukraine Leopard 2 tanks, about 2,300 of which are in storage in various states of repair in NATO countries. But permission is required from Germany, where the Leopard was originally built, to re-export them.
Ukraine has said it wants as many as 300 Western tanks to help it win the war, while experts believe it needs at least 100 to launch a credible spring offensive. Tanks are needed to make up for the losses, and the Leopard 2 has superior capabilities, such as thermal optics, to the Soviet-era tanks that make up Ukraine’s heaviest armor.
Poland has said it wants to send a squadron of 14 tanks, the same number of tanks Britain has promised to supply. On Monday, the UK said it would deliver 14 of its Challenger 2s, announcing the pledge ahead of Friday’s meeting in a bid to get Germany to follow suit.
On Wednesday, Scholz was under additional pressure from across the EU. Charles Michel, president of the European Council, accused Russia of pursuing a “strategy of destruction, a strategy of terror, trying to bomb the Ukrainian people into submission.”
Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, argued that the time was right to provide Western tanks, brushing aside any concerns that it could be interpreted as escalation. “The time is now.” They urgently need additional equipment and I am personally in favor of supplying tanks to Ukraine.
MEPs also directly called on Scholz to deliver Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine without further delay, as they voted to adopt a report on the common security and defense policy by 459 votes to 93, with 85 abstentions.
Vladimir Putin said he thought Russia’s victory in the war was inevitable in a visit to factory workers in St. Petersburg.
The Russian president praised “the courage and heroism of our fighters… and of course the work of the military-industrial complex and factories like yours and people like you.” He suggested that defense workers could be immune from future drafts.
British and Polish defense ministers will meet their Baltic counterparts in Estonia on Thursday in a Ramstein pre-meeting designed to put further pressure on Germany to press ahead with the Leopard 2.
But there were signs that London’s maneuvers were irritating Berlin. A German government source told Reuters that the UK appeared to be ignoring Berlin’s recent decision to provide the Patriot missile defense system and 40 Marder combat vehicles.
Accusing the UK of acting in response to “internal political pressure”, government sources added that relying on allies was “not helpful”. They added: “Delivering tanks to Ukraine is not a taboo.” But such questions will continue to be clarified in the transatlantic step.”