After much agonising Germany has agreed to give battle tanks to Ukraine. Why was it so reluctant and what difference will they make?
To understand Germany’s reluctance you need to go back to the Second World War.
The last time German tanks were used on the battlefield in Europe.
“These are today’s main events. Germany has invaded Poland and has bombed many times. General mobilisation has been ordered in Britain and France. Parliament was summoned for six o’clock this evening.”BBC
It’s because of that dark history that modern Germany has had an aversion to armed conflict.
Instead the government has championed consensus and trade with Europe, Russia and China.
It’s avoided providing military aid to other countries, because it doesn’t want to be seen as an aggressor once again.
But it’s not just history that has been holding Germany back.
It’s also worried about escalating the stand off with Russia.
So far Nato, the western military alliance, has avoided a direct conflict with Russia and Germany would like to keep it that way.
It’s one of several countries that border Ukraine, and unlike France and Britain, which had already said they’ll send tanks, it doesn’t have a nuclear deterrent.
So what changed Germany’s mind?
The German government has always been wary of public opinion.
In early January a poll found that around half of Germans opposed supplying battle tanks to Ukraine, with just 38 per cent in favour.
But that is shifting and Germans are coming round to the idea, so when the US government decided to send some of its American-made tanks to Ukraine it put pressure on Germany to join a growing number of countries doing the same.
“The Leopards are on their way. After several days of prevarication the German chancellor has reportedly agreed to send at least a company –that’s about 12 of its Leopard 2 tanks – to Ukraine.”Channel 4 News
And that decision means countries like Poland and Norway can also send the German-made tanks in their arsenal too.
Here’s German defence minister Boris Pistorius.
“I have specifically encouraged partner countries that have Leopard tanks that are operational to begin the training of Ukrainian forces on these tanks already. There is no question at all where this is possible and desired. We’re not standing in the way.”Channel 4 News
But Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said he needed 300 tanks and he’s getting more like 125.
So what difference will they make?
“Preparing to defend against a second gigantic attack, even as they’re already under assault by Russia. Ukrainian units held large-scale drills to prepare for bigger battles to come.”CNN
We are at a pivotal moment in the Russian invasion.
Ukraine is running out of ammunition for the old Soviet-era tanks it’s been using and a fresh Kremlin offensive is expected in the spring, with possibly hundreds of thousands of Russian conscripts joining the war.
The US tanks won’t arrive for months, but in the short term the Leopard tanks could make all the difference.
They’re well protected, they can fire accurately on the move and they can fight at night.
That makes them much better than their Russian counterparts, even before you get to their speed and endurance.
The head of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg, thinks they could even help the country make advances.
“The only way to lasting peace is to make it clear to Putin that he will not win on the battlefield. Therefore we must provide heavier and more advanced systems so that Ukrainian forces are able to repel the Russian forces not only to survive but to win, to take back territory.”Channel 4 News
The Russian embassy in Berlin has already given a sense of how the Kremlin will spin Germany’s decision.
“With the approval of the leadership of Germany,” it said in a statement, “battle tanks with German crosses will again be sent to the ‘eastern front’.”
But most western analysts don’t believe the Kremlin’s threats that delivering western weapons to Ukraine could lead to direct armed conflict between Russia and the Nato alliance. That’s because the Kremlin knows it would be outgunned in a conventional war.
And that’s perhaps why the Ukrainians feel emboldened to keep pressing for more military aid.
Kyiv is now asking for modern fighter jets.
The German chancellor has dismissed that request, but he could again come under pressure to change his mind.
This episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Hannah Varrall.