Germany’s chancellor avoided committing to the supply of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine at the Davos summit on Wednesday, although he held the door open to a positive decision at a special summit of western defence ministers on Friday.
Olaf Scholz did not mention the Leopard tanks at all when asked by a Ukrainian delegate “why the hesitancy” in signing off their re-export – prompting an apparently frustrated Ukrainian president to warn the same forum against delay.
The German leader argued his country was “strategically interlocked” with the US, France and other “friends and partners” – and that any decisions about weapons had to be part of a collective effort to help Ukraine win the war.
“We are working together with them, we are discussing with them,” Scholz said, referring to Germany’s allies. “We are never doing something just by ourselves, but together with others, especially the US, which are very important in this common task to defend the Ukrainian independence and sovereignty.”
A few minutes later, Ukraine’s president delivered a speech via video link to the same forum, arguing instead for urgent action. Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the world “must not hesitate” in helping his country fight off the invaders, and added: “The time the free world uses to think is used by the terrorist state to kill.”
About 50 western defence ministers of the Ukraine contact group will assemble at the Ramstein airbase in Germany on Friday, at a meeting chaired by the US secretary, Lloyd Austin, to discuss and coordinate future arms military aid to Kyiv.
Earlier this month, the US and Germany jointly announced they would send Bradley and Marder fighting vehicles to Ukraine, and some sources said they believed something similar could happen at the end of this week.
Poland and Finland have said they want to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, of which there are about 2,300 stockpiled in varying states of repair by Nato countries. But Germany’s permission to reexport them is needed because the Leopard was originally made in the country.
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 mount a credible spring offensive. The tanks are needed to replace the losses, and Leopard 2s have superior capabilities, such as thermal optics, to the Soviet-era tanks that comprise Ukraine’s heaviest armour.
Poland has said it wants to send a squadron of 14, the same number of tanks Britain has pledged to supply. On Monday, the UK said it would deliver 14 of its Challenger 2s, announcing the pledge before Friday’s meeting in an attempt to push Germany to follow suit.
Scholz came under further pressure on Wednesday from across the EU. Charles Michel, the 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”.
The European leader, also a former Belgian prime minister, argued it was the right moment to give western tanks, setting aside any concern it could be interpreted as escalatory. “The time is now, they urgently need more equipment and I am personally in favour of supplying tanks to Ukraine.”
EU MEPs also directly urged Scholz to deliver Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine without further delay, as they voted to adopt a report on common security and defence policy by 459 votes to 93, with 85 abstentions.
Vladimir Putin, said he thought Russia’s victory in the war was inevitable on 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” and suggested defence workers could be immune to future military drafts.
On Thursday, the British and Polish defence ministers will meet with their counterparts from the Baltic states in Estonia, in a Ramstein pre-meeting designed to put further pressure on Germany to move forward with the Leopard 2s.
But there were signs that London’s manoeuvres were irritating Berlin. A Germany government source told Reuters that the UK appeared to be ignoring Berlin’s recent decision to provide a Patriot missile defence system and 40 Marder fighting vehicles.
Accusing the UK of acting in response to “internal political pressure”, government sources added that leaning on allies was “not helpful”. They added: “The delivery of tanks to Ukraine is not taboo. But such questions will continue to be clarified in transatlantic lockstep.”