Expert: Now is the time to provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks

Rafael Loss.
Rafael Loss. Source: ERR

Rafael Loss, an expert on European and German foreign policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says now is the time for European countries, led by Germany, to start supplying Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks. In an interview with ERR, Loss also warned, that the more Ukrainian troops continue liberating the occupied territories, the higher the temperature will rise in Berlin, as certain voices become increasingly hysterical.

Germany has already offered Ukraine a lot in military terms. It's already €1.5 billion but we still don't see Leopard tanks or Marder vehicles going to Ukraine, so how would you evaluate the situation at the moment?

"I think it's important to recognize that Germany has indeed provided Ukraine with significant military aid. It was slow to start the transfer of weapons and ammunition. Only after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 did Germany finally take this step announced by Olaf Scholtz in his famous 'Zeitenwende speech' on February 27, three days after the start of the war. It was only then that Germany started to provide Ukraine with weapons (in the form of) anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles. Those weapons have become progressively more complex, more modern and more expensive. But, in terms of being strategic about it, I think Germany is still, to a large extent, behind the curve in reacting to the changing situation on the ground and not anticipating Ukraine's needs. That relates to questions around the provision of tanks, of infantry fighting vehicles, of vehicles that make it possible for Ukraine's forces to maneuver when the ground is mostly muddy and not frozen yet or solid like in summer, but in this in-between season that Ukraine's armed forces now have to navigate in order to make further advances.

You have written an article saying that these Leopard tanks are precisely the type of aid needed at the moment.

Indeed, my colleagues and I made the argument, that now would be the right time to provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 main battle tanks. There are a couple of other tank systems that NATO countries have available, but, in the European context, the Leopard 2 is the only one still being produced. There is some capacity to produce some new tanks, and certainly some capacity to produce spare parts, and because they are used by 13 European countries, there is capacity to repair (them), to train Ukrainian crews, maintenance crews and tank drivers. Therefore, there is also a large capacity to draw on reserve stocks. The same is not true for French Leclerc tanks or British Challenger 2 tanks. There have been discussions about American-produced Abrams tanks but we think that the Leopard 2 in particular would be suitable because of the broad user base and because, finally, it would be a step in which Europeans can take the initiative. Germany would be involved, it might even have to take the lead. But, this would finally be a step Europeans could take together to help Ukraine to really make a difference on the ground. Because, as we see in the current offensive in the Kherson region, occasionally Ukraine might capture Russian tanks or tanks that Russian troops leave behind as they are fleeing, but these are being destroyed and there's no capacity of spare parts, because the stocks of parts for Soviet-produced tanks in Eastern European countries are dwindling fast. Most of those stocks have already been provided to Ukraine, and so now, the next step to take would be to provide Ukraine with Western-produced battle tanks. I think this argument also applies to infantry fighting vehicles and other more modern systems, that, so far, Western countries have not provided to Ukraine.

Do you see the political will in Germany to take the lead and continue with this tank project?

Not at the moment, to be honest. I think Germany, the German Chancellery and the German Defense Ministry are in a rather reactive mode. Discussions are ongoing and there have been various proposals now to set up a more industrial response to the war in Ukraine. It is increasingly becoming a long war and will require a sustained response. It will require Western countries to increase their production of artillery shells, ammunition and other kinds of military equipment in order to make Ukraine able to withstand this continued Russian war of aggression. But, so far, I think there is no political will, at least in the chancellery, that would be needed to sign off on the transfer of German-produced Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Regardless of whether they were to come from German, Finnish or Spanish stocks, the chancellery would have to sign off on them.

However, I think there are discussions going on in the background. Some parliamentarians, even from among the governing party, have, for months, been calling for these kinds of weapons to be transferred to Ukraine.

It seems that, all year, there has been a certain amount of hesitation in Germany concerning arms deliveries. There have been promises but very little seems to have been done. Over time, it has improved, but why do we still see hesitation?

I think there are several reasons for this. I think that most German political leaders across the mainstream parties recognize that Russia started this war of aggression, but there are different assessments about how the war might end and whether there could be, at some point, a negotiated solution that falls short of Ukraine retaking all the occupied territories. So, in order not to foreclose any paths too quickly or too easily, and to allow Vladimir Putin some kind of off-ramp, I think that there is some hesitancy from certain political actors to go all in in supporting Ukraine.

There is also the fact, that Germany's own defense capacity is lacking. The €100 million special fund, that Olaf Scholz announced as part of the 'Zeitenwende speech' has been set up, but, again, I think there is a certain slowness when it comes to drawing on those funds to improve Germany's defensive capabilities. No significant orders have been placed with industry yet. Germany still faces a significant shortage of ammunition for its own stock piles. Digital communications equipment for soldiers, and personal protective gear is sometimes lacking when German deployments go to Lithuania for instance. So, they have to get that from other units. There is a lot to catch up on and not a lot to draw on. However, whether you make tanks or other defensive capabilities available to Ukraine is, ultimately, a political decision. So far, that decision has not been taken, or, in my opinion, has been too cautious to really make a difference for Ukraine's defensive effort, or to adopt a more strategic rather than reactive approach towards this war.

How should the war end, in your opinion?

In my opinion, the war should end with the restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity and full sovereignty. I think, that will include a restoration of its borders as they were in 1991. They were agreed to by Russian diplomats in 2010, if I'm not mistaken, and were first violated in 2014.

This will not be easy for Ukraine's armed forces to achieve, and Russia will put a lot of effort into holding onto the occupied territories. Crimea might be a sticking point at some stage, but, certainly, I think the goal of restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity to the fullest extent possible has been outlined. In the end, there might be a negotiated solution and Russian forces might collapse. That is uncertain, but I think the goal has been set at that level, and the governments in Europe and the Euro-Atlantic region should support Ukraine's efforts to restore its territorial integrity.

Is that kind of attitude shared among top German politicians or is there more hesitation?

There certainly is anxiety, particularly around the question of potential escalation. In the German political discourse, there are certain people, who warn that ultimately Russia cannot be defeated, that it has some kind od escalation dominance because it is a nuclear power. It can draw on and mobilize extensive (numbers of) new recruits and it has stocks of Soviet-produced 1960s-style tanks and weapons. So, from a Russian perspective, a lot more meat can be thrown into the grinder.

However, I think the trends favor Ukraine if Western support for Ukraine is maintained. I think, that Vladimir Putin has rightly identified that Western support is the center of gravity when it comes to Ukraine's defensive effort. If he can break this support via his energy war against the West, and create new pressures against Ukrainian migration with disinformation campaigns in the West, then he will likely try to see how the winter plays out, then assess the situation in the spring. At the same time, Ukraine's armed forces will focus on making additional advances to liberate more territories over the winter months.

I think, that the closer Ukraine's armed forces get to controlling the territories they did before February 24, the more anxiety levels in Germany and other Western countries will grow. Whether that might be a red line for Putin to launch nuclear weapons, is, I think, deterrable with industrial support and a long term response in support of Ukraine. We can navigate this situation, but, the further Ukrainian forces move to liberate the occupied territories, as they have the right to do, and as we should support them, the higher the temperature will rise in Berlin as certain voices become more and more hysterical.

There have been problems obtaining Swiss Gepard ammunition systems. Is there anything Germany can do, or is the door closed?

I think, that Switzerland defines its legal and political neutrality that forecloses that path. However, it certainly raises questions about Switzerland as a reliable supplier of weapons and ammunitions. The war in Ukraine in general, raises a lot of questions for Europeans about the robustness of supply chains for these critical supplies in the military realm. So, a lot of countries are taking measures to produce munitions internally. That includes the Baltic countries and Germany. Poland has just made the decision to buy South Korean tanks and industrial defense capacity, in order to produce its own advanced weapons system in Poland.

These discussions will keep going. Both NATO and the EU should apply some guardrails on these discussions because there is significant potential for waste and inefficiency in Europe when it comes to spending our increased defense budgets unwisely. We should aim to make these spending packages as efficient and effective as possible. To some extent, that requires sharing capacities across borders. I can see, that there is a very strong impulse to be more nationally self-sufficient when it comes to having some of these materials. However, only deeper European and NATO integration in the production of industrial defensive capacity can save us from wasting a lot of funds, which taxpayers rightly ask questions of their political leaders about.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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