German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is under growing pressure at home and abroad to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine as Russia’s invasion enters a new and potentially decisive phase.
Western allies and members of Scholz’s governing coalition have become increasingly blunt in publicly criticizing the Social Democratic chancellor and urging him to send tanks, artillery and other materiel to Ukrainian forces.
“The Germans must firmly support Ukraine today if we are to believe that they have drawn conclusions from their own history,” Donald Tusk, the former European Council president and ex-prime minister of Poland who now leads the center-right European People’s Party alliance, declared on Wednesday.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas posted a chart on Twitter this week showing the support provided by a range of countries to Ukraine, taking account of their economic output. Her own country was at the top, Germany was at the bottom.
“Our deeds speak louder than words. #ArmUkraineNow,” Kallas tweeted.
Scholz has insisted Germany is supporting Ukraine with various weapons and has provided a list of arms that the German defense industry could deliver to Kyiv. He also promised to help NATO partners that send tanks or artillery to Ukraine by supplying training or ammunition or replacing the equipment they send.
But he has so far ruled out delivering German tanks like the Leopard or Marder models to Ukraine. German officials have said Berlin would not be able to meet its own NATO commitments if it supplied those tanks from its own armed forces. They have also argued that it would take months to train Ukrainian forces to use the tanks, whereas they are already familiar with Soviet-designed equipment such as T-72 tanks, which Eastern European NATO countries still have in stock.
Berlin has also suggested that supplying modern German tanks would be seen by Russia as an escalation of Western involvement in the conflict and could prompt a military reaction from Moscow.
Lars Klingbeil, the co-leader of Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), on Thursday defended the chancellor’s cautious approach. “It is right that in this current situation we have a chancellor who leads with prudence, who leads with deliberation, who thinks things through from the end, who coordinates with international partners,” he told ZDF television.
Responding to criticism that Scholz had not communicated clearly, Klingbeil said: “There are no simple answers to complex situations.”
But members of both the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the SPD’s partners in the governing coalition, have urged Scholz to speak out and step up.
“The chancellor is missing a historic opportunity,” said FDP lawmaker Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the chair of the Bundestag’s defense committee. “All I ask for is leadership and a clear approach. We must not lose any time when it comes to Ukraine. It’s just a mystery to me why the communication and actions are so unclear.”
Scholz has faced particular criticism for lack of clarity in a press conference that he gave after a videoconference of world leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday.
During that press conference, he also argued that Germany’s contributions were in line with those of other Western countries.
“Take a look around at what others are doing who are closely allied with us,” he said. “All of our deliveries fit into what our closest allies and friends have set in motion on their side.”
However, that justification sounds increasingly hollow, as not has only the United States started to deliver heavier weapons like howitzers, helicopters and M113 armored troop transporters, but European partners are also weighing in with such material.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced Tuesday that the Netherlands “will be sending heavier material to Ukraine, including armored vehicles.”
“Along with allies, we are looking into supplying additional heavy materiel,” he added.
Belgium is reportedly considering supplying Kyiv with M109 howitzers. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have already sent Soviet-era tanks or air defense batteries to Ukraine.
“Our NATO and EU partners are a bit confused,” said Claudia Major, head of international security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs think tank.
Part of the controversy involves a weapons “list” that Scholz brought up in his press conference. The chancellor said his government had “asked the German defense industry to tell us what material they can supply in the near future,” and that Ukraine could make its own “choice” of weapons from this list, which Berlin would then finance and deliver.
Yet Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, said none of the key weapons that Kyiv had requested to fend off the new Russian offensive in the east, such as tanks, were on that list. What’s more, the German daily Bild reported Wednesday evening that it had gotten hold of a weapons list from the German defense industry, and a second list that Scholz handed to the Ukrainians — from which nearly all heavy weapons had been cut.
“The result: The possible arms exports of the German arms industry to Ukraine … shrank from 48 to 24 pages,” Bild wrote.
German officials argue the list focused on weapons that could be delivered at short notice, while it would take months for defense companies to provide tanks.
They say it is quicker and more efficient to supply Ukraine with Soviet-style tanks with which its forces are already familiar.
“We must not allow Putin to win this war of aggression. That is why it is so important to provide clear support for Ukraine. But we are reaching our limits because I have to and I will continue to ensure the defense of the country and the alliance,” Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told a news conference on Thursday.
“And that is why it is now important that we go other ways that quickly lead to Ukraine being supported, and that is why it is important that our Eastern European partners, the states that still have weapons from the Soviet era, hand them over as far as possible and we then provide this support in replenishing them.”
However, such arguments have limited appeal to Ukrainian officials. For one thing, Soviet-era tanks like the T-72 have a much higher risk of blowing up in combat, killing their crew, than Western tanks like the German Leopard.
Military expert Major said that the German government should urgently come up with a strategy to ensure better support for Ukraine in the future, given the war is likely to continue for some time.
“We need to look some months ahead and ask ourselves: What are the options, what can the industry deliver and when, and how can we organize the appropriate training for these devices in time?”
Laurenz Gehrke contributed reporting from Berlin.