New Berlin defence minister faces music on German battle tanks for Ukraine

Boris Pistorius will face pressure at Nato talks to shift country’s position after months of hesitation

Not even the warmonger Dr Strangelove would envy the workload of Germany’s new defence minister. At 8am on Thursday, Boris Pistorius got his seal of office, at 9am he took his oath of office in parliament and by 10.30am he was already talking war, peace and tanks with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin.

The tanks in question, German-built Leopard 2s, are military work horses across Europe and – Kyiv hopes – will help seal Ukraine’s victory over Russia.

After months of hesitation, the 62-year-old Pistorius will face unprecedented pressure at a Nato gathering in southern Germany on Friday to make his first call as defence minister to shift Berlin’s Leopard “nein” to “ja”.

Soon after last February’s invasion, Berlin broke a decades-old taboo on supplying arms to war parties. Now it is placed third behind the US and UK with its delivery of machine guns, ammunition, anti-tank missiles, troop transport vehicles and a high-end air-defence system – reportedly operational in southern Ukraine.


After months of hesitation about heavy tanks – Berlin fears escalating the 11-month conflict further – Pistorius played it safe on Thursday, skirting the question in public.

“These are not normal times, we have a war raging in Europe, Russia is waging a brutal war of annihilation on a sovereign country, on Ukraine,” said Pistorius alongside his US visitor, promising that Germany would support Ukraine’s fight for “freedom and territorial independence”.

Austin played along in public and avoided Leopard talk, calling Germany a “true friend” of the US and expressing thanks for its aid to Ukraine and logistical support in guarding Nato’s eastern flank.

But a senior US official told travelling journalists that Austin “will be pressing the Germans on this” when he and Pistorius join 48 other alliance defence ministers at the Ramstein Air Base.

Pressure has been building all week, particularly during a phone conversation between US president Joe Biden and chancellor Olaf Scholz. The latter is unwilling to send German tanks to Ukraine, or grant permission for others to export their Leopards, unless the US supplies its own Abrams battle tanks.

On Wednesday in Davos, Scholz reiterated Germany’s insistence that Berlin will “never do something just by ourselves, but together with others, especially the United States”.

The Biden administration opposes such a quid pro quo, saying its Abrams tanks are heavy and require huge amounts of special fuel.

“The Abrams tank is very complicated, it’s expensive, it’s hard to train on ... it is not the easiest system to maintain,” said Colin Kahl, US undersecretary of defence. Washington says it has no interest in giving the Ukrainian army equipment “they can’t repair, they can’t sustain and they over the long term can’t afford”.

“This isn’t about the news cycle or what’s symbolically valuable. It’s what will actually help Ukraine,” he added.

Pressure is also building on Germany from European Nato allies. The UK has announced it will supply Challenger 2 tanks while other countries, led by Poland and Finland, want to ask Berlin for formal permission to transfer their Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his administration was working with allies to supply 100 battle tanks, of which Warsaw would provide 14.

Given how Germany had created “much insecurity and instability” because of its “dependency on Russian gas”, he said Berlin “should feel a greater sense of responsibility to support Ukraine”.

As well as German movement on tanks, the Friday Nato meeting in Ramstein is likely to see the US announce a $2.5 billion (€2.3 billion) military aid package for Ukraine.