With a brisk step, a sharp gaze and just seconds to spare, Chancellor Olaf Scholz slipped into the Bundestag chamber at lunchtime on Wednesday clutching a red folder. Inside: his red letter announcement.
Just 11 months after Germany shattered one post-war taboo – supplying arms to a war party – Scholz shattered another: “We will provide Ukraine with Leopard battle tanks.”
The plan is for two battalions of German-made tanks, 88 vehicles in all. One 14-vehicle company will be drawn from Germany’s own Leopard 2 A6 reserve while Berlin will co-ordinate with other Nato partners to make up the rest.
An air of weary resignation hung over the chamber, any sense of history smothered by the chancellor’s trademark monotone and the format: not a full parliamentary address but a scheduled question-and-answer session with MPs.
For the next hour, with excursions into random questions on pension policy and affordable housing, Scholz returned to the same message: we have acted cautiously without yielding to “public pressure or loud rhetoric”; we have acted in concert with our Nato partners, and we will remain united with Ukraine to the end.
Those were the original alliance goals on Ukraine, he said, and an important red line remained: “We will never send ground troops . . . that was not the case in the past and will not be in the future.”
He appealed directly for the trust and patience of “worried people” watching at home. Like them, Scholz has aired his fears of Germany being dragged into the conflict and the risk of a nuclear strike by Russia. With “no mathematical certainty” over the risks of acting or not acting, however, he said the next best approach was caution: slow, iterative steps to build support for Ukraine.
“This is the only principle that guarantees Europe’s security in such a dangerous situation,” he said.
After nearly a year of unprecedented support – the supply of guns, ammunition, anti-tank missiles and missile defence systems have made Germany, by some calculations, the third-largest arms supplier to Ukraine – Scholz said the time had come to do more.
Again and again MPs – in meandering questions – attempted to find out why the decision had come now, but with no success.
After months of fruitless demands from Kyiv for up to 300 Leopards, it was clear that pressure on Berlin was building after a tense, deadlocked meeting of Nato allies last Friday.
A consensus was growing that the quickest way to help Ukraine face any fresh Russian offensive was to activate some of the estimated 2,000 coveted Leopard 2 tanks spread around the European continent. Germany, where the tanks are built, was key to this policy.
But Berlin said it would keep its Leopards locked up unless the US rowed in with its own Abrams battle tanks. Increasing the Zugzwang, or pressure to move, was Tuesday’s formal request from Poland to re-export some of its own Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. This was the first such request of Berlin, made in accordance with the tanks’ terms of sale, but it would not be the last. Then came signals from Washington that it would, after all, contribute Abrams tanks – despite concerns their size and fuel-guzzling jet engines make them impractical for Ukrainian needs.
On Tuesday morning, as German defence minister Boris Pistorius promised a tank decision “soon”, it appears the chancellery had already decided.
A day later, a jubilant Pistorius praised the Leopard 2 as “the best battle tank in the world”, but cautioned it could take up to three months for the tanks to be transported to and deployed in Ukraine.
“This is an important game-changer and possibly also for this war, at least in the current phase,” he added.
Back in the subdued Bundestag chamber, the doleful chancellor knocked back a few feeble attempts at attacks from the opposition.
Petry Bystron, an MP for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, suggested the chancellor was “trampling” on German foreign policy and undermining the legacy of Russia rapprochement left by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, two predecessors as Social Democrat chancellors.
Scholz agreed, but said responsibility for the rubble lay in Moscow and not Berlin
“It is a rupture with all [their] great political achievements,” he added, “that Russia attacked Ukraine.”