Chancellor Olaf Scholz has confirmed that Germany will provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks along with ammunition, servicing and training – a big shift in Berlin’s support for Kyiv in its war against Russia.
Answering MPs questions in a televised Bundestag session, Mr Scholz urged citizens to “trust him and the federal government” that his decisions were “not influenced by public pressure or loud rhetoric”.
“All important decisions involving particularly effective weapons ... have been taken with our most important alliance partners,” he said, ruling out direct intervention by Nato in the conflict. “We will never send ground troops, there has been no direct participation of Nato troops in the Ukraine war, it was not the case in the past and there will not be in the future.”
After months of demands from Kyiv, and increasingly tense relations with Nato and coalition partners in Berlin, the Scholz administration has been wary of delivering battle tanks and other heavy arms for fear of escalating the conflict.
But on Wednesday Mr Scholz said Berlin would work closely with Nato partners to “provide quickly” two Leopard 2 tank divisions.
He admitted there was “no mathematical certainty” over whether this was the correct decision, but it was “correct” for Germany to move forward with its allies “step by step”.
“It is the only principle that guarantees Europe’s security in such a dangerous situation,” he said.
Asked by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) whether he still feared German battle tanks for Ukraine was a provocation to Russia, Mr Scholz replied: “If there has been a provocation, then it is that with Russia’s war of aggression, they are attacking Ukraine.”
The chancellor insisted on Wednesday that Germany was “always up front when it came to supporting Ukraine” in the last 11 months – from armoured vehicles to air defence systems – and that the tank decision was the latest progression in this process.
He also dismissed as “not reflecting reality” reports of tank tensions between Berlin and Washington. Bilateral relations were “better than they have been for some time”, he said, and his talks with US president Joe Biden were “always very friendly”.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz will announce a delivery of 14 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine today, triggering a cascade of similar pledges from other Nato members, including an expected US contribution of up to 30 M1 Abrams.
Germany’s big policy shift, after months of resistance and angry exchanges with Nato partners, has been greeted with relief – but also anger – in Berlin and beyond.
The Kremlin said the West would regret encouraging Kyiv’s “delusion” it could win on the battlefield, while Russia’s ambassador to the US said the prospect of Abrams tank deliveries to Ukraine was “another blatant provocation”.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who turns 45 today, gave a cautious welcome to the news while warning of a looming fresh wave of Russian aggression.
Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister Andrij Melnyk, a vocal former ambassador to Berlin, called Germany’s shift – and the prospect of Abrams tanks to follow – a “double ka-boom” that was “without doubt a real breakthrough and game-changer for Ukraine on the battlefield”.
Poland, Finland, Norway, the three Baltic countries and the Netherlands have signalled their readiness to send tanks as part of a Nato alliance.
Mr Scholz is expected to make his announcement during parliamentary questions at noon (Irish time) in the Bundestag, while unnamed Biden administration officials have told several US media outlets to expect a White House announcement today on Abrams tanks.
In recent weeks Chancellor Scholz insisted Germany would only send battle tanks if Nato remained united and the US contributed M1 Abrams tanks; Washington refused, saying its tanks were ill-suited to Ukraine’s needs.
After months of heated Berlin debate over whether battle tanks from Nato countries would escalate the war, dragging the alliance into the conflict, the tank shift has been widely welcomed in German political circles.
Mr Scholz’s junior coalition partners Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and Free Democratic Party (FDP), called the news a “relief”.
German media outlets were largely positive on the decision, with the best-selling Bild tabloid writing: “May the Leopard tanks save many innocent lives by scaring off Putin’s troops of terror.”
Criticising the decision as a “very dangerous mistake”, Germany’s hard left Linke party predicted the tank deliveries would start a “slide into escalation” of the war.
“The really big problem we have in Ukraine right now is air strikes, that Russia is bombing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure is criminal,” said Ms Janine Wissler, the Linke leader. “It’s not entirely clear to me how the delivery of the Leopard battle tanks is supposed to solve this problem.”
Speaking before the German announcement, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said he expects alliance members to agree higher defence spending targets later this year. The current goal, not yet met by all members, is to spend two per cent of economic output on defence.
“I assume that there will be a new target for defence spending when we meet for the Nato summit in Vilnius in July this year,” said Mr Stoltenberg to Germany’s Die Welt daily. “The two per cent target was initially for a decade, so until 2024, so we have to update it now ... everybody sees that we need to invest more.”