'Free the Leopards!' Campaign aims to 'embarrass' Germany into sending tanks to Ukraine

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By David Mac Dougall
FILE: A Leopard battle tank of the Armoured Brigade is seen during the Army mechanised exercise Arrow 22 exercise, Niinisalo garrison, Western Finland, May 2022
FILE: A Leopard battle tank of the Armoured Brigade is seen during the Army mechanised exercise Arrow 22 exercise, Niinisalo garrison, Western Finland, May 2022   -   Copyright  Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via AP

A campaign launched by two Finnish politicians aims to 'embarrass' Germany into providing Leopard tanks for Ukraine.

Until now, no Western country has given main battle tanks to help the Ukrainian military -- although France announced this week that so-called light tanks, the AMX-10 RC armoured fighting vehicles, will be supplied for the first time. 

The US said it would consider sending similar Bradley Fighting Vehicles as well.

But Anders Adlercreutz from the Swedish Peoples' Party and Atte Harjanne from the Greens argue that if smaller countries with Leopard tanks give a few each, then Europe's biggest user of the Leopards, Germany, will have no excuses left not to provide the tanks -- which the Ukrainians themselves have asked for. 

"If we can give a political signal of the larger readiness to pool resource that would negate the argument against providing tanks to Ukraine, and instead be sure it would make a significant difference," said Harjanne, who sits on the Finnish parliament's defence committee and is his party's parliamentary group chairperson. 

So are the duo trying to embarrass Germany with this initiative? Harjanne chuckles. "Well, it more like constructive pressure," he tells Euronews, diplomatically. 

"The threshold for sending main battle tanks is getting lower and lower all the time, and when you have the political will to do it next you need to take pragmatic steps to put together the training and maintenance capacity with a project like this." 

And the nascent campaign is having some success so far. 

It's prompted positive reactions from fellow lawmakers in Sweden, Slovakia and Denmark, and is likely to be discussed when Finland's own parliament gets back to work next week: although no country has committed any hardware just yet. 

CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI/AP2002
Polish soldiers parade through the streets of Swietoszow, in southwestern Poland in their Leopard tanks that they received Monday, Sept. 16, 2002 from the German BundeswehrCZAREK SOKOLOWSKI/AP2002

What are the Leopard 2 main battle tanks?

The Leopard 2 main battle tank was developed for the West German army and entered service at the end of the 1970s. 

Since then, around 3,600 have been produced and are currently being used by militaries all across Europe, including in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway; Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands; as well as the Austrian, Polish, Czech and Slovak armies. 

Germany still has more than 250 Leopard 2s in service. 

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly ruled out giving any of the Bundeswehr's Leopards to Ukraine, while Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht has previously said Germany needs to keep hold of the Leopards to fulfil NATO obligations without specifying what those were. 

In September, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said there wasn't "a single rational argument" as to why Germany couldn't supply Leopard tanks. 

"What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?" Kuleba asked. 

The Finnish politicians reckon a "brigade level" of 90-100 tanks would make a big impact on the battlefield and estimate they would need a few months to get Ukrainian tank and maintenance crews up to speed.

Streamlined training processes could be introduced to speed things up, with an acknowledgement that the level of theoretical and practical skills needed during peacetime is a luxury compared to time constraints in times of war.

"But this far we've seen that Ukrainians have been able to take up and use Western equipment quite quickly, regarding of whether it's been artillery or ant-aircraft guns," said Harjanne. 

Philipp Schulze/DPA
FILE --A crew of the Leopard 2 A7V main battle tank from Bundeswehr training battalion 93, pauses during an exercise in Munster, Germany, March 2022Philipp Schulze/DPA

Time constraints and political will

The arrival on the battlefield of Leopard 2 tanks would provide Ukrainian forces with a major new offensive capability. 

But in addition to the actual tanks, there would need to be engineering crews and spare parts, plenty of ammunition and a pipeline of replacements for when the first wave of Leopards inevitably start taking damage that puts them out of commission. 

While some countries might be able to give more Leopards, the Finnish politicians note that other countries could provide training facilities for Ukraine's military.

"In terms of performance, [the Leopard 2] surpasses Soviet-era Russian equipment," explained Anders Adlercreutz, the parliamentary group leader for the centre-right Swedish Peoples' Party. 

"During the Cold War, the Western strategy was base on achieving a qualitative advantage over an attacker who was assumed to have a quantitative advantage. In terms of performance, it surpasses Soviet-era Russian equipment and it is one of the most used Western tanks," he added. 

Adlercreutz said that with a joint European effort, there is a "decisive way" to enable Ukraine to maintain momentum in the war. 

"The risk that an increase in the level of support would lead to an escalation should not be overestimated. The nature of the support itself is not significantly changed by the fact that the support would also include Western tanks," said Adlercreutz. 

"We must also be careful not to analyze our support based on a Russian narrative but rather guide ourselves by how we best defend our own interests and our values."