By John Irish
DAVOS, Switzerland – Germany’s allies on Tuesday ramped up pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz to allow the supply of German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine for deployment against Russia’s invasion, ahead of a crunch defence ministers meeting on Friday.
Berlin has so far resisted providing the modern tanks or allowing partners which have them to do so, saying Western tanks should only be supplied to Ukraine if there is agreement among Kyiv’s main allies, particularly the United States.
Leopard battle tanks – the workhorse of armies across Europe – are widely seen as the only plausible choice to supply Ukraine with the large-scale tank force it needs. But they cannot be delivered without German re-export approval, so far withheld.
Western officials want to strike a balance between ensuring Ukraine can defend itself and not supplying arms that could encourage Kyiv to attack Russia itself or draw NATO into conflict with Moscow.
A day before Scholz heads to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some of Ukraine’s closest allies already at the WEF sought to pressure him into changing his mind.
“We hope and are trying to organise bigger support for Ukraine. We hope a few partners, allies, will give tanks to Ukraine,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said at a WEF panel.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said he “strongly believes” Germany would provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
“We don’t have the luxury for such delays. It must be done fast,” he said, adding that the tank deliveries would be a strategic part of the next phase of the Ukraine conflict.
German Defence Secretary Christine Lambrecht quit on Monday, and Berlin said on Tuesday that a decision on tanks would be the first item on her successor’s agenda. Two sources told Reuters that the Social Democratic (SPD) interior minister of the state of Lower Saxony, Boris Pistorius, would be appointed.
In an interview with Reuters at the WEF, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said Helsinki was ready to supply Leopards but was still awaiting a German green light.
“Finland has some of these tanks, but (just) a couple is not enough, but if there is a chain of service and delivery then it’s valuable,” he said.
“Ukraine needs it, but Germany has a key role in this.”
He said part of the talks between allies also involved training and how to provide spare parts for the Leopard tanks.
Some German officials have signalled a softening of their view ahead of a meeting of Ukraine’s allies in Ramstein in Germany on Friday where governments will announce their latest pledges of military support for Kyiv.
Germany has been cautious about approving weapons that could be seen as an escalation. Many allies say that concern is misplaced, with Russia showing no sign of backing down from its assault on its neighbour.
Britain broke the taboo over sending heavy tanks to Ukraine last weekend, pledging a squadron of its Challengers. But it has too few for them to form the basis of a Ukrainian force. U.S. Abrams battle tanks are also seen as inappropriate in large numbers because they run on turbine engines that burn too much fuel to be practical for energy-strapped Ukraine.
France has said it is considering giving tanks to Ukraine but defence sources have said its Leclerc model is not necessarily the best for Ukraine’s situation.
Germany’s new defence minister is expected to host U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday ahead of Friday’s big meeting of allies at Ramstein air base.
“Important decisions will be made,” Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares Bueno said, adding that Madrid was at this point not able to supply Leopard tanks, which it also possesses.