Jan 6, 2023
In the space of a few days this week, France, the United States and Germany all announced they would donate to Ukraine powerful armored vehicles: French AMX-10RC scout vehicles, American M-2 infantry fighting vehicles and German Marder IFVs. So which of Ukraine’s allies is going to be the first to pledge Leopard 2 tanks? There are several candidates, and it might be only a matter of time—and not much time—before one of them opens up its arsenals and turns the engines of long-stored, surplus Leopards.
It was clear, with the trio of decisions, that something had changed on the political front of Russia’s 11-month-old wider war on Ukraine. Kyiv’s NATO allies have pledged many thousands of mostly secondhand vehicles to the war effort, but so far most of those vehicles have been either artillery pieces, or lighter armored vehicles that are best suited for support roles.
Now NATO is offering up heavier, deadlier hardware—vehicles that could complement or supplement Ukraine’s pre-war inventory of aging, ex-Soviet tanks and fighting vehicles and tip the tactical balance in battles with Russia’s own aging, ex-Soviet vehicles.
But so far, none of Ukraine’s allies has offered up Western tanks. Yes, Poland, the Czech Republic and Macedonia have donated a few hundred of their surplus, Soviet-made T-72 tanks. And Slovenia sent to Ukraine a couple dozen M-55Ss—basically, super-upgraded, 1960s-vintage Soviet T-55s. While the Ukrainian army already had T-72s in its inventory and certainly welcomed fresh copies to both make good battlefield losses and form new tank battalions, the army is desperate for more and better tanks. Surplus Leopard 2s, of which there are many hundreds across Europe, are the obvious solution. “We need these tanks,” Oleksii Makeiev, the Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, said back in May. It’s not hard to see why Ukrainian tankers crave Leopard 2s. They easily outmatch Russian tanks such as the T-72, T-80 and T-90.
West Germany developed the Leopard 2 in the 1970s and fielded the early models in the 1980s. A series of updates have kept the 69-ton, four-person tank with its 120-millimeter cannon at the bleeding edge of armored warfare for five decades. With its exquisite balance of speed, armor and firepower, it’s widely considered at least the equal of the American M-1, itself the gold standard for modern tanks.
And there’s no shortage of Leopard 2s. German firm Rheinmetall has built 3,600 Leopard 2s. Hundreds of older models, including many of the most popular Leopard 2A4s, are in storage in Germany, Finland, The Netherlands and Spain, among other countries.
Other NATO members have kept all their Leopard 2s in active service, but also possess other tank types and thus could, in theory, let go of their Leopard 2s without totally sacrificing their heavy combat capability. Poland, for instance, operates both Leopard 2s and M-1s.
There are more than enough idle Leopard 2s in Europe to re-equip all of the Ukrainian army’s active tank brigades – more than enough Leopard 2s, that is, totally to alter the battlefield calculus as Ukrainian brigades clash with Russian brigades.
Today, the Ukrainians and Russians use roughly the same ex-Soviet tanks. Leadership, tactics and logistics—not weaponry—decide which army wins a mechanized battle. With Leopard 2s, the Ukrainians would begin a fight with a technological advantage.
So what’s the hold-up? Germany controls the export license for all Leopard 2s, so Berlin ultimately decides whether any country can sell or donate its tanks. So far, German chancellor Olaf Scholz has been unwilling to approve any transfer of Leopard 2s to Ukraine. Scholz apparently considers the tanks “escalatory.”
There’s been a lot of pressure on Scholz to change his mind. “Not a single rational argument on why these weapons cannot be supplied, only abstract fears and excuses,” tweeted Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs. “What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?”
In Finland, politicians Anders Adlercreutz and Atte Harjanne have formed an advocacy group whose sole mission is to shame European governments into offering Leopard 2s to Ukraine while also shaming the German government into approving the offers. “Through a joint European effort, we could, in a way that might be decisive, contribute to Ukraine being able to maintain momentum in the war,” Adlercreutz and Harjanne wrote.
It’s taken months, but something is changing. The Americans are now offering heavier vehicles, as are the French and, yes, the Germans. In a tweet thanking French president Emmanuel Macron for a batch of AMX-10RC scout vehicles, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky hinted at bigger weapons to come. “Intensifying work with partners in the same direction,” was his exact phrasing.
Perhaps taking a cue from the shifting attitudes in Berlin, Polish officials reportedly are reconsidering Ukraine’s request for some of Poland’s Leopard 2s.
If the proverbial dam breaks and Berlin rubber-stamps all the potential tank-transfers, hundreds of Leopard 2s could begin arriving in Ukraine as early as this spring. Just in time for warmer weather, and a possible new Ukrainian counteroffensive.
David Axe – I’m a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina.