Authors: Alessandro Spada, Francesca Belotti and Januaria Gizzi - UK & European Affairs Team
Exactly one year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both countries are at an impasse. On the one hand, Moscow has not obtained as many territories as it had wanted; on the other hand, the Ukrainian resistance has yet to make any progress in defeating Putin. This might be due to the lack of weapons at Kyiv's disposal. Indeed, until a few days ago, only lighter weaponry was given to Zelensky's troops to keep their line of defence intact. Unfortunately, a war cannot be won by playing only defence, so Kyiv has started asking its Western allies for additional support. In particular, Germany and the USA were asked to supply its high-tech Leopard 2 tanks, although, with initial insecurity, such a wish was finally granted.
The reasons behind the reluctance
The main reasons Germany was reluctant to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine are the following. The first one is certainly linked to the vast historical significance of World Wars One and Two. German modern-day leaders feel the weight of history, meaning that they feel a deep responsibility for the death of millions of Russians during the two world wars. Indeed, as the aggressor in two world wars, many Germans opt for a cautious line of being Ukraine's leading supplier of battle tanks. Moreover, this decision would be a further break for Berlin with its post-World War Two non-belligerent policy.
The second reason is related to German society. A significant segment of the population, particularly situated in the former communist German Democratic Republic, feels traditionally close to Russia and has an aversion to the values and functioning of Western society. Shortly before Christmas, 40% of Germans who took part in a poll said they recognized the Kremlin's justification to invade Ukraine, blaming the West for the eastward expansion of the Nato military alliance. In addition, according to a Jan. 19 poll, only 46% of Germans were in favour compared to 43% who opposed the supply of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
The third reason is Scholz's governing coalition and even the SPD. The German Chancellor Scholz couldn't ignore the strong pacifist wings inside both major parties to its governing coalition, the Social Democrats and the Greens. Especially, many Social Democrats voters live in former East Germany, which has been more sympathetic to Moscow".
Another reason for such reluctance would be that the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, wouldn't have authorized any Leopard 2 tank supply to Ukraine unless the US government agreed to send M1 Abrams tanks.
Lastly, granting Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine could mean overstepping Germany's position as a mere weapons supplier and cause a military escalation.
The two sides' reactions
Ultimately, the decision of Germany to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine generated some reactions at the international level. How did Russia react to this decision? Can we consider this decision proof that the Western powers are escalating into war more than before?
From a realist perspective, we could say that Russia perceived this decision as a proper threat, which will most likely reflect in Russia counter-attacking or entering a defensive approach towards Germany and the West in particular. Hence, in a statement, the Russian Embassy said that the current conflict would escalate to a new level.
Western powers play an essential role in understanding the reactions. First of all, NATO utterly supported Germany's decision, making clear that it would help Ukraine win against Russia. From this, Russia's threat perception has significantly increased, allowing Russia to undermine the Western powers consequently. Interestingly, the position of Britain in this given context reflected on Rishi Sunak, the current Prime Minister, to underpin Steffen Hebestreit's decision-making. Thus, the British Prime Minister clearly expressed his position on Twitter by saying, "The right decision by NATO Allies and friends to send main battle tanks to Ukraine. Alongside Challenger 2s, they will strengthen Ukraine's defensive firepower," and "Together, we are accelerating our efforts to ensure Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace.".
In a nutshell, the decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine was made to help it defend itself better, but it was not made lightly. The fears of becoming too involved in a war "that is not ours to fight", the weight of history, and the pacifistic forces within Germany's main parties were all weighed carefully before lending the peculiar tanks to Ukraine. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the conflict or the requests. Indeed, the day after the announcement made by the Chancellery, a new request for fighter jets was filed by Kyiv in order to switch strategy to an attack-based one. Western ally has yet to respond positively to a possible supply of fighter jets, but all remains to be seen. Will the West stand by, or will it contribute even more than it already has?