The reason why Ukraine wants battle tanks is clear. It says that they can make all the difference by helping to push Russia back from Ukrainian territory and giving the initiative to Kyiv.
Most of Europe’s modern heavy tanks, like the Leopard 2, are made in Germany. About 2,000 of them are living with allies in Europe. And Germany is the only country that can export them.
This meant that while it was taking its time, countries like Poland, which wanted to send tanks to Ukraine as soon as possible, couldn’t. They didn’t have the green light from Berlin to re-export.
Ukrainian soldiers still need to be taught how to use the vehicles, and it’s not clear how many will be sent to Ukraine or when.
But Berlin’s long-term hesitation, even as Russia violated human rights in Ukraine after human rights violation after human rights violation, led to a lot of pressure from Western allies who, up until this point, had been so eager to show a united front against Russian aggression.
Even in his own country, Chancellor Scholz’s inability to make a decision split his government coalition and even his own Social Democrat Party. “Free the Leopards!” was yelled at regular protests in front of the German parliament, while inside, German MPs argued about whether or not to send tanks.
What, then, was giving Olaf Scholz so much trouble?
The fact that German leaders today feel the weight of history is very important. It can’t be said enough.
This Friday is a day to remember the Holocaust. At the Reichstag in Berlin, there is a huge sign that says “We Will Not Forget.”
Since Germany was the aggressor in both world wars, many Germans don’t want to be the main source of battle tanks for Ukraine.
Germany’s “Zeitenwende,” or “turning point,” which Chancellor Scholz called for soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, is a huge deal. For Germany, but also for all of Europe.
Berlin said it would put a lot of money into its weak and old military and play a much more assertive role in European defence. A big change from the way Berlin was after World War II, when it was shy and wanted its allies to take charge of security.
This “transformation” has had some setbacks and is still not done, but it is happening, which is a big change for Germany.
Since World War II, Berlin has been hesitant to take the lead. However, as Europe’s largest economy, allies often look to Germany to take the lead.
More problems with sending tanks
Going back to the tank debate, Germany also has to deal with the fact that their Leopard 2 tanks would be used against Russian soldiers.
Germany feels very bad about the fact that millions of Russians were killed in World Wars I and II.
Another not-entirely-separate issue is that large parts of German society, especially in the once-communist east, where many people are unhappy with how the west works, have always felt close to Russia.
NGOs that keep an eye on Russian propaganda in Europe say that many Germans are easily fooled.
Still, the vast majority of Germans feel bad for regular Ukrainians who are caught in the current conflict.
But in a survey done just before Christmas, 40% of Germans who took part said they understood why the Kremlin blamed the West for its invasion of Ukraine, which was because NATO was expanding to the east.
Olaf Scholz says he is a transatlanticist, but his SPD party has historically looked east to Moscow, though not all of its members do so now. Many SPD members are a bit wary of the US and its dominance in NATO.
For all of these reasons and a few more that I’ll explain, Chancellor Scholz didn’t want Germany to go it alone or be the main person in charge of getting battle tanks to Ukraine.
Another worry for Germany is that, even though countries like the UK, Poland, and the Netherlands say it’s clear that the Kremlin is escalating the conflict, sending heavy tanks and other offensive weapons to Ukraine could push Vladimir Putin to even crazier levels. Even if nuclear weapons are used.
People think that one reason Chancellor Scholz has pushed so hard for the US to send tanks to Ukraine is so that Europe can feel that the US, a nuclear power, is on their side.
Overall, Olaf Scholz didn’t want Germany to be the only country that gave Ukraine heavy tanks.
His sudden change of mind could be because he realised that if he kept holding back those tanks, he could be left alone by his own allies.
Also, keep in mind that, despite the current and past controversies over Chancellor Scholz’s slowness in providing and allowing the delivery of other military equipment, Germany is one of the top three donors of military aid to Ukraine and one of the main providers of humanitarian aid.