This op-ed was written in January 2023.
As NATO Parliamentary Delegates from member states assembled early at NATO HQ in Brussels yesterday (23rd Jan) morning, consternation surrounding an absence of coffee quickly subsided as hands were shaken and seats taken to get down to business at this one-day session.
This was a meeting of the Ukraine NATO Interparliamentary Council (UNIC) and included a substantial delegation from Ukraine including former President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, Members of Parliament, and Military personnel who together, as you would expect, had much to say about the urgency of being prepared for Russia’s much anticipated Spring offensive.
Parliamentarians were quick to reconcile not just the desire but the obligation to continue to support Ukraine and her fighters, as the second year of this conflict looms large on the long-suffering population of Ukraine. Focused in the minds of everyone present were the barbaric war crimes Russia continues to carry out in Ukraine. The deliberate bombings of civilian areas, the executions, the torture and the horrific sexual violence, these crimes must be brought to an end as soon as possible.
An end to this war is not simply a priority for the people of Ukraine but also for the security, economies and household finances of people across Europe. Moral imperative alloying with economic urgency to create a potent shield to Putin’s aggression in this vast European country on Russia’s doorstep.
As European parliamentarians with constituency mail bags none among us are left in any doubt about the depth of this challenge faced by businesses large and small as a consequence of this conflict, or more specifically the effects of scaling back other operating costs including staff to mitigate the ferocious increase in the cost of energy. Similarly challenges endure to the cost of food production, combined with energy bills, on the budgets of all households - but especially those on low incomes.
Notwithstanding the scale of this economic challenge, it was recognised that with milder weather in the coming weeks fighting will intensify and this must result in a sustained push back of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory. A campaign which will draw capacity in a range of domains but the principal one will of course be land; and the key enabler in this priority will be armour - heavy armour.
Enter the Germany’s Leopard II. What is so special about this main battle tank is twofold. Firstly, its undoubted capabilities in range, endurance, speed, protection, accuracy amongst other qualities combine to make the Leopard II an outstanding Tank and puts the UK’s venerable old Challenger II Main Battle Tank somewhere in the shade. But just as important is their sheer mass, unlike the UK’s Challenger II, the German Leopard II is an outstanding export success for Germany and its manufacturer. There are an estimated 2000+ Leopard II tanks in Europe currently, distributed across many nations friendly to Ukraine who are willing to send tanks if Germany will allow it. These numbers not only mean a large number of available tanks, but also a large industrial base for spares, upkeep and maintenance.
Ukraine is extremely positive about the effect the supply and sustainment of Leopard II will have on the balance of the War and in their ongoing counter offensive operations to liberate their country. A coalition of nations have already pledged 100 Leopard IIs to Ukraine. But due to Germany’s export conditions they cannot be sent without express German permission. Olaf Scholtz has repeatedly refused to make a decision on this issue citing concerns around escalation and German public opinion.
On the escalation point, there is good reason to be cautious around a conflict with a nuclear armed state whose authoritarian leader is under some considerable pressure. There is a justifiable need for containment in this regard and caution should be the watchword. But we should also be realistic about how caution may be perceived by Russia, perhaps more as weakness.
To that point it is welcome that France and the UK have committed AMX-10 light tanks and Challenger II MBT respectively. The UK knows that one Squadron of Challengers will change very little in Ukraine; they may have committed more but I suspect the MOD do not have many more serviceable Challengers to send. Rather this, to a large degree, symbolic act should be regarded as a catalyst to show Germany that providing Main Battle Tanks to Ukraine is possible, desirable and that Germany needn’t be first.
Ukrainian possession and deployment of Leopard II will give them an extraordinary strategic advantage to retake their territory defending lighter armoured vehicles already committed and infantry alike. In terms of training, we have seen that Ukraine invariably learns extremely quickly and prosecute their operations with Western arms in ways which often exceed the expectations of both the manufacturers and nations who donated and trained the Ukrainians on how to use them. I expect it will be the same with Leopard II.
All of this results in intense pressure on Chancellor Scholtz with Poland now citing they will provide Leopard II with or without Germany’s blessing. Others may follow but what Ukraine needs is an orderly provision not just of the tanks but with the incredibly long logistical tail that comes with them, and the ammunition required to enable their much-vaunted kinetic effect. This requires Germany to commit, which requires Scholtz to act, and that will be facilitated best not by shouting in public but rather diplomatic reassurance in private. Bottom line though is Germany is out of step, again, and Spring is fast approaching.
Time is not on Scholz’ side to ‘Free the Leopards’.