Germany is to supply 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv, a significant ramping up of western military aid that was condemned by Russia and prompted cheers throughout Ukraine.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, describing it as the result of “intensive consultations that have taken place between Germany and its closest European and international partners”.
Germany will aim to put together two tank battalions of the German-made Leopard 2 tanks. As a first step, Berlin will provide a company with 14 Leopard 2-A6 tanks, from stocks held by the Bundeswehr, the German army.
“This decision follows our well-known line of making our best efforts to support Ukraine,” Scholz said. “In this we are acting in close co-ordination with our international [partners].”
The move follows intense pressure from Kyiv and EU countries including Poland and the Baltic states. Scholz had hesitated to provide Ukraine with heavy armoured vehicles, fearing that it would increase the risk of a direct confrontation between Russia and Nato. He had previously insisted that Germany would not “go it alone”.
The decision accompanies a shift in Washington, which was at first sceptical of the need to send US-made tanks to alleviate German concerns, underlining logistical and training challenges. The Biden administration is now preparing to announce that it will deliver M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, according to people familiar with the matter.
Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, said the move was an “extremely dangerous decision” which “raises the conflict to a new level of hostilities”.
Nechayev accused Germany of neglecting its “historical responsibility before our country” for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the second world war and choosing “permanent escalation” of tensions over the war in Ukraine.
“The leadership of the Federal Republic has approved sending battle tanks with German crosses to the ‘eastern front’ once again,” Nechayev said. “This is destroying what remains of mutual trust, will damage Russia-Germany relations, which are already in a dire state, irreparably, and casts doubt on the chance they can be normalised for the foreseeable future.”
Germany will give export approval to all the countries that want to send their Leopard 2s to Ukraine. As manufacturer of the tanks, Berlin has a say over their re-sale and export. Germany will also start training Ukrainian soldiers to use the weapons system. The package will include logistics, ammunition and maintenance of the systems, according to Berlin.
The front line in the war has barely budged in recent weeks and Kyiv has argued western tanks would help it to regain the initiative and reconquer occupied territory. It also says it needs tanks to deter a renewed Russian offensive that is expected in the early spring.
Russia has warned that the west sending tanks risked escalating the conflict even further while playing down their importance, claiming they would have little effect on the battlefield.
The US move to supply Germany with Abrams tanks was also “doomed to failure”, Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said before the German announcement. “They are clearly overestimating the potential this will give the Ukrainian armed forces.”
News of Germany’s decision to send its tanks to Kyiv was met with jubilation by Ukrainians, who showed their excitement and appreciation online — especially sartorially.
In a social media “flash mob” organised under the hashtag “#freetheleopards”, Ukrainians shared photos of themselves dressed in leopard-print shirts, coats, pants, bodysuits and sunglasses.
Ukrainian politician Inna Sovsun shared a photo of herself wearing a leopard-print blouse inside the parliament hall. Soldier Dmitry Mrachnik posted an image of himself brandishing his Kalashnikov rifle and draped in a leopard-patterned blanket he’d slept under on the frontline for months.
“I don’t wear leopard print normally, but for tanks I’ll do this,” journalist Anastasia Stanko told the Financial Times.
Tetiana Shevchuk, legal counsel for Ukraine’s Anticorruption Action Centre, who wore a T-shirt adorned with a Leopard 2 logo, only half-jokingly said that Ukrainian women were now discussing what clothes to wear to bring attention to Ukraine’s need for American F-16 fighter jets. While the aircraft’s official name is the Fighting Falcon, it is affectionately known as the Viper because of its resemblance to the snake.
“I think I’ll need to get something in viper pattern,” she said.