German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has agreed to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks, according to media reports, after weeks of mounting pressure on Berlin to give Kyiv the heavier weapons it says Ukraine needs to drive back invading Russian forces.
Berlin has also granted other countries, such as Poland and Finland, the licence to re-export the German-made tanks to Ukraine, German media reported on Tuesday, citing unnamed government sources.
Countries that buy military weapons from Germany are generally required to obtain permission from Berlin before re-exporting those weapons to another country.
The Spiegel media outlet first reported the news, saying Germany would provide at least one company of Leopard 2A6 tanks out of the German army’s, Bundeswehr’s, stocks.
There was no immediate comment from the German government.
Scholz had held out for months against the growing chorus of people urging him to send Kyiv the tanks – not just Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy but also NATO allies and members of Scholz’s coalition government.
Zelenskyy took an especially tough line, saying Berlin’s foot-dragging was costing Ukrainian lives.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said the Leopard tanks could provide the Ukrainian army with advantages over Russian forces.
“The thing to remember here is the real value that the main battle tank Leopard 2 possesses is that it is a heavier and faster tank than many of the tanks the Russian army has in Ukraine,” he said, speaking from Berlin.
“It’s also the case that very many different European Union countries have certain forms of the Leopard 2 tanks. The principle here is clear: There are many of them in the EU but also in NATO European countries,” he said.
Germany is one of Ukraine’s biggest military donors. But there is scepticism about the value of sending tanks among a broad area of the German public who worry it could draw Germany more deeply into an escalating war in Eastern Europe.
Kane said that while the German government has been prepared to provide Ukraine with armoured personnel carriers and its own form of anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence systems, there was reluctance to send the Leopard 2 battle tank, an offensive weapon.
“Germany has the historical legacy since World War II that weighs on all of the shoulders of German chancellors, in that they don’t want to be seen in direct confrontation with the Russians,” he said.
Ukraine has been calling for Western-designed battle tanks for months to fight the invading Russian forces. The front line in eastern Ukraine has barely moved for weeks. With the tanks, Ukraine hopes to claw back more terrain seized by Russia.
After the media reports emerged on Tuesday, officials in Kyiv swiftly hailed what they said was a potential game-changer on the battlefield in a war that is 11 months old.
“A few hundred tanks for our tank crews – the best tank crews in the world. This is what is going to become a real punching fist of democracy against the autocracy from the bog,” Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskyy’s office, wrote on Telegram.
The German government plays a key role in the Leopard supply issue and holds the power to decide which countries can acquire the German-built, state-of-the-art tanks.
Scholz has argued he needed to be in lockstep with the United States, which has also yet to send Ukraine its main battle tanks.
The Wall Street Journal and other US media outlets reported on Tuesday that President Joe Biden’s administration was poised to reverse course and send Ukraine its Abrams tanks.
A US government source told Al Jazeera there would be an announcement at the White House on Wednesday regarding the provision of tanks.
One official said the tanks would be bought under an upcoming Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative package, which provides longer-range funding for weapons and equipment to be bought from commercial vendors. Even so, it could take months or years for the tanks to be delivered.
Analysts say Russia is preparing for a significant offensive in the spring, which in Ukraine begins in March.
‘The Leopard’s freed’
Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), welcomed the centre-left government’s move.
“The decision is right,” the CDU chairman told the DPA news agency.
Green Party legislators in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, also welcomed the decision.
“The Leopard’s freed!” Bundestag Vice President Katrin Goring-Eckardt wrote on Twitter.
“Now hopefully it can quickly help Ukraine in its fight against the Russian attack and for the freedom of Ukraine and Europe.”
Of the 14 European states that have Leopard tanks, only Finland and Poland have so far publicly signalled their willingness to deliver them to Ukraine.
No Western-designed heavy tanks have been delivered to Ukraine for defensive combat against Russian attackers. The United Kingdom, however, has pledged 14 Challenger tanks.
So far, Ukraine has received only Soviet-made tanks that were in the inventory of Eastern European NATO countries.
The number of Leopards Berlin was sending Ukraine was not immediately clear. However, Der Spiegel reported the decision involved at least one company of Leopard 2A6 tanks, which is one of the latest versions. Generally, equipping a company means handing over more than 14 tanks.