Baltic States Wanted German Tanks in Ukraine Yesterday

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised a new foreign policy. Critics say he has yet to deliver.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Tanks in the German armed forces participate in military exercises near Bergen, Germany, on Oct. 14, 2016.
Tanks in the German armed forces participate in military exercises near Bergen, Germany, on Oct. 14, 2016.
Tanks in the German armed forces participate in military exercises near Bergen, Germany, on Oct. 14, 2016. Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

In mid-September, as fresh reports emerged of widespread Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians in Moscow’s flailing war, Lithuania’s foreign minister had a simple message for his Western European counterparts: “Tanks speak louder than words.”

That message was a not-so-subtle hint, and its target was likely Germany. The German government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz has faced mounting pressure from Eastern European allies and political forces in his own country in recent weeks to drastically increase the scale and type of military support he sends to Ukraine.

In the eyes of Berlin’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe, particularly the countries that border Russia, Germany, the economic and political power center of Europe, isn’t doing nearly enough. And the longer it delays, the more it risks a long-term diplomatic fracture with those allies in the East, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Eastern European defense and diplomatic officials.

In mid-September, as fresh reports emerged of widespread Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians in Moscow’s flailing war, Lithuania’s foreign minister had a simple message for his Western European counterparts: “Tanks speak louder than words.”

That message was a not-so-subtle hint, and its target was likely Germany. The German government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz has faced mounting pressure from Eastern European allies and political forces in his own country in recent weeks to drastically increase the scale and type of military support he sends to Ukraine.

In the eyes of Berlin’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe, particularly the countries that border Russia, Germany, the economic and political power center of Europe, isn’t doing nearly enough. And the longer it delays, the more it risks a long-term diplomatic fracture with those allies in the East, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Eastern European defense and diplomatic officials.

“If Germany would give to Ukraine proportionally what we have given to Ukraine, this war would be over,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told Foreign Policy and a small group of American experts on a visit to Latvia organized by the German Marshall Fund think tank.

The question of whether Berlin would send Ukraine additional heavy military equipment, including Leopard 2 battle tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, has become a litmus test in the eyes of Eastern allies on whether Berlin can transform its soft-power leadership role in Europe into a hard-power one. Germany has already sent other high-end military equipment to Ukraine, including howitzers, antiaircraft systems, and multiple launch rocket systems—although Ukraine insists that among what it needs most at this point in the war is battle tanks to help punch through Russian lines in eastern and southern Ukraine.

The same questions Berlin faces are also being directed at France, which has given comparatively little military aid to Ukraine when measured against some Eastern European countries, the United Kingdom, and (above all) the United States.

“Who speaks at this moment about the so-called Franco-German ‘engine of Europe’ anymore? Nobody really,” Pabriks said. “They portrayed themselves as having the moral high ground in the EU. But look at the butchery in Ukraine … and how little they have given comparatively.”

Much of the debate around which country has done more to support Ukraine depends on whether you measure aid in absolute terms or on a per capita basis. Latvia, one of the three small Baltic countries on NATO’s northeastern flank near Russia, has an annual defense budget of around $770 million and has given around $300 million to Ukraine, Pabriks said. (That value could shift as the euro falls against the dollar amid high inflation rates in Europe.) This makes Latvia alongside Estonia, Poland, and Lithuania the largest donor countries to Ukraine compared to their relative size, according to data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a think tank. Germany, by comparison, has given Ukraine around $1.2 billion worth of military aid, including antiaircraft tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, long-range howitzers, and shoulder-mounted antiaircraft Stinger missiles. (In comparison, the United States has given Ukraine around $15.1 billion in military aid since the war began.)

Although this amounts to a rounding error given the size of the German economy, it still makes Berlin the fourth-largest economic and military donor to Kyiv overall, which some experts believe is what counts. “The Estonians are doing a lot more per capita, but the Germans are doing a lot more,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “You don’t win a war on a per capita basis.”

Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, responded to recent criticism over the pace of the country’s military aid to Ukraine in a Twitter thread: “No other nation has so far provided Ukraine with Western-made battle tanks. This is not a trivial detail,” she wrote. 

U.S. and European defense officials also stress that delivering Western battle tanks to Ukraine isn’t as simple as it may seem; they require significant training to use and accompanying logistical tails of spare parts and maintenance crews to keep the tanks in the fight.

There has long been a difference in opinion between Eastern and Western Europe over the threat posed by Moscow, with former members of the Soviet bloc far more wary of the Kremlin’s intentions. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February did help unite the continent. Other than a few holdouts like Hungary and Serbia, Europeans and their governments have largely supported the Ukrainians fighting for their existence.

“The differences have actually narrowed since the war started,” Shapiro said. “Before, they had differences on the broad outlines of the policy. Now, it’s just a difference on who should provide what.”

Ramping up lethal military assistance to Ukraine isn’t a natural or easy step for Berlin to take given its deeply engrained foreign-policy culture of restraint stemming from its Nazi past.

“Germany likes leading from the middle, not from the front,” said Rachel Rizzo, an expert on European security with the Atlantic Council think tank. “Their reasoning is multilayered, having to do with a mixture of history, pacifistic tendencies, and a real lack of [defense] materiel given decades of underinvestment.”

That is all changing—but not as quickly as Ukraine and Berlin’s Eastern neighbors would like. On Feb. 27, three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Scholz gave a speech outlining a complete overhaul in German foreign and security policy, pledging to shed its past cautious defense policy and boost defense spending by 100 billion euros (or $96 billion). The so-called Zeitenwende (or “turning point”) speech was welcomed with open arms in Eastern Europe, where Berlin’s fellow NATO members have long warned Western Europe about threats from a revanchist Russia and urged its Western allies to ramp up defense investments.

But critics say Germany announced a turn without making one. “With every month [Germany] delays sending tanks and heavy weapons, they will have to work that much harder to regain our trust,” said another senior Baltic defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak about sensitive defense matters.

Others, however, are downplaying the sharp criticism of Berlin and insist that the West collectively is moving in the right direction on ramping up arms shipments to Ukraine, even if the processes in some countries are slower or more uneven than others. “Our democratic processes tend to take time. Building consensus domestically is a lengthy and difficult process,” Jonatan Vseviov, secretary-general of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Foreign Policy. “It does take time, and time is not necessarily on our side, but there is no reason now to be necessarily frustrated by this for as long as we are moving in the right direction.”

Pressure on Berlin to boost its military aid to Ukraine has increased in recent weeks as Kyiv launches counteroffensives to reclaim territory in the face of fumbling Russian military maneuvers and as Russian President Vladimir Putin mobilizes at least 300,000 conscripts to help stave off further battlefield defeats in Ukraine.

In Berlin, Scholz is facing political backlash from opposition parties and members of his own coalition over the question of sending heavier military equipment to Ukraine. Although elements of Scholz’s own center-left Social Democratic Party have balked at supplying Ukraine with heavier weapons lest it heighten the risk of a West-Russia showdown, not everyone agrees. The ​​Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party, both members of his coalition, have joined with the center-right opposition in urging Scholz to send tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine.

Eastern European officials have made clear they see the war in Ukraine as an existential threat to Europe’s security and a conflict that could spread past Ukraine’s borders if Russia achieves a military victory.

“It’s not just Ukraine that is under attack but every single core principle upon which we’ve built European and international security since the end of the Second World War,” Vseviov added. “If there are any of us who have hesitated about providing [Ukraine] some types of weapons or ammunition, now is the time to give those weapons and that ammunition.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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