German resistance to sending Leopards will be long remembered

The meeting at Ramstein revealed divisions and disappointed supporters of Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the Ramstein summit.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the Ramstein summit. Credit: Ukraine Presidents Office / Alamy Stock Photo

Representatives from nearly fifty countries assembled at the US Air Force base at Ramstein in Germany on 20 January to discuss support for Ukraine. The meeting, like many other international meetings over the past 11 months, was addressed by Ukrainian President Zelensky. He told the assembled participants that time is of the essence in the provision of assistance to his nation, noting that: ‘I believe that our unity will only become stronger with every new Ramstein. But do we have a lot of time? No. Terror does not allow for discussion…The war started by Russia does not allow delays.’

There were a variety of positive outcomes from the summit. Strategic support for Ukraine was reaffirmed by individual nations, as well as by the NATO Alliance.  The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, told the summit: ‘Like most wars, this is likely to end at the negotiating table, but what happens in negotiations is directly linked to what happens on the battlefield, so we need to deliver more weapons to Ukraine now.’

In the lead up to the summit, European nations were lining up to pledge additional support for Ukraine. The Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia all committed to significant military aid. The United Kingdom committed sufficient armoured vehicles and equipment for an entire brigade. Sweden committed to providing Archer self-propelled guns, infantry fighting vehicles, anti-tank weapons, and mine-clearing equipment. Tiny Estonia provided aid that amounts to around 1% of its GDP.

Just before the summit, the United States also announced another massive package of military assistance to Ukraine. It included more armoured fighting vehicles, munitions, mine clearing equipment and air defence systems.

Despite all of these important commitments, the meeting was overshadowed by the strategic hesitancy of Germany to send main battle tanks to Ukraine, or to allow third-country users of their Leopard 2 tanks to send them to Ukraine. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told journalists attending the summit that ‘I’m very sure there will be a decision in the short term, but I don’t know how the decision will look.’ While not a ‘forever no’ on tanks from Germany, it is a delay that is having a significant reputational impact on Germany. And, it is having an impact on the battlefield by denying Ukraine first-rate tanks.

There are three important outcomes from Ramstein.

First, most European nations – and the United States – have shifted their strategy from one focused on defending Ukraine, to one that encompasses the defence of Ukraine and the defeat of Russia in this war. It is an important distinction. The quality and quantity of military aid being provided now, in addition to significant intelligence sharing, gives the Ukrainian Armed Forces the physical potential and confidence to conduct a series of offensives in 2023 to take back its territory.

This won’t be simple, however. Ukraine still needs to defend itself from missile and drone attacks on its civilians, defend its eastern front while also preparing to blunt Russian offensives that may be launched in the coming months. But, with the materiel, training and intelligence now coming from the West, Ukraine has the wherewithal to plan and fight its way to an eventual victory. There is no stepping back from this evolved Western strategy in helping Ukraine without massive, generational, strategic and reputational damage.

A second outcome is that, again, Putin’s assumptions about the course of this war have been undermined by the resolute support for Ukraine from Europe and the United States. One of Putin’s assumptions going into the war was that it was unlikely the West would either have the will, or the time, to intervene in his special military operation. This has important ramifications for the security architecture of Europe. But it is also a strategic message to other authoritarians like President Xi of China who spout their ‘decline of the West’ theories. This summit, and the totality of Western support for Ukraine, strongly refutes this narrative.

Except, of course, for Germany. Therein lies the third outcome from the summit. While Putin’s strategic assumptions about the West have been generally wrong, they are not totally off the mark. Germany has in some respects proved him right. The prevarication, unwillingness to lead and lack of commitment to Ukraine’s defence from the German Chancellor is doing his nation momentous harm. Unlike his neighbours, the words and deeds of Olaf Scholz are reinforcing ‘decline of the West’ narratives. And hurting Ukraine.

Regardless of other support provided, or whether they eventually decide to allow German tanks to go to Ukraine, this is resulting in strategic and reputational damage. Why would nations enter into any kind of security relationship with Europe’s largest economy now? As the head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, Slawomir Debski, has written, ‘the extent to which Europe’s security has been made hostage to German phobias, mishandled traumas etc. is worrying…What else needs Berlin’s consent so that we can keep our societies safe?’

The reality is that Western main battle tanks will eventually be sent to Ukraine. But they could have been sent earlier. So, despite the desperate Ukrainian need for military assistance, the commitments by the Europeans and Americans, and speeches of participants at Ramstein, the lack of urgency and strategic courage shown by Germany’s leaders at this summit will be long remembered.

Author

Mick Ryan