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Olaf Scholz and Ukraine: Why Has Germany Been So Slow to Deliver Weapons?

  • June 03, 2022

Olaf Scholz has never satisfactorily explained his aversion to sending armored vehicles to Ukraine. In mid-May, he at least hinted at his reasoning in a meeting with the Defense Committee in parliament. Germany, he said during the roughly one-hour meeting, will continue its arms deliveries “for as long as it is necessary to support Ukraine in its defensive battle.” When it comes to arms deliveries, he said, there are no “eternal principles.” Germany continues to coordinate closely with its partners, he said, and to calculate “the risks and the military efficiency” of deliveries – adding that battle tanks remained a no-go. Still, he said, there were no “absolute principles,” which is why he preferred to remain vague in his public comments.

The tank embargo has never been discussed at the NATO level, much less decided upon, say people close to the German government, but unofficially, there is complete agreement on the issue between Washington, London and Paris. Furthermore, say sources, Germany could never be the first country to deliver tanks for historical reasons.

At the same time, sources close to the government say there is concern that Ukraine could become overconfident if it experiences a string of battlefield victories and rolls into Russian territory – which would mean that German tanks would once again be inside Russia. It is a concern that highlights a certain distrust in Berlin of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And that, too, is a reason why the defense industry in Germany has not been authorized to deliver battle tanks.

In Berlin, the joint line that has been established with alliance partners has been interpreted to mean that there is no need yet to prepare armored vehicles for delivery. Which means that if Washington does ultimately decide to send armored vehicles one day, it would still take an additional several months before the German Marders could be overhauled. And responsibility for making such preparations, Berlin believes, lies with the defense companies and not with Berlin.

The German government is, however, participating in swap deals, according to which Germany would backfill armaments sent by allied nations to Ukraine. The first such deal involved old East German military equipment possessed by Estonia – “rusty GDR howitzers,” as the Chancellery deprecatingly referred to them. Later, other EU countries followed suit, such as the Czech Republic’s decision to send old Soviet materiel to Ukraine. In return, Berlin is endeavoring to backfill their partners’ arsenals with half-way modern weaponry. Another example is Slovakia’s delivery to Ukraine several weeks ago of Russian-built S300 anti-aircraft systems. Germany and other NATO member states then deployed Patriot missile defense systems to Slovakia.

The system, though, doesn’t always run smoothly. Poland, for example, gave Ukraine most of its old Russian tanks, with Warsaw relying on Germany’s pledge to restock Poland’s tank fleet. But the Poles had been hoping that they would receive the newest models of the Leopard tank – a desire that proved unfulfillable. Even Germany’s Bundeswehr has only a few dozen of them.

Ready in the Autumn?

At the beginning of this week, the debate within the German government again gained momentum. And once again, the impulse didn’t come from the Chancellery. In the secret video conference of Ukraine supporters held the week before last, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had announced that Washington would soon be delivering medium-range rocket systems to Ukraine, saying the country would otherwise lose its ability to stand up to the advancing Russians. Austin encouraged others to join the effort. Then, last weekend, Washington and the UK government contacted Berlin to ask what Germany had come up with.

Once again, the chancellor was forced to take a position, and again, there was a hectic round of meetings in Berlin. Ultimately, the Scholz administration decided to add four MARS II multiple rocket launcher systems from the Bundeswehr to the U.S. pledge. And suddenly, secrecy was no longer quite as important as it had been. On Wednesday, the news of the MARS II deliveries was leaked to the press. At the same time, Germany’s Federal Security Council authorized the delivery of ultra-modern IRIS-T SLM anti-aircraft systems built by Diehl Defence. It is unclear, though, whether they will have much relevance. Even optimists in the Scholz administration admit that they will likely only be ready for delivery in autumn. Or later.

Even if the new announcements from Berlin managed to finally generate a bit of positive press coverage, there are again plenty of indications that the Germans sat on the fence for quite some time. Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk says that the Ukrainians have been in talks with the Chancellery over the direct delivery of the IRIS-T for three months. Melnyk says that German Economy Minister Robert Habeck was particularly energetic in pushing for a deal between the German arms manufacturer and Ukraine. Other ministries, though, the ambassador said, were more reserved.

Only last Monday, three days before Scholz’s speech, was a deal reached, and Melnyk was discretely notified that the IRIS-T delivery would be given the green light. Insiders say that the export application from Diehl had been sent to the Federal Security Council at the beginning of May. At around that same time, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov sent a letter to his German counterpart Lambrecht urging the rapid delivery of the system.

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