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Can Europe keep supplying Ukraine with weapons?

A battle over German tanks raises bigger questions about Ukrainian support.

Several soldiers on top of a tank that flies a Ukrainian flag.
A Russian soldier, taken prisoner by Ukrainian soldiers, lies on a tank on September 11 in Izyum, Ukraine, shortly after the city was recaptured from Russian forces.
Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

MUNICH — Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region shifted momentum in a grinding war, as the Ukrainian military reclaimed 3,100 square miles of territory, pushed back outnumbered Russian troops, and sparked bombastic claims from Ukrainian officials. It also gave Kyiv a new case to make to the West: We can win; now give us more weapons.

Even as the US continues its overwhelming support of Ukraine, Kyiv is urgently pushing for Western-made battle tanks and infantry vehicles as it seeks to advance and solidify its counteroffensive. And it’s putting a lot of pressure on Germany to supply them. Except Germany seems pretty reluctant to provide that equipment.

“Disappointing signals from Germany while Ukraine needs Leopards and Marders now — to liberate people and save them from genocide,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted Tuesday. “Not a single rational argument on why these weapons can not be supplied, only abstract fears and excuses. What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?”

Berlin’s hesitation in delivering German Leopards (a battle tank) and Marders (an infantry fighting vehicle) and Ukraine’s frustration over it underscore the biggest question about how this new phase of the war plays out. Ukraine can’t keep its recent territorial gains, let alone make more, without sustained support from the West. And no one really knows if, or when, allies will reach their limits on how much they are willing or even capable to give.

Right now, Ukraine may be running up against one type of limit: European allies are running low on the type of older and refurbished equipment they’ve thus far been happy to part with. Now Ukraine is asking for more sophisticated Western-made weapons that Europe may not be able to provide without worrying about its own security. Germany and their tanks have become something of a symbol of this new, difficult frontier in Europe’s support for Ukraine.

For Berlin, though, the actual record, is a bit more complex. Germany leads the EU in total financial support for Ukraine, and has provided Ukraine with real advanced weaponry, including anti-aircraft guns. And while Germany has not given Ukraine any high-tech Western-made tanks, neither has any other Western ally or NATO member — not even the United States, which provided more than $44 billion in funding for Ukraine since the war began. As German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said this week, Germany “won’t go it alone.”

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht stands next to a Puma infantry fighting vehicle as she attends a demonstration of capabilities of the Ninth Panzer Training Brigade during a visit to the Bundeswehr Army training grounds in Munster, Germany, on February 7.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Ukraine and others are putting so much pressure on Germany because they want it to take more prominent role. “Germany is obviously one of the most powerful countries in the EU, and also in the NATO context, and oftentimes punches below its weight,” said Aylin Matlé, a research fellow in the security and defense program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

As Matlé said, this is not a new story, but an old story, about Germany’s deliberate political culture and foreign policy. But it is one often mismatched for the current moment, with a war on the continent and allies and partners looking for leadership in Europe. Germany wants to take steps together; everyone else wants Germany to make the decisive moves.

Right now, the political rhetoric in Europe around Ukraine is unified, and strong, but even the EU’s foreign policy chief has warned the bloc’s weapons stockpiles are running low. (The US, with a much bigger military, isn’t immune, either.) Europe is now facing an unpredictable energy and inflation crisis, driven by the Ukraine war, sanctions on Russia, and Vladimir Putin’s retaliation. Putin, at least, is hoping to test the West’s will.

Which is why Ukraine wants to seize the moment, and why this debate over Leopards has become something of a proxy for the next phase of Europe’s support for Ukraine. These tanks and infantry vehicles “would have an effect on the battlefield in Ukraine, for sure. But it is also a bit of a symbol for the question of larger-scale Western support with Western-produced systems to Ukraine,” said Rafael Loss, coordinator for Pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

It would also signal to Russia — at a time when all of the continent is under strain — that Europe remains committed to Ukraine. “Germany is the central country on a lot of questions in Europe,” Loss added. “And if Germany decided to provide these types of weapons to Ukraine, other countries would surely follow.”

Why Germany is getting all the pressure, again

As Russia built up troops along the Ukrainian border last winter, Germany sent Kyiv 5,000 helmets and a 5 million euro field hospital. It also blocked other NATO countries from sending German-made weapons to Ukraine.

Days after Russia’s invasion, Germany did a complete about-face, delivering thousands of weapons to Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also reversed decades of defense and security policy, promising a massive German investment into its military. This “Zeitenwende” — basically, a turning point — was supposed to be Germany’s dramatic step toward the defense leadership role it hesitated to embrace before.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 16, the first visit to Ukraine since the country was invaded by Russia on February 24.
Alexey Furman/Getty Images

But the Zeitenwende has not been immediate, and the hand-wringing over Germany’s support for Ukraine has continued. Months into the war, the German government split on sending heavier weaponry to Ukraine. It did, eventually, though it was accused of being slow to deliver them.

“I believe that many European states have thought, ‘Okay, Germany is willing to send weapons to Ukraine, now it can do more,’” said Nele Marianne Ewers-Peters, an expert in European security at Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg.

In some ways, this is a challenge of optics, as much as action. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Germany ranks third, behind the United States and the United Kingdom, for the total amount of military, financial, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. When it comes to percentage of GDP, that approximately $3 billion is admittedly a smaller share of GDP than many other (mostly Eastern and Central) European, countries. But then again, no one is yelling at France.

“Germany hasn’t done a very bad job at all, especially, if you think about all the non-weapons support Germany has been giving — but it’s done a terrible job of communicating this,” said Julia Friedrich, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. That has created this impression that Germany needs to be dragged, under pressure, toward any decision or action. “There’s always so much debate around it that at the end, they don’t even get any credit anymore for them doing it, eventually,” Friedrich added.

And so goes the debate around these high-tech tanks. Ukrainians argue that these Western machines will help them consolidate their offensive gains in this latest phase of the war. It will protect Ukrainian forces and allow them to maneuver as they face off against Russian artillery, Loss said.

No Western government has delivered these types of high-tech tanks or infantry. Instead, they’ve mostly provided older refurbished armored vehicles or Soviet-era tanks (and Ukraine has reportedly picked up quite a few Russian ones in recent days). But that Soviet-era equipment is facing wear and tear and is becoming harder to maintain because of the inability to get replacement parts. Proponents of delivering tanks like the Leopards say that even if Ukrainians need training to use them, they will be easier to maintain and repair with Western supply chains and systems in the longer term.

Arguments against delivering them include the fear of escalating the conflict and provoking Russia. And others argue it may be too difficult and time-consuming to train Ukraine on this equipment to make immediate battlefield gains while also depleting Western stockpiles.

But the German government’s overriding stance is largely: We don’t want to go first. “There has to be a common decision that the next step — if there is such a step — is that all agree that if you have such systems and you can modernize them, bring them from your old stocks, then we should do this together,” said Alexander Graef, conventional arms control researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, of Germany’s thinking.

But the problem is everyone else seems to think that Germany needs to take the plunge first among the Europeans, as a signal to Ukraine and perhaps the rest of the Western alliance. The United States, of course, has led on Ukrainian support but also wants to see allies do more — plus, it’s logistically a lot easier to deliver tanks from Europe. In an interview with the German television station ZDF, US Ambassador to Germany Amy Gutmann said while she welcomed Germany’s support for Ukraine, her “expectations were even higher.” The US Embassy in Berlin more or less backed her up with a tweet that called on all allies and partners to lend as much support as possible to Ukraine.

On Thursday, Germany announced that it would send another big tranche of weapons, including two multiple-rocket launchers and about 50 armored personnel vehicles. But so far, Leopards and Mardars are not on the list.

The larger questions over the West’s ability to supply Ukraine

In a speech on Thursday, Scholz defended Germany’s support for Ukraine. ”Weapons deliveries from us — but also from our allies — have contributed to things turning out differently to how the Russian president planned,” he said.

Western support for Ukraine has undoubtedly helped shape this war. The International Donor Coordination Center (IDCC) at US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, coordinates the multinational effort to deliver supplies to Ukraine. According to the IDCC, as of September 15, it has assisted in the delivery of more than 172,000 tons of equipment and more than 164 million lethal and nonlethal items.

But how sustainable that support will be is a question that is starting to emerge, and may be why the debate over these tanks is so fraught. Right now, the challenge is less political will — with some exceptions, Europe’s commitment to Ukraine persists — than a matter of practicality. There are only so many weapons to give, and you can only replace them so fast.

This is a problem for everyone, including the United States, but much more so for many European countries, many of which did not have the kind of arsenals or commitment to military readiness that exists in the US. And Russia’s invasion has changed the calculus for a lot of countries, which all of a sudden saw the security situation transform and, like Germany, realized their own defense strategies and investments had to change.

The decision to give weapons is largely a country-by-country, ad hoc decision. At the start of the war, lots of European countries looked at their stockpiles and basically said, “What can we afford to give away?” This was the military equivalent of digging in the back of the garage. Countries dusted off old Soviet-era weapons and cleared out weapons systems that they wanted to replace anyway, and that may or may not have worked.

Ukrainian artillerymen fire 2s7 Pion, a Soviet self-propelled 203mm cannon, on the southern front line of Ukraine on September 15.
Ihor Tkachov/AFP via Getty Images

But at a certain point, those obvious giveaways run out, and all of a sudden the inventory isn’t looking so robust. Countries now “have to dip into that and take bits and pieces from that and supply that to Ukraine, especially for the heavy ammunition for artillery,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher with the arms transfers program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). “And you start quickly looking at the bottom of your file, and it has to be replaced. It has to be replaced rather quickly.”

Then there are the more advanced and expensive weapons systems — like those high-end tanks that Ukraine really wants but that these countries also need for their own defense. “If they give away equipment, they fear that they can’t or won’t be able to afford to replace that equipment,” said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And that inevitably leads to just hesitation.”

As experts said, it’s really hard to know exactly what individual countries have in their stockpiles, and what weapons they can afford to part with. But this is likely why Ukraine is trying to push the debate, especially with Germany — to try to seize on its success and convince Europe that it is in its interest, now, to donate the advanced weaponry. And some in Ukraine, and in European capitals, are arguing that it is worth sacrificing some European capability in the short term, because Ukraine, ultimately, is the front line of the Russian threat right now.

And in some ways, it will force the West to reckon with the realities of long-term support for Ukraine. As experts said, European governments may need to replace the ad hoc donations with a more coordinated approach — things like plans to scale up industrial capacity, and better funding to balance the security needs of Ukraine and of EU member states, beyond what already exists.

“There is a pretty strong feeling that supplying weapons is a must,” said Wezeman. Ukraine “cannot do without — and actually, the more the better. It’s just a question of where is that more and where are those betters that we can at this moment hand over.”