The moral case for Germany giving Ukraine the Leopard tanks it needs

While many have pledged support, Germany has a unique historical responsibility toward Zelenskiy and his people. It cannot shirk it

Germany has a unique historical responsibility to help defend a free and sovereign Ukraine. Europe’s central power is also uniquely qualified to shape a larger European response designed to end Vladimir Putin’s criminal war of terror in a way that deters future aggression around places such as Taiwan.

As a signal of strategic intent to measure up to this double obligation, from the past and for the future, the Berlin government should commit at the Ukraine defence contact group meeting in Ramstein, Germany, this Friday not only to allow countries such as Poland and Finland to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine but also do so itself in a coordinated European action. Call it the European Leopard plan.

Germany’s historical responsibility comes in three unequal stages. Eighty years ago Nazi Germany was itself fighting a war of terror on this very same Ukrainian soil: the same cities, towns and villages were its victims are now Russia’s, and sometimes even the same people.

Boris Romanchenko, for example, a survivor of four Nazi concentration camps, was killed by a Russian missile in Kharkiv. No historical comparison is exact, but Putin’s attempt to destroy the independent existence of a neighbouring nation, with war crimes, genocidal actions and relentless targeting of the civilian population, is the closest we have come in Europe since 1945 to what Adolf Hitler did in the second World War.


The lesson to learn from that history is not that German tanks should never be used against Russia, whatever the Kremlin does, but that they should be used to protect Ukrainians, who were among the greatest victims of both Hitler and Stalin.

The second stage of historical responsibility comes from what the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has honestly described as the “bitter failure” of German policy towards Russia after the annexation of Crimea and the start of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine in 2014. That policy could accurately be characterised as appeasement. (In a recent interview former chancellor Angela Merkel praised the Netflix drama Munich – The Edge of War for suggesting that Neville Chamberlain might be seen in a more positive light.) Fatefully, far from reducing its energy dependence on Russia, Germany further increased it after 2014, to more than 50 per cent of its total gas imports, as well as building the never-used Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

This historic mistake led to the third and most recent stage. A month after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th last year, a group of leading German figures formulated an appeal for an immediate boycott of fossil fuels from Russia. “Looking back on its history,” they wrote, “Germany has repeatedly vowed that there must ‘never again’ be wars of conquest and crimes against humanity. Today the hour has come to honour that vow.” (Full disclosure: I co-signed this appeal.)

Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided against this radical course, arguing that it would endanger “hundreds of thousands of jobs” and plunge both Germany and Europe into recession. Instead the country made hugely impressive efforts, led by the Green economy minister Robert Habeck, to wean itself off Russian energy.

While doing so, however, it was paying Russian bills that had soared precisely because of the impact of the war on energy prices. According to a careful analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, in the first six months of the full-scale war Germany paid Russia some €19 billion for oil, gas and coal. For comparison: Russia’s entire military budget for six months in 2021 was around €30 billion. (No reliable figures are available for 2022.)

Since a large part of Russia’s budget revenues comes from energy the unavoidable conclusion is that Germany was contributing to Putin’s military budget even as he prosecuted a war of terror on the very soil where Nazi Germany had prosecuted a war of terror 80 years before. Yes, other European countries also went on paying Russia for energy but none had Germany’s unique historical responsibility towards Ukraine.

To its credit the German government’s position on military support for Ukraine has moved a very long way since the eve of the Russian invasion. In total figures of defence aid promised Germany is among Ukraine’s leading supporters, as it is in humanitarian, economic and financial support. But on arms supplies it has been hesitant and confused, always at the reluctant end of the Western convoy.

As the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tartly comments: “It’s always a similar pattern: first [the Germans] say no, then they fiercely defend their decision, only to say yes in the end.”

It’s worth noting that Germany has a formidable defence industry that has very profitably exported lethal equipment to some quite dubious regimes around the world. So why not send it to defend a European democracy against the new Hitler?

Berlin’s concerns about Russian escalation in response to higher-end Western arms supplies – possibly even to the first use of a Russian nuclear weapon – are shared by the Biden administration in Washington. But there is no risk-free way forward. By systematically targeting Ukraine’s civilian population, Putin has already escalated. Now he is mobilising the Russian Federation’s vast reserves of manpower, and probably intends to launch a new offensive sometime this year.

And in the meantime there is daily and continuing tragedy. Witness this week’s terrible helicopter crash which killed Ukraine’s interior minister Denys Monastyrskyi, his first deputy Yevhen Yenin, other senior officials and several children.

On a sober strategic analysis the only realistic path to a lasting peace is to step up military support for Ukraine so it can regain most of its own territory and then negotiate peace from a position of strength. The alternatives are an unstable stalemate, a temporary ceasefire or an effective Ukrainian defeat. Putin would then have demonstrated to Xi Jinping and other dictators around the world that armed aggression and nuclear blackmail can pay off handsomely. Next stop, Taiwan.

The exact mix of military means needed by Ukraine is a matter for the experts. It includes more air defence, reconnaissance systems, ammunition and communications equipment, as well as armoured vehicles. But any large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive will now require modern battle tanks. Leopard 2 is the best suited and most widely available such tank, with – so successful are German arms exports – more than 2,000 of them held by 12 other European armies besides the Bundeswehr.

This has also become a litmus test of Germany’s courage to resist Putin’s nuclear blackmail, overcome its own domestic cocktail of fears and doubts, and defend a free and sovereign Ukraine. Scholz’s speech at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday gave no hint of such boldness. But in stepping to the front of a European Leopard plan for Ukraine, Scholz would be showing German leadership that the entire West would welcome. He would also be learning the right lessons from Germany’s recent and very recent history.

Timothy Garton Ash is a Guardian columnist.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian