Start / Publikationer / The Context of the Leopard 2 Decision: Political and Military Dimensions of the Western Tank Initiative

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Three brief comments from Stockholm, on the emerging European consensus to jointly deliver Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine: 

LtCol Johan Huovinen, Swedish Defense University, Stockholm 

So far, the Swedish Armed Forces have assessed that none of Sweden’s 120 Leopard tanks would be available for Ukraine since they are currently all in service with the Armed Forces. The Swedish Defense Minister stated, however, that Sweden could in the future revise that decision if needed. Pål Jonson said: “Currently, preparations are not being made for a donation of tanks from Sweden, but it is not excluded that this could happen at a later stage.”  

The recent Finnish decision on an additional support package to Ukraine is still classified. Regarding this Finnish support package, Sweden and Finland have agreed upon reviewing and, if necessary, adjusting their common current operational plans for defense between the countries. 

Fredrik Wesslau, SCEEUS 

Finally, after much anguish and dithering, Berlin has announced that it will send 14 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine and allow others to do the same. This step marks a change in the mindset of Ukraine’s Western partners in providing weapons to Ukraine.  

Since the start of the invasion, the provision of weapons has been too slow, too little, and too reactive. It reflected a mindset of giving Ukraine just enough to survive rather than what it takes to push out Russian forces from its territory.  

The West’s approach has been characterised by incrementalism so as not to provoke a Russian retaliation. But this thinking is flawed. Russian military strategy is not driven by whether or what weapons are given to Ukraine. It is driven by Russia’s goal to take control over and subjugate Ukraine; Russia is using basically everything it has in its conventional arsenal to achieve this goal.  

Moscow threatens escalation every time more and bigger weapons are in the offing for Ukraine. The threat of escalation is meant to scare the West into holding back on weapons, training, and intelligence. But these threats are hollow. At no point has Russia escalated in response to new weapons being provided to Ukraine. Ukraine’s western partners seem to have realized this now.  

The types and amounts of weapons given to Ukraine will largely determine the outcome of this war. Western thinking needs to be underpinned by a strategic decision to enable Ukraine to retake and defend its territory. This means giving Ukraine not only Leopard 2 tanks but also long-range missile systems and fighter jets. 

Andreas Umland, SCEEUS 

While Germany has recently become more forward-leaning in its military support for Ukraine, it was and is perceived not only by many Ukrainians as a country slowing down Western help for Ukraine. We have to wait for historical studies of German political decision making and foreign diplomacy to fully assess the reasons for Berlin’s inconsistent behavior. Yet, already today three generic factors can be identified. 

First, the German political elite has had, until 24 February 2022, an underdeveloped strategic culture which had to adapt to the new challenges of the Russian-Ukrainian War. Although the development of strategic thinking in Berlin since then has been historically impressive, these advances lagged and still lag behind the pace of events on the ground in Ukraine.  

Second, Germany’s intellectual and political elite has been struggling, since the start of the Russian assault on Ukraine in February 2014, which lessons it should draw from World War II for the current confrontation in East European lands once occupied and terrorized by the Wehrmacht and SS. In a seminal video-taped speech, within the premises of the German parliament in June 2017, the US historian Timothy Snyder outlined a comprehensive survey of conclusions that Germany should draw from its attack on Ukraine 70 years before. Theses lessons, however, still need to be properly understood and effectively communicated within the wider public. 

Third, Berlin’s hesitancy in its decision-making is seen critically outside Germany, yet partly popular within German society. What may look ridiculously slow and inconsistent from the perspective of Kyiv or Warsaw, appears as adequate cautiousness form the point of view of many ordinary Germans.

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