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Germany agrees to send its Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine after weeks of pressure

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stands next to a Leopard 2 main battle tank of the German armed forces while visiting an army training center in Ostenholz, Germany, on Oct. 17, 2022.
David Hecker
Getty Images
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stands next to a Leopard 2 main battle tank of the German armed forces while visiting an army training center in Ostenholz, Germany, on Oct. 17, 2022.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced Wednesday his country will export more than a dozen of its Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine. The move follows weeks of pressure from Western allies.

BERLIN — After weeks of pressure from allies, Germany has agreed to allow its state-of-the-art Leopard 2 tanks to be donated to Ukraine, in a marked shift from its leaders' reluctance to significantly increase military support to help the country fight Russia.

Steffen Hebestreit, a spokesman for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, confirmed to NPR that Germany will send a company of 14 tanks, and that Scholz announced the decision during a cabinet meeting Wednesday morning. He called it the result of "intense consultations" with Berlin's closest European and international partners.

Ukrainian crews will soon begin training on the battle tanks in Germany, Hebestreit said. Germany will also authorize other countries that have their own stocks of Leopard 2 tanks to export them to Ukraine.

On Tuesday, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius emerged from a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg indicating Germany was open to other countries with Leopard tanks training Ukrainian troops on how to operate them. Then Poland officially requested that the German government issue Warsaw an export license for its Leopard battle tanks.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has also indicated his country is prepared to supply Kyiv with the tanks.

German weapons companies manufacture the Leopard 2, and the German government legally has the final say over how and where the tanks are used, even when other countries offer to export them.

In his daily briefing delivered shortly before the German announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any western tanks delivered to Ukraine would "burn like all the others" — adding that the U.S. and its European allies were wrong to think the tanks would influence the outcome of the war.

"I'm sure that many specialists understand the absurdity of this idea. Technologically, this is a failed plan," said Peskov. "This is an overestimation of the potential that this will add to the Ukrainian army."

Meanwhile, Russia's Ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, issued a statement accusing Berlin of pushing the conflict in Ukraine into uncharted territory.

"This extremely dangerous decision takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation," said Nechayev.

"Once again, we are convinced that Germany, like its closest allies, is not interested in a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis but instead is set on permanent escalation with limitless pumping of deadly arms to the Kyiv regime."

Scholz had consistently refused to give the go-ahead for his country or others to export Leopard tanks to Ukraine, saying Western tanks should only be supplied to Kyiv if there is agreement among key allies, particularly the United States.

One reason "is because there has not really been a clear majority in the German electorate electorate for sending tanks," said Sudha David-Wilp, who heads the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. "Two, he's had a lot of pressure within his own party about getting dragged into the war. And then I guess there is also a genuine fear about what this would trigger on the part of Russia."

U.S. officials had been pressing Germany to send Leopard tanks but previously said the Biden administration was not sending the American-made tanks because of challenges with training and maintenance.

Berlin is also hesitant to supply arms that would enable Kyiv to carry out attacks on Russian soil or that could potentially draw NATO into a broader conflict with Moscow. Scholz has asserted throughout the nearly 11-month Russian invasion of Ukraine that Germany is already one of Ukraine's biggest financial supporters.

"Germany will not go it alone, Germany will act together with its allies and especially with our trans-Atlantic partner, the U.S. Anything else would be irresponsible in such a dangerous situation," the chancellor said at an event sponsored by his center-left Social Democratic Party on Jan. 9 in Berlin.

For months, public opinion in Germany has backed Scholz's refusal to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine. But according to a Forsa survey last week, German public support for supplying battle tanks to Ukraine grew to its highest level ever: 46% of those polled are in favor of delivering Leopard tanks and the same percentage is against it.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 24, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story misspelled Steffen Hebestreit's name.
Corrected: January 24, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story misspelled Steffen Hebestreit's name.
Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.