Scrounging for tanks for Ukraine, Europe’s armies come up short
By Erika Solomon, Steven Erlanger and Christopher F. Schuetze
Nearly a month after Berlin gave European allies permission to send German-made tanks to Ukraine, the flow of tanks so many leaders vowed would follow seems more like a trickle.
Some nations have discovered that the tanks in their armory don’t actually work or lack spare parts. Political leaders have encountered unanticipated resistance within their own coalitions, and even from their defense ministries. And some armies had to pull trainers out of retirement to teach Ukrainian soldiers how to use old-model tanks.
The struggle to provide Leopard tanks to an embattled Ukraine is just the most glaring manifestation of a reality Europe has long ignored: Believing that large-scale land war was a thing of the past and basking in the thaw of the Cold War, nations chronically underfunded their militaries. When Russia launched the largest land war on the continent since World War II, they were woefully unprepared.
Hints of the problem have surfaced repeatedly since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, through shortages of weapons and ammunition. But now, as Germany and its allies struggled for weeks to scrape together enough Leopard 2s to fill two battalions of tanks — 62 vehicles in total — the extent of their quandary has become even clearer.
The irony of this situation is not lost on Germany.
For weeks, Chancellor Olaf Scholz resisted an intense public pressure campaign from Ukraine’s leaders, European politicians and security experts to supply Ukraine with tanks, and to permit other nations to send some of their own Leopards, despite German concerns that it could be perceived by Russia as a NATO escalation. Many goaded Scholz with a social media campaign: #Freetheleopards.
The Leopards may be free now, but they are scarce on the ground. And some countries that clamored for permission to send them to Ukraine are having difficulties doing so, or second thoughts of their own.
Despite Europe having an estimated 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks of different models — they are among the most commonly used main battle tanks across the continent — pledges for Ukraine are still short of the hundreds it says it needs.
Germany has offered 18, and Poland another 14, but the numbers drop from there. And once the currently pledged tanks go into battle and get hit or break down, it is not clear which Leopards — or which country — will replace them.
“Of course some nations have delivered, or at least announced that they will,” Germany’s defense minister, Boris Pistorius, said at the Munich Security Conference this month. “But others have not done that.”
“That is what I’m a bit shocked about,” he added. “Clearly there were some nations — and I will never name names here — but we had some nations that preferred to hide behind Germany. To say: We would love to, if we were allowed. But when we allowed it, they didn’t do anything.”
Privately, many German and European officials involved in the negotiations over tank deliveries say the situation is more complicated. It is not so much that nations are unwilling to make good on their promises but rather that they have faced a rude awakening as to just how difficult it is.
Finland, where many outspoken members of parliament led the calls for Germany to allow Leopard deliveries, announced Thursday that it would supply three Leopard mine-clearing vehicles — but none of its estimated 200 Leopard main battle tanks.
For decades, European countries enjoying a post-Cold War “peace dividend” had seen war as almost a thing of the past, regularly cutting military support. Now, the shrunken armies tend to be protective of what they still have. At NATO, European militaries are sometimes called “bonsai armies,” after the miniature trees.
For years, the United States has been nagging Europe to increase military spending, and in 2014, after Russia grabbed Crimea, NATO members agreed to spend 2% of gross domestic product by 2024. Yet even today, by current NATO estimates, only nine of the alliance’s 30 members are spending that much, while a 10th is close. Thirteen countries, including Germany, were spending around 1.5% of their GDP or even less.
In Germany, which for years clung to a foreign policy that emphasized aid and development more than hard power, some saw the problem as uniquely German. Yearly military reports to parliament offered sometimes comical glimpses of the shortages. Commandos conducted water training at local public pools, because their own facilities were shut down. Planes could not fly. Soldiers trained with broomsticks instead of rifles. Even newer Puma infantry fighting vehicles recently broke down en masse.
But other European nations are now realizing their own militaries may have similar troubles.
“The trend across the board in European armies has been cutting, cutting, cutting,” said Christian Mölling, a defense expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “But at the end of the day, many were on the same track as Germany: War is a theoretical thing. So we have theoretical tanks.”
(As politicized as the Leopard issue has become, Gustav Gressel, a security analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that there were plenty of solutions if European nations worked together.
The Dutch, for instance, lease 18 Leopards from Germany. Officials are discussing whether it would be possible for Germany to take some of them to use in place of its own Leopards in Lithuania and then send those to Ukraine.
Switzerland, sticking to its constitutional neutrality, refuses to send any of its 134 Leopard tanks to Ukraine. But it is willing to give the tanks to European Union members, Gressel said. Countries like Finland or Poland, he said, could request the Swiss tanks and send their own to Ukraine.
Another option would be for countries to simply buy more Leopards, made by the German companies Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, and send their current models to Ukraine. But European governments and the defense industry are currently in a standoff over production.
State leaders want industry to move first, while weapons makers want longer-term government orders before they step up production. If more government orders are made, analysts say, the more capacity may increase, thus speeding up production of weapons like tanks.
At current rates, militaries would face a serious tank shortage for the two to three years it would take the industry to make the new vehicles, security experts say — a long waiting period politicians across Europe are learning their armies are fiercely resistant to accept.
That is why Gressel argued the tanks should be sent now anyway.
“Yes,” he said, “Russia will reconstitute itself as a military threat to NATO after this war. But it will take years for them to come back as a military threat. They have to rebuild an army which is shattered and almost destroyed in Ukraine.”