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Germany signals it hasn't ruled out sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine

Two Leopard 2 A6 heavy battle tanks and a Puma infantry fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr's 9th Panzer Training Brigade participate in a demonstration of capabilities during a visit by then-Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to the Bundeswehr Army training grounds in February 2022 in Munster, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Two Leopard 2 A6 heavy battle tanks and a Puma infantry fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr's 9th Panzer Training Brigade participate in a demonstration of capabilities during a visit by then-Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to the Bundeswehr Army training grounds in February 2022 in Munster, Germany.

Updated January 20, 2023 at 12:10 PM ET

BERLIN — Germany's defense minister said his government has not yet decided whether to send German-made battle tanks to Ukraine, but signaled the country hadn't ruled out the option.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said his ministry would check the country's stocks of the Leopard 2 tank for possible delivery.

"There are good reasons for the delivery, there are good reasons against it," Pistorius told reporters after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and European counterparts in Ramstein, Germany.

Ukraine's government has made repeated calls for its international backers to send more heavy weapons including battle tanks to fight Russia. Some countries have offered armored vehicles. In recent days, Western defense officials have been pressing Germany to allow the export of its sophisticated Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

But Germany has so far not agreed to release its heavy battle tanks, or to allow other countries to deliver Leopard tanks that they purchased from Germany.

The U.S. has upped the pressure

As the meeting opened, officials noted the urgency, while refraining from calling out Germany directly.

"This is a crucial moment," Defense Secretary Austin said. "Russia is regrouping, recruiting, and trying to re-equip. This is not a moment to slow down. It's a time to dig deeper."

Austin said several countries are "pushing hard to meet requirements for tanks," noting that Britain's "big donation" of the Challenger 2 will mark the first main battle tank delivery to Ukraine.

The Pentagon on Thursday announced its latest military aid package to Ukraine, worth $2.5 billion, will include 90 Stryker combat vehicles, 59 Bradley fighting vehicles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition — but no tanks.

U.S. officials have said America's M1 Abrams tanks are too complicated to train on and maintain. Austin disputed news reports that have said Germany's government would only send its tanks on condition that the U.S. did, too.

Poland and Finland have already offered German tanks

But other countries are lining up to deliver German-made tanks.

Last week, Polish President Andrzej Duda said his country would transfer Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö also indicated her country was 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 are offering to export them.

When asked about giving approval to another country like Poland to deliver its Leopard tanks to Ukraine, German Defense Minister Pistorius said it was not his decision and that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz holds the export license. Pistorius added that the impression that Germany is blocking such a decision is wrong.

Germany wants to avoid drawing NATO into broader conflict

Scholz has repeatedly 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.

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 more than 10-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 transatlantic 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.

Some of the German public is warming to the idea

For months, public opinion in Germany has backed up Scholz's refusal to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine. But according to the latest Forsa survey from this 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.

Meanwhile, the defense ministers of Estonia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as representatives from Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Slovakia also met on Thursday "to reaffirm our continued determination and resolve to supporting Ukraine in their heroic resistance against the illegal and unprovoked Russian aggression," according to a joint statement from the countries.

The group, having formed the "Tallinn Pledge," committed to "collectively pursuing delivery of an unprecedented set of donations including main battle tanks, heavy artillery, air defence, ammunition, and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine's defence," the statement said.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov repeated warnings that additional Western arms merely prolonged Ukraine's suffering — and said deepening Western military aid risked an "upward spiral" into direct conflict between Russian and NATO forces.

"We see a devotion to the dramatic delusion that Ukraine can succeed on the battlefield," Peskov said. "This is a dramatic delusion of the Western community that will more than once be cause for regret. We are sure of that."

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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.