European politics got a huge burst of kinetic energy this week, thanks to the realization in places like Berlin that the war in Ukraine will become kinetic again come spring. That’s when the Russians are expected to launch a new offensive — and the Ukrainians their own counter-attacks to retake occupied territories.
For the Ukrainians to succeed in that next phase — which think tankers describe as “maneuver warfare” — they’ll need super-mobile Western weapons such as battle tanks. But for Kyiv to get those, Western leaders such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz must first become unblocked. With a new German defense minister and a new stance toward arms shipments, he finally seems to be getting close.
About time, too. On the Sunday after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last February, Scholz gave a speech in which he proclaimed a Zeitenwende, a world-historical turning point. Germany, he said, had to wake up from decades of naively coddling Putin and instead had to invest in its army and become a good NATO ally. And it had to help Ukraine defend itself.
That rhetorical flourish, however, was followed by the usual German foot dragging. Germany has given Ukraine a lot of money, kit and weapons, but only when others — notably the US — have taken the lead. Allies including the UK, Estonia and Poland have demanded much bolder support for Ukraine, while Scholz has been the one urging caution. More than Balts, Poles, Finns and others, he fears provoking Putin into nuclear escalation. That’s also why he’s so far refused to send the Ukrainians German-made Leopard 2 tanks.
Nor did it help that Scholz’s defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, was the most feckless and bumbling member of his cabinet, with a tin ear for diplomacy and little clue about military matters. Allies who met her often came out of meetings rolling their eyes. Zeitenwende, it became obvious, needs a different emissary.
So this week, Lambrecht herself had the good idea of resigning. Her replacement is Boris Pistorius, a relatively obscure regional politician from Lower Saxony, who nonetheless appears to have Scholz’s trust.
Pistorius’ first big job is to host the so-called Ramstein format later this week. Named after an American airbase in western Germany, this is a gathering of defense ministers and top brass from some 50 countries who support Kyiv. And the main item on the to-do list is sending battle tanks to Ukraine — notably including those Leopard 2s that Scholz has been so coy about.
Earlier this month, Germany already signaled a shift, when it announced it would give Kyiv armored fighting vehicles called Marders (German for martens). As ever, Scholz moved only after the French said they’d send similar vehicles, and the Americans pledged their own Bradleys. By bringing infantry soldiers where they’re needed while under fire, these AFVs are one prerequisite for maneuver warfare. But they’re meant to work in choreography with battle tanks.
The next ally to move was Britain, which announced it would give Ukraine 14 of its battle tanks, called Challenger 2s. Simultaneously, Poland said it wants to send some of its own German-made Leopard 2s — for which Germany would have to grant re-export licenses. Finland made similar noises. Together London, Warsaw, Helsinki and others thereby upped the pressure on Berlin enough to shift the German debate too.
In this newly fluid discussion, a good idea has resurfaced. Why not arrange for a consortium of countries to send Leopard 2s to Ukraine? Some 16 nations — 15 in Europe plus Canada — have about 2,000 of the big cats in their own stocks. Letting some combination of these countries supply Ukraine as a club would solve several problems at once.
First, some armies have too few Leopards in working order to pass them on without weakening their own fighting ability. But a consortium could easily find enough tanks, spare parts and ammunition to give the Ukrainians whatever they need — at least 100, for starters.
Second, such a show of unity would vastly complicate any attempt by Putin to retaliate against any individual member of the alliance — with more sabotage and hybrid warfare or even full force. He’d in effect be facing the West as a whole. With his bully mentality, he’d be more likely to shrink from such might and resolve than to escalate.
Even then, battle tanks cannot be the West’s last move. The Leopards and Challengers will complement the armored fighting vehicles and artillery already pledged. However, proper maneuver warfare means Ukrainian ground troops will eventually require support from their own skies as well. For them to win the war — and therefore for any prospect of peace — Ukraine will therefore need Western helicopters and fighter jets.
All along in this war, it has been wrong for Western leaders such as Scholz to let Putin cow them into guessing where his “red lines” may or may not be. Putin attacked a smaller neighbor without provocation, shattering all norms of human decency and international order. He must be defeated. In this struggle, destiny has chosen Ukraine as Thermopylae and the Ukrainians as Spartans. The rest of us cannot let them fail.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
Frederick the Great’s Advice for Ukraine Negotiations: Andreas Kluth
Big Lesson of the Ukraine War: There’s Only One Superpower: Hal Brands
Drone Strikes Show Putin His Homeland Isn’t Safe: James Stavridis
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Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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