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Setting Free the Leopards
Why the Leopard affair shows the need for continued American involvement in Europe
Last week, defense ministers and military chiefs from around fifty nations gathered at the U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany to discuss their ongoing support for Ukraine’s war effort. This conclave yielded additional promises of significant, concrete military assistance on top of those made earlier this month. The United States, for instance, will give dozens of Bradley and Stryker armored vehicles to Ukraine, while Denmark will send its entire fleet of CAESAR mobile howitzers and the UK a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks. France pledged light tanks and Sweden its own set of armored vehicles and artillery, while the Netherlands expressed an openness to Ukrainian requests for its surplus F-16 fighter jets.
But these donations were overshadowed by the drama of the German government’s refusal to allow the transfer of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Already in widespread use across Europe and available in sufficient quantity, the German-built Leopard represents the best option available for equipping Ukraine with modern tanks. But when countries Poland and Finland expressed a willingness to hand their own Leopards over to Kyiv, Berlin stonewalled and erected roadblocks to their delivery — first requiring unanimity among Ukraine’s foreign backers and most recently demanding that the United States agree to send its own tanks as well.
As these shifting rationales imply, there wasn’t a clear or obvious reason for Berlin’s demurrals. That led to rampant speculation about the exact motives of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his inner circle, but what’s clear is that Germany’s angst elevated the issue well beyond the practical military debate over the potential contribution these tanks could make on the battlefield in Ukraine. Indeed, the Leopard affair has raised an entire constellation of political, diplomatic, and security questions, all while revealing a profound moral and strategic void at the heart of Europe.
Like it or not, that means the United States remains the glue that holds NATO and Europe together, the rebar that keeps the continent from politically fragmenting over time.
Though some credible defense analysts suggest the war in Ukraine has shown just how vulnerable tanks are on the modern battlefield, the general consensus remains that tanks constitute a key component of any effective ground force. As the retired Australian general and tank commander Mick Ryan put it, “the inclusion of tanks in combined arms teams increases the chance of mission success and lowers the number of friendly casualties in doing so.”
Modern tanks like the Leopard 2 would allow Ukraine to blunt an anticipated Russian spring offensive and then mount a major counteroffensive of its own. That counteroffensive could in turn liberate enough Ukrainian territory to at least force the Kremlin into serious negotiations to leave the country — or even evict Russia from Ukraine altogether. Complete liberation of all Ukraine’s pre-2014 territory now appears to be a realistic aim, one that the United States and its European allies ought to support and pursue. With modern tanks, Ukraine will be in a position to close Russia’s narrow pathways to military victory, make real gains of its own on the battlefield, and help bring the war to a successful conclusion sooner rather than later.
As recently as last weekend, Biden administration officials continued to give excuses for why the U.S Army’s M1 Abrams wasn’t ideal for Ukraine. These rationalizations contained more than a grain of truth: the M1’s turbine engine runs mainly on jet fuel, for instance, and it’s generally more difficult to maintain than the alternatives. These objections ultimately weren’t fatal, and the United States will send at least 30 Abrams tanks to Ukraine - though they probably won’t arrive until later this year at the earliest, not in time to counter a Russian spring offensive.
Leopard 2s run on diesel fuel and, like the Abrams, are available in sufficient numbers to make a difference – some 2,000 tanks in service across Europe. A number of current and pending NATO members like Spain, Poland, and Finland have already expressed a willingness to send their own Leopards to Ukraine. In addition, Leopard maintenance and repair depots are located in Europe and are therefore closer to the battlefield than comparable facilities for Abrams tanks in the United States. More to the point, Leopards can reach Ukraine more quickly than American tanks that have yet to be built . That makes the Leopard the preferred option for Ukraine, and some 100 tanks donated by a dozen European nations will be on their way to the front once Berlin signs off on their export.
More Than Just Tanks
Thanks in no small part to its own reluctance, however, the German government endowed these tanks with a significance well beyond the important role they could play on the battlefield in Ukraine. Even more than the armored vehicles and air defenses announced in recent arms packages, Leopards became the litmus test for a commitment to Ukrainian victory by Kyiv’s American and European supporters. Indeed, few actions express more faith in Ukraine’s long-term prospects than America’s own decision to build new M1s that won’t hit the frontlines for some time. Among America’s allies in Europe, a readiness to provide Ukraine with tanks now stands as a symbol of a nation’s willingness to do what it takes to ensure Kyiv wins its war against Russia.
More worryingly, though, Germany has revealed itself to be a less than reliable partner in the eyes of many of its allies and its neighbors. It’s hard to overstate the damage Berlin has done to its own strategic position and its standing with its NATO allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, with its hesitations and reservations on the Leopard question. Germany exacerbated the distrust that already existed on the alliance’s eastern flank, again demonstrating an unspoken and unacknowledged Germany First strain in Berlin’s foreign policy. Even if the German government eventually came around, albeit after severe diplomatic pressure. Germany’s inability to provide a modicum of geopolitical leadership has left a moral, political, and military hole at the heart of the continen.
As a result, continued American engagement in Europe remains indispensable. Confronted with the greatest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War, America’s European allies couldn’t pull themselves together to meet the challenge without the help of the United States. Germany once again failed to take up the responsibilities and duties that come with its economic power and geographic position — and as its demands that the United States match its each and every delivery of military equipment to Ukraine suggests, Berlin still seeks shelter underneath the American security umbrella and looks to the United States as its geopolitical protector.
It's not remotely in America’s own interests to leave Europe to fend for itself, especially under the geopolitical and security conditions that will exist for some time to come. The Leopard affair has laid bare the reality that politics — not sheer troop numbers or stockpiles of military hardware — prevents Europe from taking greater responsibility for its own security. Newer NATO members now have legitimate reason to doubt that Germany will come to their defense, and Berlin’s own self-centered handling of a matter these nations see as vital to their own national security will not be forgotten soon — even if it ultimately came around after immense pressure from its NATO allies.
Freeing the Leopards
So what’s next, now that the Leopards have been freed?
To start, the United States should also increase its own military support for Ukraine – if not by sending longer-range ATACMS missiles, for instance, then by delivering Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb rockets that will extend the range of Ukraine’s existing HIMARS launchers. The Biden administration can also work more proactively with allies like the Netherlands on training and equipping Ukraine’s air force with surplus F-16s. Along with the panoply of modern tanks provided by the United States and its NATO allies, this assistance would represent an important political commitment to Ukraine’s liberation at a time when such commitments mean as much as victories on the battlefield.
Similarly, the United States should collaborate more closely with smaller coalitions of nations within NATO, the European Union, and the Ukraine Defense Contact Group to ensure Kyiv receives necessary support — in part to give Germany incentive to act, or at least not stand in the way of other nations willing to give Ukraine the means to defend itself. The Tallinn Pledge group represents just one such point of entry, and something of an ideal one at that. But other opportunities may present themselves, such as Poland’s effort to organize a “small coalition of countries” to transfer their Leopards to Ukraine.
The Leopard affair has illustrated the reality that the United States still has an essential role to play in Europe if it’s to safeguard American interests on the continent, one that’s as much political and diplomatic as it is military. This episode marks only the most recent instance in which Germany has refused to take up geopolitical and strategic responsibilities consistent with its economic power, and that in turn makes American involvement in Europe all the more necessary.
In the end, it seems that only the United States can bind Europeans together strongly enough to secure our shared interest in a Europe that’s free and secure.
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