Over the past 12 months, Germany and other European nations have been forced to confront the return of large-scale land warfare to the continent, upending the security order that had held for decades.
Nearly a year after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the first German-made Leopard 2 tanks should arrive on the front lines in the coming weeks to support Kyiv’s forces. The United States and Britain are also sending dozens of their main battle tanks to Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops began training on the Leopards earlier this month in Germany and Poland. Berlin agreed to send 14 of the highly regarded tanks in January, after months of pressure from allies, while agreeing to other nations sending their German-made tanks to aid Ukrainian forces. Germany also plans to send dozens of older, refurbished Leopard 1 tanks.
The deliveries, however, are taking much longer than Kyiv had hoped. A report in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper suggested that fewer than 50 tanks will have reached the front lines by the beginning of April.
Ukraine says it urgently needs hundreds of Western tanks to confront a new Russian offensive. Critics say Europe is not acting fast enough.
“When we look at how Germany defines or implements its role, especially when it comes to weapons deliveries, it probably has been more of a reluctant leader,” said Sarah Pagung of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“I think it's more like a strategy of making small steps and observing the Russian reaction. That's what we have been seeing throughout the last year. A more negative description could be that Germany actually lacks a strategy, and that it only does what really needs to be done to make Ukraine survive — but not to make Ukraine win,” Pagung told VOA.
Europe initially provided Ukraine with anti-tank weapons and light arms. As the nature of the conflict has evolved over the past year, NATO arms supplies have increased significantly and now include modern multiple-launch rocket systems, air defense batteries, armored vehicles and main battle tanks.
Days after the invasion, Berlin announced a $107 billion increase in defense spending, part of the so-called Zeitenwende — a complete overhaul of German foreign policy.
Germany has dramatically reduced its dependence on Russian energy. A year ago, Russia supplied 60% of Germany’s gas. Thanks to huge investments in alternative sources, dependence on Russian energy has been reduced to practically zero.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz rejects accusations that he acted too slowly.
“We do well to carefully weigh all the consequences of our actions and closely consult on all important steps among allies, because this is a war close to us in Europe — a dangerous war,” Scholz said February 17 at the Munich Security Conference.
“For all the pressure to act that there doubtless is, in this decisive question, care must come before rushing; cohesion before solo performances. And we must set up our support from the beginning so that we can keep it up for a long time,” Scholz said.
That caution is also informed by Germany’s experience in two world wars. The prospect of German-made tanks facing off against their Russian counterparts in the fields of eastern Ukraine has a historical resonance that is keenly felt among sections of the German public, Pagung said.
“Of course, the government has an eye on this public opinion. But I think moreover there is, at least in the chancellery, a fear that this conflict might spin out of control, and that it spins into a NATO-Russia conflict,” she said.
The West has been too cautious in confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Fiona Hill, a former U.S. National Security Council official who is now with the Brookings Institution, a U.S. research group.
“Putin himself is in quite a lot of pressure internally now from people who want to see this war ended. They want to get Ukraine to capitulate and to surrender. So, the level of brutality is being stepped up,” Hill told The Associated Press.
“And it's also a question about how we react. We're constantly, again, always thinking about provoking Vladimir Putin, crossing Vladimir Putin's red lines. But what about ours? We said after World War II, never again, never again. Never again would we allow that kind of slaughter of millions of people ... in a conflict in Europe,” Hill said.
The return of conflict to Europe has revealed divisions over how to respond to Russia, and what any future relationship with Moscow should entail.
French President Emmanuel Macron outlined his position at this month’s Munich Security Conference.
“I do not think, as some people do, that we must aim for a total defeat of Russia, attacking Russia on its own soil. Those observers want to, above all else, crush Russia. That has never been the position of France, and it will never be our position,” Macron told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania want a comprehensive Ukrainian victory, arguing it is the only justifiable response to Russia’s invasion.
Britain is also urging faster weapons deliveries for Ukraine.
“With every day that passes, Russian forces inflict yet more pain and suffering. Now, the only way to change that is for Ukraine to win,” British Prime Minster Rishi Sunak told the Munich Security Conference.
“To win the war, Ukraine needs more artillery, armored vehicles and air defense. So, now is the moment to double down on our military support. When Putin started this war, he gambled that our resolve would falter. Even now, he is betting that we will lose our nerve. But we proved him wrong then, and we will prove him wrong now,” Sunak added.
Ukraine said it also needs Western fighter jets to counter Russia’s air superiority. So far, most NATO members have ruled out sending fighter aircraft, although some states, including Poland, said they would do so as part of a NATO coalition.
Despite their differences, European support for Ukraine has proven surprisingly resilient, Pagung of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said.
“We haven't seen any cracks in this consensus within the last months — and that’s even against the backdrop that we have rising energy prices and increased inflation. If we see the war dragging on for two, three, four or five years, that's maybe a different story, because we see that the costs are piling up,” she said.
“The U.S. support really is key to maintaining Western consensus as a whole. If we look at the numbers, we see that the U.S. is basically providing half of the aid for Ukraine on its own,” Pagung added.
“If we come to a point where the U.S. itself questions its role, that's also a point where we will probably see a heightened debate about support for Ukraine in Europe,” she said.