INSIDE THE GERMAN MIND: TANK WARS
“Russia is a nuclear power, and sending more weapons will contribute to a dangerous escalation of the war, with the outcome uncertain … That’s why I’m so scared, and so many others in Germany are too. If Germany sends combat tanks to Ukraine, Germany could become a target. We’re a lot closer to Ukraine than the United States.”
“[Analysts are] skeptical that Western allies have settled on a clear strategy of scaling up weapons deliveries to help Ukraine achieve a clear set of war aims. ‘This is a very transformational period in the conflict. But to me, the reactions from the Western capitals have been merely tactical so far … We lack a common vision about how the war should end and how these [tank] deliveries fit into that vision.’”
“It’s unbelievable but true … We are again being threatened by German Leopard tanks.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Last week I was sitting in a doctor’s office here in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., when Doctor Tonya and I started chatting about my next missive. “I’m thinking about writing a piece on German tanks,” I told her. “Tanks,” she replied with a note of surprise in her voice, “I thought they were obsolete. You know, drones and all that.”
Dr. Tonya’s viewpoint probably represents a large section of our population. This perception traces back to the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, now almost a year old, where we watched nightly television news footage showing the destruction of an entire Russian armored column of tanks heading toward Kyiv. A constant barrage of visual images featuring these burning hulks, prompted one military commentator to declare “the era of the tank is over.” Indeed, according to a Dutch research project, 1,646 Russian tanks have been destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured since the start of the invasion.
As developments have demonstrated over the past ten days, however, the announcement of that death sentence for today’s tanks may be premature.
For purposes of this missive, what I am calling “tank wars” is the weeks-long behind-the-scenes negotiations and diplomatic pressure tactics in Europe that led Germany and the United States to supply (actually a future promise to provide) their most formidable battle tanks to Ukraine. This final decision constituted—in the opinion of one columnist—a perceptible shift in the “balance of power” within Europe. By this, the author asserts that the smaller countries of NATO successfully pressured Germany and the United States to provide main battle tanks to Ukraine, because (in large part) the smaller members understand the Russian threat more clearly and do not have the option of “complacency.” Certainly, the public announcement by Polish leaders that they were going to send German-made tanks to Ukraine, regardless of whether Berlin approved or not, helped force the hands of U.S. and German leaders.
Moreover, the smaller NATO countries had little confidence at what they saw was Berlin and Washington’s mixed signals since the beginning of Russia’s “special operation”: Russia cannot be allowed to win the war, and the Ukraine cannot be allowed to lose.
Indeed, for several days, the Scholz and Biden administrations hemmed and hawed on the decision to send their most modern tanks to Ukraine. The Pentagon repeatedly cited logistical issues—the Abrams tank uses fuel akin to jet engine fuel—training issues, and that the U.S. main battle tank was ill-suited to the Ukrainian war environment. At the same time, Scholz cited the danger of combat escalation, logistical and training issues, and held tight to export control restrictions barring other countries seeking to transfer their own Leopard tanks to Ukraine. In the end, Germany only agreed to sending its own battle tanks to Ukraine after the U.S. promise to send M1 Abrams tanks.
Now, all eyes are on Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks, hailed by one writer as “the most popular tank in the free world,” designed and built in the 1970s, in service in more than 20 countries around the world, and superior to anything the Russians can field. Ukraine’s leaders expect to eventually receive at least 100 Leopard tanks. In the past few days, the 55-ton tank has been portrayed as necessary to ensure Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s regime’s survival and forestall the anticipated Russian spring offensives.
For its part, Russia said that sending Leopard 2 tanks to the Ukraine constitutes a direct involvement in the conflict and marks a dangerous escalation. Moreover, this week the Russian company Fores offered five million rubles ($72,000) in cash to the first Russian soldiers who destroy or capture German Leopard 2 (or U.S.-made Abrams) tanks in Ukraine.
But I am more interested in the decisional aspects of “tank wars.” Why was—and is—the decision by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to send modern, German-built Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine so difficult? While there are several reasons, let me focus on the four explanations that are, in my view, the most important.
First and foremost, is Germany’s post-World War II cultural inertia regarding all war-related decisions. Perhaps I can illustrate this point by telling the same story that I related to my students at the start of the semester in a modern German History class at the College of the Ozarks. Several years ago, I traveled through Germany with my sister Debbie, to research the life and travels of a flamboyant Cossack military figure who played a role in the period between the world wars. In the process of gathering information on him, my sister and I drove through Bavaria and stopped in Munich. The next day, we visited the nearby Dachau concentration camp, with its barbed wire fences, dormitories, and extermination ovens.
It was an intense, unforgettable experience.
As we left the concentration camp, we passed a mounted placard by the Munich Chamber of Commerce saying, in essence, while you are here, please visit the city of Munich with its long history of cultural and historic contributions to mankind. The sign had a plexiglass covering. On the outside, was scribbled angrily with a black magic marker: “hast du keine Scham!” (Have you no shame?). In my mind’s eye, it was written by a Jew who had family members interned, tortured, and burned in the ovens. Indeed, the city itself was close enough to the camp that if the wind was blowing in the right direction, they could smell the unmistakable odor of burning human flesh. Moreover, we have eyewitness accounts of mothers forcing their children to look the other direction when trains passed with cattle cars crammed with screaming, yelling human beings being transported to the camp.
Yet nobody said anything.
This represents the paradox of German history that has snared modern Germans in a powerful psychological trap: on one hand their cultural history boasts of individuals leading the world in incredible artistic, technological, scientific, and political achievements; on the other hand, the Germans have willingly followed their leaders in launching the two most devastating wars in modern history (the Kaiser in World War I and Hitler’s Nazi Party in World War II). As a result, the notion of German-made tanks, even in the service of Ukraine, racing toward Russian lines—on the same plain where Hitler’s Panzer tanks and Russian tanks fought the greatest tank battle in history at Kursk—leaves many Germans with a troubling taste in their mouths.
Nor has Scholz been able to shake off this pacifistic, cultural malaise despite his much-ballyhooed Zeitenwende (“Epochal Turning Point”), prompted by Putin’s bloody invasion last February. The new policy was intended to turn Germany into a county that would actually take its defense and alliance commitments seriously and “would no longer act scared of its own historic shadow in military and strategic affairs,” according to one prominent columnist. Scholz promised more military spending, a renewed commitment to NATO, and the end of diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake. But, so far, that has not happened. Some observers note that Scholz may not be the right man to carry through the cultural transformation necessary for such a policy change: there have been no additional funds earmarked for the military and his cautious style displays a tendency to lead from behind.
Secondly, and certainly an outgrowth the first factor above, Chancellor Scholz’s decision to provide modern tanks, and with it a more active role in the Ukrainian conflict, flies in the face of modern German diplomatic objectives. According to military historian Soenke Neitzel, “After World War II, Germans had two reference points for their security: never again engage in war as a perpetrator, and never alone, only acting in an alliance.”
Thirdly, there are powerful domestic political currents to overcome. Scholz’s aging Social Democratic Party (SPD) power base remains mired in the morass of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik with far too many of them cutting their teeth on protests against the presence of U.S. Pershing missiles in Germany. For this reason, Germany’s reluctance to become involved in the Ukrainian minefield is reflected in recent polls: Germans are evenly divided over the question of whether to provide the Ukraine with German-made tanks; 46% in favor and 43% opposed. Moreover, a majority of those opposed are supporters of Scholz’s left-center-left SPD, which made things politically awkward for the chancellor.
Finally, there are major logistical problems in getting modern Leopard 2 tanks to the field. In Germany, for example, the debate over sending tanks to Ukraine is echoed within the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military. The armed forces have been held in relatively low regard or ignored by the public, shrinking in size from nearly 600,000 (including conscripts) at the end of the Cold War in 1990, including over 5,000 tanks, to a now all-volunteer army of 183,000. Since the start of the bloodshed in Ukraine, the number of conscientious objectors in the Bundeswehr has increased nearly fivefold.
But these types of logistical problems are not limited to Germany alone. Despite Biden’s public promises, the Ukraine will not receive the promised 31 Abrams M1 tanks for months, perhaps even years, according to multiple press reports. Recently, Pentagon spokesman Sabrina Singh said the U.S. does not have enough of the tanks in its stockpile and will need to go through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) program to identify and hire contractors to build the tanks.
All of this, in my view, illustrates a more pressing concern. It is a concern for Germany, the U.S., and all members of the NATO alliance. In the U.S., for example, many experts observe that providing modern weaponry, including tanks—some $27 billion in military-related aid and counting—to Ukraine is straining already depleted resources. A recent study by Seth Jones at the highly respected Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, points this out. The report included the following: our defense industrial base is not prepared for the existing security environment; the industrial base lacks surge capacity in the event of a future major war; and, in the case of wargame scenarios involving a future conflict with China, the U.S. would go through its stockpile of strategic weapons—including long-range, precision-guided munitions—in less than a week.
Our arms deliveries to Ukraine, for example, of shoulder-mounted Javelin missiles sent to Ukraine since August amounts to seven years of production. The number of Stinger antiaircraft systems sent to Kyiv is roughly the same number of systems sent abroad over the past 20 years. We have sent more than one million rounds of 155 mm ammunition to Ukraine, further depleting our military’s already low level. And now, the U.S. will provide Ukraine with Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB)—with launchers—that will be able to hit targets at twice the distance of U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), further depleting our levels of those systems.
And this just scratches the surface.
Now the Ukraine is asking for modern aircraft. Biden said no, just like he did to Kyiv’s request for Abrams tanks a few weeks ago.
And no one mentions the equipment left rusting in the sand in Afghanistan.
I do not blame the Ukrainians; they are fighting for their very survival and will continue to beg for any modern weapons system—including tanks—to help achieve that goal.
But a serious discussion needs to take place in our country, and the rest of the western alliance, about reinvigorating our industrial base to replace depleted weaponry stockpiles.
As a final note, in the field, Ukrainian sources deny there will be problems fielding or maintaining the modern tanks. According to Bohdan Ostapchuk—who has played a role in repairing captured Russian tanks such as T-72s:
“When politicians abroad say that vehicles from Western countries are too complicated for Ukrainians, that
we need to have a lot of infrastructure, or we need to spend a lot of time with these vehicles, it’s not true … If they give us parts and one week to explore the manual, we will repair every tank the USA, Great Britain, Germany will send to us, and we will return them to the front lines for our soldiers.”
If only it was that simple.
Sadly, we are only in the opening salvo stage of the “tank wars.”
 Wagenknecht, 53-years-old, is a leading voice in Germany’s anti-war movement and member of the opposition Left party in the German parliament. Her quote appears in Erik Kirschbaum, “’War scares us stiff’: Germany’s reluctance to arm Ukraine is rooted in its bloodstained past,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 2023.
 Wieslander is the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. The quote appears in Laurence Norman and Stephen Fidler, “Some Western Backers of Ukraine Worry That Time Might Be on Russia’s Side,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 29, 2023.
 Matt Murphy, “Ukraine war: 80 years on, we are facing German tanks again—Putin,” BBC News, Feb. 2, 2023. Putin was speaking at the anniversary concluding the battle of Stalingrad (now named Volgograd).
 Karen Zamora, et.al., “Even after a century, tanks still play a major role in war,” NPR, Jan.28, 2023.
 According to the research firm, this figure only includes the number of tanks for which there is firm photographic evidence. See Phil McCausland, “As Ukraine waits for foreign tanks, mechanics learn to fix old busted ones,” NBC News, Jan. 31, 2023.
 Phillips Payson O’Brien, “Tanks for Ukraine Have Shifted The Balance of Power in Europe, The Atlantic, Jan. 27, 2023.
 According to one source, there is an impressive-sounding 2,329 Leopard tanks held by 13 NATO allies, but almost 400 of these are in storage, and in Spain, for example, its 327 Leopard tanks were found in a “deplorable state” in August. Dan Sabbagh, “Western unity is critical, but Ukraine needs more than tanks to win this war,” The Guardian, Jan. 25, 2023.
 Kyle Mizokami, “Behind the Leopard 2: The NATO Tank Headed to Ukraine that Everyone is Talking About,” Popular Mechanics, Jan. 26, 2023. The Leopard 2 has a crew of four, can travel at 42 m.p.h., (powered by a 12-cylinder, water-cooled diesel engine), is equipped with a Rheinmetall Rh-120 120 mm smooth bore main gun, (able to fire accurately when maneuvering over rough terrain), using one of the most advanced fire-control control systems, laser range finders, and thermal night vision. Critics point out, however, that the Leopard 2 has seen very little actual combat experience.
 Tom Soufi Burridge, “Ukraine expects to get Leopard 2 tanks from 12 countries: Senior official,” ABC News, Jan. 23, 2023.
 See among others, Matthew Luxmoore and Georgi Kantchev, “Ukraine Under New Missile Barrage as Russia Warns West About Tank Pledges,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 26, 2023.
 “Kremlin welcomes bounty offer for destroying western tanks in Ukraine,” Reuters, Feb. 1, 2023.
 For over a month in the late summer of 1943, German and Russian forces fought the largest tank battle in history with over 6,000 tanks and assault guns heavily damaged or destroyed. The battle would mark Nazi Germany’s final strategic offensive on the Eastern Front and the Soviets had foreknowledge of German intentions due to British intelligence intercepts (the so-called Tunney Intercepts).
 See Joseph C. Sternberg’s fascinating opinion piece, “Tanks but No Thanks to Olaf Scholz’s Turning Point,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 26, 2023.
 Officials at Rheinmetall—Germany’s co-producer of Leopard 2 tanks and exclusive producer of its ammunition—called on Scholz to release the 100 billion euro special military budget he promised last year into firm orders. See Christoph Steitz, Germany’s Leopard tank move puts spotlight on its maker: Rheinmetall,” Reuters, Jan. 25, 2023.
 Neitzel, an author and historian at Potsdam University, also notes Germany’s clear preference to act in concert with its alliance partners, “but only in the middle or at the rear of the NATO convoy.” See, Kirschbaum, “War scares us.” See also, Philip Oltermann and Kate Connolly, “Scholz’s caution over tanks for Ukraine echoed on Berlin streets,” The Guardian, Jan. 25, 2023.
 Erik Kirschbaum, “’War scares us stiff’: Germany’s reluctance to arm Ukraine is rooted in its bloodstained past,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 2023.
 Kirschbaum, “War scares us.”
 See Nandita Bose, et.al., “In change of course, U.S. agrees to send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine,” Reuters, Jan. 25, 2023. The cost of one Abrams tank can be $10 million plus training and sustainment.
 Greg Wehner, “Biden’s promise to send tanks delayed by lack of inventory: reports,” Fox News, Jan. 27, 2023.
 The CSIS report is cited in Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Weapons Industry Unprepared for a China Conflict, Report Says,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 23, 2023. Study
 Mike Stone and Max Hunder, “Ukraine’s New Weapon will force a Russian shift,” Reuters, Feb. 2, 2023.
 McCausland, “As Ukraine waits.”