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After weeks of pressure, Germany agrees to send its Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has confirmed that his country will send German-made Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine. The decision comes as the U.S. makes plans to deliver Abrams tanks to Ukraine as well. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz joins us now.

Rob, so what do we know about Germany's decision?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah. A spokesman for Chancellor Olaf Scholz has confirmed to NPR that Germany is sending an initial shipment of 14 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine. These are tanks that'll come straight from stocks managed by the German armed forces. The spokesman added that training of Ukrainian crews on how to operate these tanks will begin soon.

MARTÍNEZ: And Germany's has been under pressure to clear the way for these tanks. Why'd it take so long?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. First of all, Germany's own defense capabilities are slim due to decades of neglect and lack of funding. So I think there was a genuine concern on the part of Chancellor Scholz that if he sends Germany's most state-of-the-art tanks to Ukraine, then Germany wouldn't be left with much to defend itself. I spoke to Sudha David-Wilp, head of the Berlin office of The German Marshall Fund, about why it took so long for Germany to make this decision. And she gave three reasons for Germany's hesitation.

SUDHA DAVID-WILP: One is because there has not really been a clear majority in the German electorate for sending tanks. Two, he's had a lot of pressure within his own party about getting dragged into the war. And then I guess there is also a genuine fear about what this would trigger on the part of Russia.

SCHMITZ: And, A, I think there's - that's also the reason why Chancellor Scholz wanted the U.S. to send its Abrams tanks. He didn't want Germany to be alone in taking an action that the Kremlin could very well see as a major escalation.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, yeah, the Kremlin called the prospect of tank deliveries from Germany and the U.S. a blatant provocation. So, Rob, is there fear there in Berlin that this could drag Germany into the war?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I think there is. You know, Ralf Stegner, a politician in Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrat Party, voiced these concerns after the tank news broke. Here's what he said on German television.


RALF STEGNER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, A, he's saying here that - "what comes after these battle tanks - fighter jets, warships, or will we talk about sending troops at some point? These are questions that have to be asked," he said. And he said Chancellor Scholz needs to address this. And I think he's summed up the fears from many Germans about this, which is, where does this end? Are we now being dragged into this war? It's worth pointing out here that the most recent poll shows that Germans are evenly split on sending tanks. So today's announcement will not be popular for half of the country. And partly that's because of Germany's unique history of being one of the world's biggest military aggressors and the fallout from that. So this is weighing heavily on many people here.

MARTÍNEZ: What about for other European countries that have these Leopard battle tanks? What does this mean now for them?

SCHMITZ: Well, it'll mean that they, too, can export these tanks to Ukraine if they want to. Poland has been asking to do this; as have other European countries. So over the following weeks, we'll likely see the first deliveries of what could be dozens of the world's most state-of-the-art tanks being handed over to Ukraine's military. And these tanks are seen by military experts as game-changing weapons that will help Ukraine defend itself against what many predict will be a tough spring offensive that Russia is now preparing.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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.