No One Has Pushed Anyone into Anything

The U.S. is also now following the German announcement to supply tanks to Ukraine — and decisively so. This, however, is supposed to have not been a deal. But what then?

It is now official: The U.S. is also going to supply tanks to Ukraine. President Joe Biden announced that they would provide 31 M1 Abrams tanks to the Ukrainian forces. Only hours before, the German government had announced that Germany would supply 14 Leopard tanks. It also approves the transfer of Leopard tanks by allied states such as Poland.

With this, what seemed to be unsolvable only a few days ago now suddenly seems to have been solved. The U.S. did not want to supply any Abrams tanks — but according to media reports, this is exactly what Chancellor Olaf Scholz set, in various rounds of talks, as the condition for giving Ukraine the Leopard tanks they had so urgently asked for. So is this such a deal? And what exactly happened in those four and a half days between the meeting of Ukraine’s allies in Ramstein and the announcement to supply tanks?

Until now, little has been made public about this. The accompanying statements and reactions on both sides, however, tell us something about the dynamics behind this development.

In his speech, Biden praised Scholz: He wanted to thank the Chancellor, the U.S. president said, for his “leadership and steadfast commitment” for Ukraine. Upon request, Biden said, however, that he had not been forced into making this decision on sending tanks by Germany. In turn, Scholz said in the Bundestag, “It’s true that we are not driving each other to decisions.” Evidently, both sides want to urgently share the message that no one forced anyone into anything. So this is supposed to have not been a deal. But what then?

Through Germany’s hesitation, a pressure had weighed heavily on Biden over the past few days, which had also increased in his own country. “Send American tanks so that others will follow our lead,” Lindsey Graham said, one of the most prominent Republicans in the Senate. And his fellow party member, Michael McCaul, the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, demanded that they should send tanks, even “just one:” “Germany is waiting for us to take the lead.”

The fact that the U.S. wants to supply exactly 31 Abrams tanks is all the more interesting in this regard. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the number is based on the size of a Ukrainian tank battalion. On the one hand, this can be interpreted as a signal that this shipment should not be understood as a half-hearted convoy for those from Germany, but above all else as help for Ukraine. Under no circumstances should it therefore appear as though this was done as a priority in order to comply with Scholz.

The reasons behind this may not only lie in assisting the government in Kyiv. Domestic political considerations that also play a role in this are closely connected with the fate of Ukraine. The longer the Russian attack drags on, the more support for U.S. aid threatens to dwindle. This also explains why the Biden government has held back from sending Abrams tanks for so long. Every investment needs to be well thought out against the backdrop that the war could still go on a long time and further packages of billions could fail because of the Republicans in Congress and the argument that everything has already cost enough. The shipment of the Abrams tanks, the operation and service of which U.S. officials have repeatedly said is considered as complicated and costly, is a step that has not been taken lightly in Washington.

The fact that the Biden administration now wants to send 31 Abrams tanks immediately can be interpreted as almost stubborn: If you’re going to do something, then do it. Ukraine should not get a symbolic handful of tanks but should be able to defend itself as well as possible — and for as long as necessary. But not just with help from the U.S. but above all with European help as well and particularly with German help. The latter is becoming more and more important, the more long-term the view is — also with a possible conflict in Taiwan. The U.S. is expecting Europe and especially Germany to commit more strongly in terms of security policy. And this evidently outweighed its own concerns about taking the necessary step toward the tank alliance.

As If There Was Never Any Doubt

But it shouldn’t appear that way — and that applies to both sides. According to the Pentagon, there is no U-turn in U.S. policy. They prefer to stress Biden’s “strength in leadership,” while conversely, members of the SPD proclaim proudly: “Scholz delivers.” Of course, both are true in their own rights. But the alleged tug-of-war over the sovereignty of interpretation suggests that this episode will leave an impression on German-American relations.

In his short speech, Biden repeatedly stressed the “union” with Germany and other allies. In Washington, one could therefore find disconcerting the rhetoric from Berlin that primarily celebrated its own decision — and appeared somewhat contradictory. Over the past few days, the German government had emphasized that Scholz was careful but no ditherer. The concern of a possible nuclear escalation by Russia, which was repeatedly made clear, weighed heavily. Now that a decision has been made on the tanks, it has been met so euphorically as though there was never any doubt. “#LeopardsAreFree,” Michael Roth (SPD), the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, wrote on Twitter. The German ambassador in Washington, Emily Haber, likewise published a picture of a snarling leopard on Twitter but later deleted it.

Meanwhile, what her U.S. colleague, Amy Gutmann, wrote sounded less like jubilation but more politely distanced. “We welcome Chancellor Scholz’s announcement Germany will provide Leopards and authorize other countries’ transfers,” she tweeted. “We applaud allies and partners for all they’ve done so far.” The alliance should appear as strong as ever. The prospect of Germany as a security partner, however, may have become no less skeptical in recent days.

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