Germany on Saturday sent the strongest signal yet of its commitment to backing Ukraine in its battle against Russian occupiers, promising more tanks, armored vehicles and substantial air defense systems in its largest weapons package for Kyiv.
The arms package, totaling 2.7 billion euros, or about $2.95 billion, amounted to roughly as much as Germany’s total military aid to Ukraine since the war began in February 2022.
The move was part of a budding effort by Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to draw a line under a year of rocky relations over Germany’s hesitancy to provide weapons and solidify a partnership that may prove increasingly critical to maintaining European unity in backing the war.
With elections looming in the United States next year, concern is growing in European capitals that President Biden will become less willing to showcase support for Ukraine, given the potential for Republicans to use the issue against him during the presidential campaign. Europe fears an even sharper drop in support for Ukraine should a Republican win the presidency next year.
The German announcement was one of the most forceful steps yet taken by Mr. Scholz to back his call last year for Germans to play a leading role in Europe’s security affairs — and to bolster their own forces — in the face of a newly perceived threat from Russia.
“We all wish for a speedy end to this terrible war waged by Russia against the Ukrainian people,” said Germany’s defense minister, Boris Pistorius, who has been even more outspoken than the chancellor on support for Ukraine. “Germany will provide all the help it can — as long as it takes.”
Though the additional arms will no doubt be welcomed by Ukraine, it was not certain they would arrive in time for its much anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces, which will be powered by new supplies of advanced Western equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers.
In recent days, as Kyiv’s forces made advances near Bakhmut, the eastern city that more than any other has come to stand for the mounting costs of the war, Russia’s pro-war bloggers interpreted the move as a signal that the Ukrainian push had begun.
But Mr. Zelensky told the BBC this week that Ukraine wanted more weaponry and ammunition to arrive before starting the offensive, even though NATO’s top military commander has said that nearly all of the combat vehicles promised by Ukraine’s Western allies have been delivered.
The German promise of new heavy weapons came the day before Mr. Zelensky was to be awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, bestowed by the German city of Aachen to someone who has done the most to promote European unity.
Previous winners have included Winston Churchill, Pope Francis, Angela Merkel and Bill Clinton. The judges’ decision to award the prize to Mr. Zelensky and the people of Ukraine underscored both how the war in Ukraine has united Europeans and the irony that Ukraine is not a part of the European Union, despite Kyiv’s strong entreaties to join.
German news media were reporting that Mr. Zelensky, who was in Rome on Saturday meeting with Italian leaders including Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, would come to Germany to collect the prize.
In any case, the offer of the prize, and now the German arms package, presented perhaps the best chance yet for Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Scholz to reset relations that have been characterized by months of tensions, sniping and diplomatic missteps.
“It’s a very open moment right now,” said Ulrich Speck, an independent analyst who writes a foreign policy newsletter in Berlin. “I think a new dynamic is going to start. And so Zelensky wants to shore up Germany. He wants to repair this relationship, because he needs to be able to call up Scholz without the bad feelings we have seen in the past.”
Even before the war, Kyiv, like many Eastern European capitals, had long been frustrated with German eagerness to pursue economic ties with Russia — which they argued came at their expense. That was especially so in the case of the now suspended and sabotaged Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which bypassed Ukraine by running under the Baltic Sea.
German hesitation to break its post-World War II taboo about sending weapons to conflict zones and to act more forcefully as a leader on security matters aggravated tensions further.
In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Germany pledged 5,000 helmets for Kyiv’s forces, instead of weapons, provoking the ire of allies and Ukrainians alike.
A few days after the invasion, Mr. Scholz sought to end that era of reluctance with a speech calling for a “Zeitenwende,” or “turning point,” for his nation. But in the months that followed, Germany did not follow through with robust action, repeatedly lagging on delivering weapons and provoking widespread criticism in Europe.
Tensions reached a low point over the stalled delivery of German-made Leopard 2 tanks. Mr. Scholz, wary of making any move that could be seen by Moscow as an escalation, declined to send the German-made tanks or to permit re-export licenses to Ukraine by other countries with the tanks in their supplies.
He insisted that Germany would not “go it alone” and would not relent without parallel moves by the United States, which eventually pledged to send some of its own tanks, clearing the way for Mr. Scholz to give a green light.
The package announced on Saturday — which includes 30 Leopard 1A5 main battle tanks, 20 armored infantry fighting vehicles, four IRIS-T SLM air defense systems, 100 armored fighting vehicles and 200 drones — may be the clearest sign yet of a German turnaround.
German lawmakers have also tried to change Ukraine’s perception that they are still more interested in relations with Russia, said Andrea Römmele, a political analyst at the Hertie School, a university in Berlin.
A prime example, she said, was a visit to Kyiv in March by Rolf Mützenich, the parliamentary leader for Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats, a party that long seemed divided on its support for the war. “The face of the hesitant left wing of the S.P.D. also going to Kyiv — that was a very important gesture,” she said, referring to the party.
For Mr. Zelensky, there are mounting reasons to accept the olive branch.
“If I was a Ukrainian, I would be looking for some leadership in Europe for my cause,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a scholar at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Zelensky sees the writing on the wall: It is going to be increasingly hard for Biden and the U.S. Congress to get the support that is needed.”
Ukraine is also watching warily as countries that declare neutrality in the war, particularly China and Brazil, offer themselves as mediators. In the absence of a Washington-led effort, Kyiv would have preferred to see Berlin or Paris drive negotiations, a Ukrainian official told The New York Times before the Zelensky visit.
But a role for France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, is being regarded with caution by European allies and Ukraine after he made remarks that seemed to placate China during a recent visit to Beijing. They are also wary of his consistent calls for “strategic autonomy” from the United States and for Russia to be included in any European postwar security architecture.
That leaves Germany. Ukrainian and German officials privately said that Mr. Zelensky might be hoping to persuade Mr. Scholz to play a more influential role when it comes to European support for the war, or even in mediating a peace settlement.
That is something the chancellor has been reluctant to do.
The chancellery argues that its cautious and slow approach, which faced so much criticism from allies, is the very reason Berlin is technically in the best position of Kyiv’s main partners, and that it has allowed a divided German population to grow accustomed to the changing security architecture in Europe.
“As opposed to the United States, you don’t see a drop-off of support here,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said. “But does that mean this country would be ready to increase as American support is weakening? That I’m very doubtful about.”
Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Seoul, and Shashank Bengali from Istanbul.
Discussion about this post