Published January 20, 2023

Talks in Germany end without decision on sending Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine

The Trudeau government has not said whether Canada is open to sending some of its German-made Leopard 2 tanks

By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

Defence Minister Anita Anand was heading home from a meeting in Germany on Friday after she and her counterparts from the United States and across Europe failed to make much headway on whether to provide battle tanks to Ukraine.

The question had been at the top of the agenda for the U.S.-led talks at Ramstein airbase, where defence ministers from 50 countries gathered to discuss and co-ordinate plans to give new military aid to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly said it needs tanks to protect its troops and launch counter-offensives against Russian forces, particularly in the eastern part of the country.

The Trudeau government has not said whether Canada is open to sending some of its German-made Leopard 2 tanks, which were purchased from Germany in 2007 during the height of the war in Afghanistan.

But before Canada can even entertain the idea, it needs Berlin's sign-off to allow it to re-export the tanks to Ukraine, which is not a member of the NATO military alliance.

Despite pleas from Ukrainian officials, Germany has so far resisted mounting pressure to quickly supply Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv, or at least clear the way for other countries, such as Poland, to deliver them from their own stocks.

The defence minister of Poland, which has pledged a company of 14 Leopard tanks on the condition that other countries also supply them, told reporters in Ramstein that 15 countries that have the vehicles talked about the issue but no decisions were made.

Mariusz Blaszczak called the meeting a "good discussion among allies" and said the matter would be discussed again in the future.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said opinions among allies were mixed, and added that "the impression that has occasionally arisen, that there is a united coalition and Germany is standing in the way, is wrong."

Speaking to reporters outside the conference hall at midday, he added that while there was no resolution yet, "we will make our decisions as soon as possible."

Anand told reporters ahead of the meeting that she spoke with Pistorius, who only took office on Thursday. But she did not say whether the two discussed the provision of tanks, adding tanks aren’t the only thing Ukraine needs.

"That's why Canada provided armoured vehicles," she said. "That's why Canada provided our winter clothing and M777 (howitzers) and the Gustaf anti-tank weapon system. Because these are all capabilities that Ukraine has specifically requested."

The four M777 howitzers and the 100 Carl Gustaf recoilless rifles were donated to Ukraine from the Canadian Army’s stocks and have yet to be replaced.

While it’s unclear the degree to which those donations have affected the Army’s training and readiness, defence analyst David Perry noted that Canada sent more than 10 per cent of the military’s stock of M777s.

The Canadian Army has 112 Leopard 2 tanks in a number of different configurations, according to the Department of National Defence, including 82 specifically designed for combat and 30 that are used for engineering and to recover disabled vehicles.

Retired lieutenant-general and former Army commander Marquis Hainse said that is a “limited" number, adding it would be difficult to share any without affecting the Army’s operations and capabilities.

“We must be careful not to deplete our own stock and not be able to maintain our expertise due to a lack of operational Leopard 2s in our own Canadian arsenal,” he said.

Retired lieutenant-general Mike Day said the reality is that Canada has the “bare minimum” needed to meet the Army’s operational and training needs — and that any donation would be “inconsequential and tokenism.”

He suggested the debate around providing tanks threatens to distract from the bigger picture of Ukraine’s overall needs, and how Canada and the international community are working to meet them.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin defended German leaders on Friday, saying: "They are a reliable ally and they’ve been that way for a very, very long time. And I truly believe that they’ll continue to be a reliable ally going forward."

Austin also downplayed the immediate importance of tanks, noting that Stryker combat vehicles and Bradley armoured vehicles being sent for the first time would give Ukraine new capabilities in the war. “This isn’t really about one single platform," he said.

Meanwhile, a Kremlin spokesman said the deployment of Western tanks would trigger "unambiguously negative" consequences. 

"All these tanks will require both maintenance and repairs, and so on, so (sending them) will add to Ukraine’s problems, but will not change anything with regard to the Russian side achieving its goals," Dmitry Peskov said during a media briefing Friday.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Smith

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2023.

⁠ — with files from The Associated Press.

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