Germany’s reluctance to send tanks to fight Russia in Ukraine war was more about money than guilt

The symbolism won’t be lost on even Germany’s fiercest critics in Nato. In a matter of months – or weeks – Germans tanks will be attacking and killing Russian soldiers on what the Kremlin – however deluded it might be – regards as Russia territory.

Tanks are perhaps the most potent of all symbols relating to Germany’s invasions of its European neighbours in the last century.

Today’s German elite will not have forgotten that Berlin’s Panzer divisions were the power behind the Blitzkrieg and the invasion of Russia in 1941.

While the Kremlin’s fiercest critics in Poland, London and the Baltic states believe Russia must be defeated in Ukraine and its Vladimir Putin punished for war crimes, it has been suggested that lingering guilt over Germany’s roles in World War II has reduced Berlin’s appetite for giving Kyiv the offensive weapons it needs to expel the Russian invaders.

After the German government announced it was sending its advanced Leopard 2 tanks to aid Ukraine, Russian rhetoric was quick in coming. On Wednesday, the Kremlin’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declared that Berlin’s decision to supply tanks was part of a “pre-planned war” against Moscow.

This is the sort of reaction Germany is keen to avoid. It and the other key EU powe, France, which is always keen to have a controlling say in continental affairs, have talked of the need for a new security architecture to accommodate Russia’s concerns – and a return to how things were before February 2022. It’s unclear how this would prevent a repeat of the current, grisly conflict.

However, German guilt is not the only reason for its reluctance to arm Ukraine to the teeth; it might not even be the real reason.

RUSSIA - MAY 01: World War II. Russian front. German Panzer IV-D tanks on the road to Kerch (Crimea), May 1942. (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
German Panzer IV-D tanks on the road to Kerch in Crimea in May 1942, amid Hitler’s invasion of Russia during the Second World War (Photo: Roger Viollet via Getty)

Europe’s biggest economy has made countless billions selling washing machines and BMWs to Russia. Unsurprisingly, the immensely powerful German business community is horrified by the prospect of shattered financial ties with Moscow.

Well, that ship has now well and truly sailed, despite the best efforts of some in Olaf Scholz’s government – national security policy adviser Jens Plötner, springs to mind – to preserve Germany-Russia ties.

William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of strategy, technology, and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told me that he was “constantly amazed how the issues of arms control have been used as a means to protect German business interests”.

He noted that “red line after red line” has already been crossed in Moscows’ brutal onslaught against Ukraine. “Russia will make a fuss, but is it really going to flip because of 14 German tanks? I don’t think so.”

Anyway, the tangled symbolism over tanks is not just raising hackles in Russia. Tanks were also used by the Soviet Union to great effect in World War II, including in the 1945 Battle of Berlin. To this day, its tanks stand in the German capital as a symbol of the Soviet victory over the Nazis. Some Germans now ask whether that’s appropriate given the nature of Putin’s regime.

More from World

MPs in main conservative political party the Christian Democrat Union have called for such Russian-Soviet guns and tanks that are on display to be dismantled.

Learning from recent history – rather than being unduly swayed by symbolism – suggests that Berlin is making the right decision in helping Ukraine defeat its Russian invaders. Accommodating Putin simply allows it to continue his revanchist plans another day

Flawed treaties with Russia, such as the French and German-mediated accords after Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014, suggest any peace deals with the Kremlin no may only be a prelude to misery and violence further down the line.

The symbolism won’t be lost on even Germany’s fiercest critics in Nato. In a matter of months – or weeks – Germans tanks will be attacking and killing Russian soldiers on what the Kremlin – deluded as it is – regards as Russian territory.

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