Europe Stays in Washington’s Shadow as It Argues Over Tanks for Ukraine

BRUSSELS— Fear that the U.S. could eventually dial back its support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion is adding to the pressure on Europe to increase its own military and financial aid to Kyiv.

The frustration in many European capitals over Berlin’s resistance to sending German-made tanks isn’t only because of their battlefield utility, but also because Germany is making Europe’s response to the war even more dependent on the U.S., officials and analysts say.

German Chancellor

Olaf Scholz

has for many weeks insisted that Germany would only send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine if the U.S. first sends Abrams tanks, a move that Berlin says would give it greater protection against an angry Russian reaction.

Other European countries, including the U.K., Poland and Estonia, say Europe can’t afford to hide behind the U.S., which is delivering more military aid to Ukraine but says the Abrams tanks aren’t what Kyiv needs.

On Tuesday, Poland said it had formally asked for permission to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, increasing pressure on Germany to back the supply of heavier weapons to Kyiv. Legally, Berlin needs to give consent before the German-made tanks can be re-exported.

“It’s concerning how dependent European countries are on the U.S.,” said Kristi Raik, Deputy Director of Estonia’s International Centre for Defence and Security, a think tank in Tallinn. “Some countries are waking up to this.”

Russia’s continuing escalation of the nearly year-old war is one factor behind the sense of urgency in many European countries. Moscow’s mobilization of 300,000 extra troops has helped it to bolster its occupation of Ukraine’s east and south, and to prepare fresh advances.

But U.S. domestic politics are also heightening European fears that time is running out when it comes to Ukraine’s ability to defeat the Russian invasion.

The political divisions between the Biden administration and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives mean that securing further funding for Ukraine’s defense could prove difficult after the currently authorized funds expire on Sept. 30.

Some European officials also say they fear that additional arms for Ukraine will slide down the U.S. political agenda as the campaign for the 2024 presidential election gets under way—and that the next president might follow a different course.

The British government decided earlier this month to send a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks and extra artillery to Ukraine to encourage other European allies to increase their support for Kyiv, U.K. officials said, citing the risk of a long and bloody stalemate unless the West accelerates its military aid.

British officials are concerned that President Biden might struggle to muster sufficient bipartisan support to keep U.S. military aid flowing beyond this fall. Some Republican members of Congress are critical of the billions of dollars in aid for Kyiv. There is also a growing push in Congress for greater scrutiny of what happens to the money and arms handed over, which could slow supplies. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said Ukraine will no longer receive a “blank check.”

Against that background, many countries in Northern and Eastern Europe are angry over Germany’s repeated reluctance to support Ukraine more proactively, which has the unintended consequence of deepening Europe’s reliance on the U.S. for its military protection and political leadership against Russia.

Germany points out that it is one of the biggest providers of arms and ammunition to Ukraine, along with the U.K., although U.S. support easily outstrips European countries’.

However, Germany has approved the dispatch of heavy weapons, such as artillery and armored vehicles, only after long delays and under heavy pressure from other allies, so that instead of earning political credit for its aid, Berlin has added to mistrust elsewhere in Europe over how far it really wants to challenge Russia’s aggression, according to allied officials.

German leaders have previously said that Europe can’t rely forever on the U.S.’s willingness to defend it. But German governments have for years postponed meaningful action to beef up their own national-security policy by running down the equipment and readiness of the German military and focusing their foreign policy on trade promotion.

Mr. Scholz’s opposition to giving Kyiv German-made Leopard 2 tanks unless the U.S. sends Abrams has frustrated both pro-Atlanticist countries such as the U.K. and those who want a more independent European security policy, led by France.

French President

Emmanuel Macron

has for years championed what he calls “strategic autonomy” for Europe, where it would take a more muscular stance within alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

When former President

Donald Trump

criticized Europe and hinted he might pull the U.S. out of NATO, German officials also said Europe should do more for its own security.

But Russia’s war on Ukraine has exposed Europe’s continued dependence on Washington to defend the region.

It has also sidelined the notion that France and Germany could lead a more autonomous Europe on the world stage. Paris and Berlin’s cautious approach to arming Kyiv and their diplomatic outreach to Russian President

Vladimir Putin

in search of a peace deal have increased longstanding mistrust toward them in NATO countries closer to Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic nations.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius attends a meeting to discuss a new arms package for Ukraine.


Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

When Mr. Trump was president, “It was all about ‘How do we do without the U.S.,” said Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, director of the Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Since Russia’s large-scale invasion in February last year, she said, “Europe is even more reliant on the U.S.”

This reliance was evident earlier this month when top European Union and NATO officials jointly signed a declaration that said “NATO remains the foundation of collective defense” for its members and the core of trans-Atlantic security. Observers said the declaration effectively cements U.S.-led NATO as Europe’s defender.

Over the past year, NATO members have taken steps to meet or exceed their commitments from 2014 to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and tighten cooperation within NATO, bolstering Washington’s role in Europe through the alliance.

Now, Germany’s insistence that it will only follow the U.S.’s lead in sending main battle tanks reinforces that deference.

After many years of talking about how Europe needs to take more responsibility, “we are facing this moment, this question of whether Europe will really put maximum effort into supporting Ukraine and helping Ukraine win the war,” said Ms. Raik, from the Tallinn think tank, during a gathering at the Estonian Embassy to the EU in Brussels last week.

“Then suddenly Germany is making it conditional on a U.S. decision and U.S. policy,” she said. “So what does this say about whether Europe can be taken seriously as a security actor?”

While Germany has done much to help Ukraine, its handling of the debate over the Leopards “has been counterproductive [and] has undermined German credibility,” Ms. Raik said.


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German diplomat Thomas Ossowski, a senior official at Berlin’s EU Embassy, responded that Germany was conducting a democratic internal debate over sending tanks. “Thank God we have democratic discussions in our countries” and not autocrats, he said.

“We always make sure that whatever we do here in Europe as a defense body or a security body, we do that in close coordination with our trans-Atlantic partner,” Mr. Ossowski said. Germany understands that people are dying in Ukraine, he added. “We are all fully aware of the urgency.”

Write to Daniel Michaels at and Marcus Walker at

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