Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Germany has a unique historical responsibility to help defend a free and sovereign Ukraine. Europe’s central power is also uniquely qualified to shape a larger European response, designed to end Vladimir Putin’s criminal war of terror in a way which also deters future aggression around places such as Taiwan. As a signal of strategic intent to measure up to this double obligation, from the past and for the future, the Berlin government should commit at the Ukraine defence contact group meeting in Ramstein, Germany, this Friday, not only to allow countries such as Poland and Finland to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine but also do so itself, in a co-ordinated European action. Call it the European Leopard Plan.
Germany’s historical responsibility comes in three unequal stages. Eighty years ago, Nazi Germany was itself fighting a war of terror on this very same Ukrainian soil: the same cities, towns and villages were its victims as are now Russia’s. No historical comparison is exact, but Mr. Putin’s attempt to destroy the independent existence of a neighbouring nation, with war crimes, genocidal actions and relentless targeting of the civilian population, is the closest we have come in Europe since 1945 to what Adolf Hitler did in the Second World War.
The second stage of historical responsibility comes from what German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has honestly described as the “bitter failure” of German policy toward Russia following the annexation of Crimea and the start of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine in 2014. That policy could accurately be characterized as appeasement. Fatefully, far from reducing its energy dependence on Russia, Germany further increased it after 2014, to more than 50 per cent of its total gas imports, as well as building the never-used Nordstream 2 pipeline.
This historic mistake led to the third and most recent stage. A month after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, a group of leading German figures formulated an appeal for an immediate boycott of fossil fuels from Russia. “Looking back on its history,” they wrote, “Germany has repeatedly vowed that there must NEVER AGAIN be wars of conquest and crimes against humanity. Today the hour has come to honour that vow.” (Full disclosure: I co-signed this appeal.) Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided against this radical course, arguing that it would endanger “hundreds of thousands of jobs” and plunge both Germany and Europe into recession. Instead, the country made hugely impressive efforts, led by the Green economy minister Robert Habeck, to wean itself off Russian energy.
While doing so, however, it was paying Russian bills that had soared precisely because of the impact of the war on energy prices. According to a careful analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, in the first six months of the full-scale war, Germany paid Russia some €19-billion for oil, gas and coal. For comparison: Russia’s entire military budget for six months in 2021 was around €30-billion.
To its credit, the German government’s position on military support for Ukraine has moved a very long way since the eve of the Russian invasion. In total figures of defence aid promised, Germany is among Ukraine’s leading supporters, as it is in humanitarian, economic and financial support. But on arms supplies it has been hesitant and confused, always at the reluctant end of the Western convoy.
On a sober strategic analysis, the only realistic path to a lasting peace is to step up military support for Ukraine so it can regain most of its own territory and then itself negotiate peace from a position of strength. The alternatives are an unstable stalemate, a temporary ceasefire or an effective Ukrainian defeat. Mr. Putin would then have demonstrated to Xi Jinping, and other dictators around the world, that armed aggression and nuclear blackmail can pay off handsomely. Next stop, Taiwan.
The exact mix of military means needed by Ukraine is a matter for the experts. But any large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive will now require modern battle tanks. Leopard 2 is the best-suited and most widely available such tank, with – so effective are German arms exports – more than 2,000 of them held by 12 other European armies beside the Bundeswehr.
This has also become a litmus test of Germany’s courage to resist Mr. Putin’s nuclear blackmail, overcome its own domestic cocktail of fears and doubts, and defend a free and sovereign Ukraine. In stepping to the front of a European Leopard Plan for Ukraine, Mr. Scholz would be showing German leadership that the entire West would welcome. He would also be learning the right lessons from Germany’s modern and very recent history.