The Guardian view on Germany and Ukraine: a fateful hesitation | Ukraine

As Sherlock Holmes once pointed out, something that does not happen can be as significant as something that does. Friday’s meeting of defence ministers at Ramstein in Germany had been billed as the moment when the western allies, Germany above all, would finally commit the battle tanks that Ukraine has been demanding. It didn’t happen. As our own weekend report delicately expressed it, Germany declined to take a decision.

Although tanks dominated the headlines, a lot of military commitments came out of Ramstein. A US package, worth $2.5bn, includes fighting vehicles, air defence and rockets. Nine other allies gave more support, too, including tanks from the UK. These are the latest steps in the gradual extension of western military support and hardening of attitudes. They are a recognition that the spring will be decisive and that Ramstein will shape the military outcome.

Germany nevertheless hesitated to commit tanks itself or to allow allies with German tanks to do so. It did this for many reasons, each individually understandable but which cumulatively underestimate the larger reality of Russian aggression. The worries include American caution, German history, reluctance to be Europe’s military leader, divisions in German public opinion, coalition government unity, a new defence minister and, above all, future relations with Russia. Berlin may be Ukraine’s biggest European backer in spending terms, but it is often slow to act.

Reactions to Ramstein in the Baltic states, but also in Germany, suggest the hesitation over tanks may in fact be temporary. It was not an irrevocable rejection. It nevertheless embodies lingering indecision about how far to engage in support of Ukraine. That will be read in Moscow as European weakness, not unjustly. Yet the case for supporting Ukraine has not changed by one iota. The need to resist the threat from Russia has not declined. The threat from Putin in eastern Europe and to democracy is undiminished.

Overall, as the UK’s Ministry of Defence claimed at the weekend, the military situation in Ukraine is currently a winter stalemate. But Russia is engaged in a massive buildup of troops in the east and south of occupied Ukraine, and hints at a fresh push from Belarus. Although the Russian effort is riddled with disinformation, logistical shortcomings and factional rivalries, not least between the official defence forces and the parallel Wagner Group, Vladimir Putin is determined to escalate the assault.

Large deployments of western tanks would reshape Ukraine’s war effort. Western battle tanks are faster than Russian ones, have bigger and more accurate firepower, are better protected and can operate at night. They would be a crucial part of any integrated Ukrainian military advance, aiming to retake territory from the Russians and perhaps creating conditions for some kind of provisional peace talks. They would also be essential to any large-scale defence of Ukrainian gains in the face of Russian counterattacks.

Last Friday’s hesitation is logistical as well. Getting tanks to the frontline is not straightforward. In the end, though, all of this comes back to German political will. Berlin has already given Ukraine more arms – including self-propelling heavy artillery and armoured personnel vehicles – than is sometimes acknowledged. But Germany could now allow Ukraine to receive the tanks to beat the Russians back. If it does not, the fate of Ukrainians may have been decided by what did not happen at Ramstein.

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