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Free the Leopard? Why a German battle tank is now at the top of Ukraine’s weapons wish list

Kyiv says it needs tanks to take back its territory. So why aren’t its allies sending them?

Those pleas were a key subject of Friday’s NATO defense meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where defense ministers and military commanders gathered to discuss the state of the war and NATO’s assistance.

But at the Ramstein meeting, there was no deal.

“There is no unified consensus,” newly minted German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters. Zelenskyy himself, addressing the gathering remotely, said, “Hundreds of thank yous are not hundreds of tanks. … I cannot use words instead of guns.”

Aside from battle tanks, a number of countries are sending Ukraine a variety of sophisticated armored fighting vehicles and mobile artillery — again, having refused for various reasons to do so until now.

What difference might these armored vehicles make on the battlefield? Will they be enough to turn the tide in Ukraine’s favor in the months ahead? And if not, what will?

Why tanks?

Dan Grazier, a retired Marine Corps captain who served in tank units in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a defense policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, summed up what tanks bring to the battlefield as “armor-protected firepower that can be used at standoff ranges.” A modern battle tank like America’s Abrams, Germany’s Leopard or France’s Leclerc can hit targets as far as 3,500 yards away, move quickly and absorb all but the most powerful enemy fire. This combination of power, mobility and protection makes the battle tank vital for breaking through enemy lines and taking on the toughest targets.

Grazier says the heavy Russian losses early in the war had more to do with the military’s logistical hang-ups and failure to use terrain to its advantage than problems with the tanks themselves. “Just because the Russians suck at deploying tanks doesn’t mean their day is over,” he told Grid.

For all of Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes, further gains are likely to require a lot more time, bloodshed and — crucially — heavy armor.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told Grid that he sees Ukraine’s need for tanks in the context of a potential spring offensive.

Now, as Ukraine prepares for a phase of the war that may include not just holding the Russians at bay but recapturing heavily fortified Russian-held areas, it needs more armor, and preferably the superior NATO models.

When is a tank not a tank?

Members of the military often express exasperation or amusement at civilians’ tendency to label any armored fighting vehicle a “tank.” So-called main battle tanks like America’s Abrams or Germany’s Leopard are distinct from infantry fighting vehicles like America’s Bradley or Germany’s Marder, which are designed mainly for troop transport — and, confusingly, are sometimes referred to as “light tanks.” They are also distinct from self-propelled howitzers like the American Paladin, which fires from long distances and are not designed for close-quarters combat.

Why the Leopard matters

The Leopard is getting all the attention not because it’s significantly better than any other tank — experts say most of the modern Western tank systems are broadly similar — but because there are a lot of them in close proximity to Ukraine. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, there are around 2,000 Leopard battle tanks currently held by 13 of the continent’s armies. And unlike the Challenger and the Leclerc, new Leopards are still being produced.

What’s the holdup?

Tanks are, by their very nature, a provocation and a signal of a major military commitment.

For Germany there are other considerations. “Germany’s own history and German atrocities committed during the Second World War always play a role in public debates here,” said Loss. “The image of German-produced tanks going toe-to-toe again, after 80 years, with Russian tanks in Ukraine is something that a lot of people seem to struggle with.” Loss and other advocates of their deployment see this as a misplaced analogy when it comes to a war involving a “democratically elected government trying to defend its sovereign territory.”

“The Russians will complain like they always complain, but it’s no more ‘escalatory’ than HIMARS,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the rocket launcher system the U.S. began providing to Ukraine last summer.

Hodges was skeptical of this explanation. “The Ukrainians have demonstrated time and time again that they can learn how to use anything in about one third the time the rest of us can,” he said. “They can figure out the fuel thing.”

The last taboo

When it comes to aid for Ukraine, ECFR’s Loss said, “There aren’t that many more taboos we can get hung up on. The heavy tank debate is one of the last ones.” (A few more “taboos” still linger: long-range missiles like the ATACMS, fighter jets and advanced combat drones.)

“The important thing is to keep up the general level of support across the board. We’re building this thing piece by piece,” he said. “A lot of people are hoping there will be a silver bullet, that if we send HIMARS, Patriots or tanks it will be a game changer. That’s not going to happen.”

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