The biggest moment in the Ukraine war this week took place hundreds of miles from the battlefield. After days of diplomatic pressure from its increasingly exasperated NATO allies, Germany announced Wednesday that it would send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, a potentially pivotal move in the conflict that could decisively tip the balance in Kyiv’s favor.
The United States and a number of European nations will also provide sophisticated battle tanks to Ukrainian forces. A spring offensive is expected from Moscow, but Ukraine’s battle to reclaim its territory from Russia will soon be boosted by the arrival of powerful and modern Western weaponry.
On Germany’s streets, however, reactions were mixed. From concerns about how the war may now escalate to a belief that its government is doing the right thing, people appeared to diverge on whether the decision was right. And the country is fractured along party lines, generations and geography.
Those CNN spoke to preferred to be identified by their first names only. Manuel, a 29-year-old German citizen living in Berlin, told CNN that he feared the decision could fuel Moscow’s anger and aggravate the almost year-long conflict. “I don’t think Russia will attack any NATO member, at least for now. But I’d be worried about a harsher retaliation, directed on Ukraine and its people,” he said.
For trained carpenter Eric, 27, from Paderborn in western Germany, it is important to support Ukraine in its war against Russia. However, he is also concerned that providing Kyiv with Leopard 2 tanks could create more problems than it solves.
“The deployment and use of the Leopard 2 is a great asset for Ukrainian warfare, but we have to face the fact that this involves obstacles and also political consequences.
“In addition to logistics, the Ukrainian armed forces need to be trained in the handling and maintenance of the Leopard 2,” Eric added. “This is most likely not going to happen in Ukraine, which means that NATO and Germany will again intervene more directly in the war.”
He views his government’s move as a “major interference” in the war between Russia and Ukraine. “The deployment of tanks and the training of Ukrainian troops could be considered and turned into a declaration of war by Germany and NATO at any time,” he believes.
Barbara, a 59-year-old librarian from western Germany, understands Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s reluctance to bow to international pressure yet thinks Germany should stay out of the conflict where possible. “I don’t agree with sending all this war equipment to Ukraine,” she told CNN. “We offer a lot of civilian help, so when it comes to the war, it’s good to be reluctant.”
For others, the need to help Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression outweighs the cons. Another German, who identified herself as Sybille, said: “For me it is a big problem that so many people lose their lives and therefore I would try to give my understanding for the delivery of tanks, especially as the lawyers say that it is not against international law and I think Russia does not respect any laws in our world.”
After months of hesitation, the German government announced Wednesday that it would answer Kyiv’s calls for the high-tech Leopard 2 tanks, following weeks of pressure on Berlin from some of its NATO allies.
The move was coupled with an announcement from US President Joe Biden that he was providing 31 M1 Abrams tanks, reversing the administration’s resistance to providing Kyiv with the highly sophisticated but maintenance-heavy vehicles.
Hours after Germany and the US revealed their plans, Russia fired dozens of missiles at Ukraine, signaling Moscow’s rage at the developments and indicating that it will aim to damage Ukrainian resolve amid the race to get the new tanks onto the battlefield.
Polls show a divided country
A public opinion poll carried out earlier this month also highlights the difference in German attitudes. The Deutschlandtrend poll conducted by public broadcaster ARD on January 19 asked respondents the question “Should Germany deliver heavy battle tanks like the ‘Leopard’ to Ukraine or not?”.
The results showed that 46% of Germans were in favor of sending such tanks, while 43% were against it.
Clear differences in opinion could be seen among eastern and western Germans as well as younger and older generations.
The poll showed that there was more support for sending heavy battle tanks in Germany’s western states, with every second person supporting the delivery, while in the former communist states, 59% rejected the idea.
For Eric, this geographical split makes sense. “East Germany has a high proportion of right-wing citizens and AfD [far-right party Alternative for Germany] voters, and a different history with Russia due to the occupation after the Second World War, thus a greater distrust in political decisions,” he said.
Age also plays a factor as, according to the poll, older generations were more likely to approve the sending of the tanks. Some 52% of 18- to 24-year-olds believed Germany should not deliver the tanks.
The clearest divide was political. A high proportion of supporters of Germany’s left-leaning Green Party – 61% – approved the delivery. The result was less clear among Scholz’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), with just 49% in favor.
The heaviest rejection for the delivery of heavy battle tanks came from AfD supporters. A hefty 84% of them rejected the delivery of Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
In the wake of Wednesday’s decision, AfD co-leader Tino Chrupalla’s condemnation was clear as he labeled the move “irresponsible and dangerous.”
“Germany is in danger of being drawn directly into the war as a result,” he wrote on Twitter.
History plays a role
Librarian Barbara admits that her country has a “difficult history” while Berliner Manuel believes that since the end of World War II Germany has adopted a “strong anti-militaristic culture” which is now deeply embedded in the German psyche.
“Any direct or indirect involvement in a war is not left unquestioned,” he explained.
While it is true that modern Germany has been reluctant to become involved in international conflicts against the backdrop of post-WWII demilitarization, the country has adopted an evolving approach to security and military policy in the wake of Moscow’s war on Ukraine.
The new approach has come amid accusations from Berlin’s Western allies of being comparatively slower in offering support to Kyiv – partly due to its dependence on Russian gas.
‘A relief for mistreated Ukraine’
Political figures in Germany also weighed in on the debate this week.
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a member of parliament and former deputy leader of Germany’s centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP), described Germany’s decision to supply the Leopard 2 as “arduous, but unavoidable.”
She added that the decision would come as “a relief for a mistreated and brave Ukraine.”
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly stressed the need for the delivery of the heavy battle tanks including the Leopard 2, believing they will provide a powerful fighting vehicle for Ukraine, boost its forces ahead of the potential Russian spring offensive.
German lawmaker Ralf Stegner, who is a member of Scholz’s SPD, spoke critically of a “Free the Leopards” hashtag that has cropped up on social media, a tongue-in-cheek expression calling for the tanks’ deployment on the battlefield.
“People talk about ‘Free the Leopards’ as if they were zoo animals. It’s far too serious a matter to deal with it as if it’s a social media event,” he told German free-to-air television channel Phoenix.
Stegner questioned whether the tanks could drastically change the course of the war in Ukraine’s favor, or just lead to a prolonged conflict and more, devastating civilian causalities.
“We need to consider the end; we need to ask what comes after this? We had the decision with the Marder (infantry fighting vehicles). As soon as that was made, the debate started immediately about battle tanks. How do we go from here? Does it really shorten the war, or does it just lead to more war deaths?”
Stegner concluded: ”In the end, history books will show whether [the decision] was right or not.”
ARD-Deutschlandtrend interviewed 1211 German citizens who are eligible to vote. The survey was carried out from January 17-18, 2023. Data was weighted to represent sociodemographic factors and voting trends. Results have a margin of error of plus or minus two points.
Nadine Schmidt and Claudia Otto reported from Berlin and Sophie Tanno reported and wrote in London.