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Analysis | Forget ‘autonomy’: Europe needs the US more than ever


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was this week selling his long-delayed nod for Western supplies to Ukraine of German-made main battle tanks as a case study in prudent leadership. It was certainly a welcome step forward in helping Ukraine defeat the Russian invaders. But the long and arduous negotiations between NATO allies that led to this breakthrough offer a different, more sobering conclusion for the European Union – and about Germany’s role in it.

It is that today and for the foreseeable future, as during the Cold War, Europe remains completely dependent on the US for its security. The flip side of this reality is that stilted views of the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron about European “autonomy” remain utopias, and so distractions are best tossed into diplomats’ dustbins.

The backstory that enabled Scholz to “free the Leopards”—that is, enable shipments of German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine—is one of transatlantic tension and frustration. Eastern NATO and EU members – Poland and the Baltic states – have been pushing for these deliveries since last summer. The US has been helping in recent months. But the Germans refused until this week.

The reason was that Scholz not only feared that the war in Ukraine would develop into a conflict between Russia and NATO – no one wants that – but above all that Germany would come in the crosshairs of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Delivering Leopard 2s, Scholz feared, might provoke him to escalate.

As talks progressed and became more urgent – with a “war of maneuvers” expected to begin in the spring – Scholz therefore clarified his position. Germany would only agree to send Leopards if the Americans also sent their main battle tanks, the M1 Abrams.

From a military point of view, sending Abrams tanks doesn’t make much sense. They are probably the most complex tanks out there, requiring not only the longest training, but also the most extensive supply chains for their specialized fuels and parts. Ukraine needs state-of-the-art tanks, but also more agile and easier to learn, and faster to ship and deploy. Leopards fit that description best. So the Americans initially said no.

The other allies understood the conundrum and tried to get Scholz to work, even without Abrams in tow. Poland’s populist government, which is running an election campaign based largely on anti-German rhetoric, has publicly pressured and embarrassed Germany, even threatening last week to send some of its own Leopard 2s to Ukraine without Berlin’s permission. The British took a more subtle approach, promising 14 of their own Challenger 2 tanks, figuring that going first would give Scholz enough cover.

None of this was enough to influence the chancellor. The Poles only annoyed him, as he hinted this week when he addressed the Bundestag. And the UK – sorry, British – apparently did not seem to him a sufficiently important Western power to be Germany’s wingman. Scholz insisted on having the Americans there.

US President Joe Biden understood what was at stake. This is how, for political rather than military reasons, the Americans came by last week and announced that they would still be sending M1 Abrams tanks – 31 of them, even though they may take many months to arrive on the battlefield. Privately, the people in the Pentagon and the White House are annoyed by Scholz’s hesitation and harassment. They publicly praise his leadership in keeping the Western alliance united against Putin. And with that support, Scholz felt ready to release his big cats.

What matters now is that the tanks actually arrive in Ukraine in time for the spring offensives by both invaders and defenders. This applies to the already promised British Challengers, the smaller Bradleys, Marders and other armored fighting vehicles, but especially to the Leopards.

In all, the Europeans — from Germany and Poland to Spain, the Netherlands, Finland and others — were able to throw in about a hundred. But getting them to Ukraine will be a nightmare because Putin will fool them all the way. Fueling and repairing them is another story, as is using them properly to break through Russian lines.

One person who has been remarkably quiet during this diplomatic drama is Macron. He has hinted that France may also send some of its Leclerc tanks, but gave no more details than that. Just last weekend, he hosted Scholz at the Sorbonne, along with hundreds of legislators from both countries, for a grand celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty. That is the deal that sealed the friendship, and allegedly the common destiny, of France and Germany as a power couple that could one day – or so Paris hoped – form a strong Europe together and wean it from US tutelage.

So much for all that. What Scholz and Biden agreed this week is good for Ukraine, if it needs to be followed by even more guns and support. But their understanding also takes into account all views that Germany is closer to becoming a “leader” within a Europe that can itself become autonomous within the Western alliance, and a geopolitical force in its own right. Maybe it’s good that we have that sorted out.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

So we are in a polycrisis. Is that even a thing?: Andreas Kluth

Big lesson from the war in Ukraine: there is only one superpower: Hal Brands

The war in Ukraine is still relatively low tech – for now: Leonid Bershidsky

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. He is a former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist. He is the author of ‘Hannibal and Me’.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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