Where is the leopard?: What the German-Polish tank dispute is about

Poland has delivered 240 Soviet-designed tanks to Ukraine, which Germany wanted to replace by supplying Leopard tanks.

Where is the leopard?: What the German-Polish tank dispute is about

Poland has delivered 240 Soviet-designed tanks to Ukraine, which Germany wanted to replace by supplying Leopard tanks. This exchange of rings escalates into a dispute in which Warsaw accuses the federal government of breaching its word. It's a dispute that has a history and many shades of gray.

This was a special Sunday for Poland's President Andrzej Duda, with what he called a "historic speech". He was the first foreign politician to address the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj is said to have been the initiator himself, who made this appearance possible for his Polish counterpart. An opportunity that Duda, for whom it was the second visit to Kyiv since the Russian invasion, took advantage of. In his speech, he not only addressed Russian war crimes, but also emphasized Poland's solidarity with Ukraine and the special Polish-Ukrainian relationship.

While in the past there has always been tension between Warsaw and Kyiv over the historical interpretation of Stepan Bandera and his insurgent army, who fought in a Polish-Ukrainian partisan war in what is now western Ukraine in the Volhynia massacre between 1943 and 1944, it is estimated that up to killed 100,000 Polish civilians, those differences have faded into the background since February 24. Poland has been hit by a wave of solidarity that has almost reached the proportions of a tsunami and is unmistakable due to the omnipresent Ukrainian flags in the towns between the Oder and Bug.

Like hardly any other country, Poland also provides active aid. According to the "Ukraine Support Tracker" of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Poland is the fourth largest supporter of the country invaded by Russia after the USA, Great Britain and the European Union. If you measure the aid by gross national product, Poland even ranks third with its aid. Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world, can only be found in 14th place. Not counting aid to the nearly 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the border into Poland since the Russian invasion, most of whom have remained in the Vistula country.

The military support that Poland provided to Ukraine included assault rifles and anti-tank weapons made in Poland, as well as 240 T-72 tanks, the delivery of which Poland announced around four weeks ago and are now probably also being used by the Ukrainian army. These come from the stockpiles of the Polish army and, as announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in April, should be replaced by German supplies to the eastern NATO partners who still have weapons from the former Soviet Union in their stockpiles.

But there are obviously enormous problems with the ring exchange announced by Scholz. Although 15 Leopard tanks were delivered to the Czech Republic, there were problems with the delivery of tanks to Slovenia. There are loud differences regarding the exchange of rings, especially between Berlin and Warsaw. Last Saturday it became known that the negotiations are now so deadlocked that the Polish government is accusing Berlin of "breach of word". And as if that wasn't enough, high-ranking Polish politicians have even stepped up their game in recent days. "You haven't kept that promise. And frankly, we're very disappointed about that," said President Duda on the fringes of the World Economic Forum in Davos in an interview with "Welt". Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak went even further, telling a Polish radio station on Tuesday: "For decades, the Germans have built up Putin's military strength. Now they are making statements that are not followed by action."

The reason for the dispute and the fierce allegations is the Leopard tank. Because to replace its old T-72, Poland is demanding the delivery of the latest Leopard tanks. However, not even the Bundeswehr has this at the moment, which is why, according to the German statement, fast delivery is not possible.

It is currently difficult to say to what extent the Polish allegations are justified. The federal government rejects the Polish allegations. What can be said with certainty: Behind the current allegations against Berlin is not only the anti-German folklore typical of the national conservatives in power in Poland.

Even before the Russian invasion, Poland, like other East Central European countries, was disappointed by Germany's hesitant support for Ukraine. The mood towards Berlin has not improved in the past three months. "I don't praise the Germans, because they have a lot on their plate and are partly responsible for the current situation in the region," said Donald Tusk, the former EU Council President and chairman of the largest opposition party "Citizens' Coalition", which, like the entire liberal and left opposition in Poland actually has a positive attitude towards Germany.

Tusk is not an isolated case. The dispute over the tanks is only the famous last drop in the mixed situation, which - after years of disagreement over Nord Stream 2, the warnings about German Russia policy ignored by Berlin and most recently the hesitant help for Ukraine - brought the camel to the overflow. Both in the national-conservative camp and in the opposition.

At the same time, Berlin's hesitant behavior is helping the Polish government, which has acted with new self-confidence on the international stage since February 24, also in the dispute with the EU. A leading EU state like Germany, which is hesitant not only to help Ukraine but also to keep its promises to its own partners, serves Warsaw as a fig leaf when it comes to the rule of law or freedom of the press in its own country. The traffic light coalition, which attributes a special role to European integration in its coalition agreement, has attributed this dilemma to itself. If only because of their lack of communication, which device Germany can actually deliver.

At the same time, the question arises as to why the Polish government is pushing so hard for the latest Leopard models. Already last year it became known that Poland wants to buy 250 American Abrams tanks. A deal that was also engineered due to disagreements regarding the modernization of Leopard tanks already used by the Polish army and was signed a month ago.

With the Abrams, the tanks from their own production, which are based on the Soviet T-72, and the Leopards, the Polish army would have three different models in their ranks. According to experts, this would not only make logistics more difficult, but would also be expensive. The price would rise further if Poland accepted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's offer. He proposed British Challenger 2 to compensate for the T-72 delivered to Ukraine. If Poland accepted it, it would be the fourth tank model in the Polish army's stocks.

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