Germany promised swift tank swaps to aid Ukraine. It hasn’t happened.

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

Press play to listen to this article

BERLIN — It’s a hot candidate for the German word of the year — and increasingly a synonym for the problems surrounding Berlin’s military support for Ukraine: “Ringtausch.”

Unlike its literal meaning — the exchange of rings at a wedding — the word has come to encompass the tank-swap scheme German Chancellor Olaf Scholz proposed in April. His promise: If Germany’s European allies sent Ukraine their older tanks, Berlin would quickly replace those vehicles from its own supply. 

Three months later, however, Berlin is struggling to implement many of these deals, leading to a delay in tank deliveries to Ukraine as the country tries to fend off Russian advances in the east and prepares an offensive aiming to reconquer territory in the south.

Now, Scholz is coming under increasing pressure over the sluggish pace. Not only is Germany’s center-right opposition taking him to task, members of his own coalition are publicly grumbling. Adding to the troubles, NATO ally Poland has openly accused Germany of not delivering on its commitments, with Warsaw’s Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak saying the offer had been “just a propaganda effort.”

“The Ringtausch has become a dead end because of Chancellor Scholz’s hesitancy,” said Friedrich Merz, leader of Germany’s main opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). “It should give him some food for thought that even Poland — one of our most important partners — is now sharply criticizing the German government for its inaction.”

Polish defense minister Mariusz Błaszczak | Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Merz traveled to Warsaw on Wednesday to discuss the political tensions with Polish officials, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

It’s a well-timed political affront that highlights the political crisis between Berlin and Warsaw — government chiefs don’t normally welcome a partner’s opposition leader. And for Scholz, the fresh attacks carry the risk of domestic political trouble.

Although Berlin this week delivered fresh military support to Ukraine — and authorized a Kyiv request to purchase 100 German-made howitzers in the longer term — the trouble around the Ringtausch has refocused attention on an issue that has dogged the chancellor since the war’s early days: His reluctance to supply Ukraine with Germany’s most powerful vehicles.

Who gets German tanks?

The discussions center on two of Germany’s most powerful weapons, the Leopard battle tank and the Marder, an infantry fighting vehicle.

Instead of sending the Leopards or Marders directly to Ukraine, Scholz in April proposed a swap scheme under which NATO countries that still possess Soviet-era tanks would donate them to Kyiv in return for more modern German tanks. 

The chancellor argued that the Ringtausch model would be more advantageous for Ukraine. Kyiv’s military would get the same Soviet-style tank models its forces already use and, in theory, avoid the training and logistics required to operate and repair the German tanks.

In practice, however, the tank swap has made minimal progress. 

So far, Germany has only made significant advances in striking a deal with the Czech Republic. Other potential agreements with Slovakia, Slovenia and Greece remain stuck in negotiations. And, to make matters worse, Polish officials claim their swapping arrangement has essentially failed.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Prague on Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock admitted, in a diplomatic tone, that the government was struggling to implement the swap deals.

“I am glad that the Ringtausch with the Czech Republic is on the right track,” she said. “We must also make sure that this can also be done with the other [tank swap deals].”

Baerbock, from Scholz’s Green coalition partner, had previously urged the chancellor to directly send German tanks to Ukraine. But Scholz and senior members of his Social Democratic Party (SPD) are worried the move could provoke Russia and even escalate the situation into World War III.

Consequently, the government has painstakingly sought to avoid giving any impression it will send tanks to Ukraine. 

Even when Germany this week delivered the first three of 30 Gepard anti-aircraft tanks to the country, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht argued those weapons do not count as tanks in the classical sense. Tellingly, a government list of military support for Ukraine only names the Gepard as a “self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.”

‘Massive damage to Germany’s reputation’

Scholz has repeatedly said he’s closely coordinating weapon deliveries with other NATO partners, and that so far no other ally — including the United States — has delivered modern Western tanks to Kyiv.

For the chancellor, the Ringtausch seemed a comfortable solution. Not only would it supply the Ukrainian military with ready-to-use tanks, it would include an element of deniability, making it harder for Russia to know whether it was fighting regular Ukrainian tanks or Western-supplied machines. 

However, apart from the tank swap with the Czech Republic — under which Germany agreed to supply Prague with 14 Leopard 2A4 tanks and one tank-recovery vehicle — other agreements still haven’t been finalized.

In many cases, the problem is that partner countries want better gear from Germany. Slovenia, for example, was offered 1970s-era Marder infantry vehicles but asked instead for the more modern Boxer armored fighting vehicle, officials said. Berlin declined the request, as Germany has not even sufficiently equipped its own armed forces with that model.

Things got particularly tense with Poland, which supplied around 280 T-72 tanks to Ukraine in the first months of the war and then asked Berlin to help with replacements.

“First, it took the German government months to reply, and then they offered to only send 20 Leopard 2 tanks, with the first one to be delivered in April next year and then the next ones following successively in the following quarters,” Roderich Kiesewetter, a CDU lawmaker focused on defense policy, told POLITICO.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“That’s just not adequate,” Kiesewetter added. “A senior official in the Polish foreign ministry told me: ‘If it had been at least a battalion, meaning 48 to 56 Leopard tanks, that could have been acceptable.’ But we were not willing to provide that — and all this is leading to massive damage to Germany’s reputation in eastern Europe.”

German deputy government spokesperson Christine Hoffmann told reporters on Monday that the tank swap talks with partner countries “are proceeding very constructively,” and added that the government remained “optimistic” a deal could still be reached with Poland.

Ruling coalition pushes for more

Scholz’s own governing coalition is getting antsy about the lack of progress on tank shipments.

“I supported the idea of the Ringtausch very early and resolutely,” Michael Roth, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a senior SPD lawmaker, told POLITICO. “Months ago, it was mainly about providing Ukraine with short-term support in the form of weapons that soldiers there could operate without lengthy training. Unfortunately, that hasn’t really worked out so far.”

Given these struggles, Germany should “expand” its military supplies to Ukraine, Roth said, hinting at a possible direct delivery of German tanks to the country.

“We are now in a new phase of the war,” he said. “Every day counts for Ukraine, so we need pragmatic solutions quickly.”

Similar rhetoric is coming from the Social Democrats’ two coalition partners, the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). 

“The Ringtausch is not working as planned,” the Greens’ Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the Bundestag’s vice president, told German media over the weekend. “Alternatives must be put on the table. For example, supplying weapons directly, if we can.”

Alexander Müller, the FDP’s defense policy spokesperson, told POLITICO that “it’s foreseeable that soon there will be no more Soviet-era tanks available” to initiate further tank swaps. “Therefore Chancellor Scholz must take the next step and stop refusing so harshly to supply Western battle tanks.”

Baerbock also stressed on Tuesday that the war would likely continue for many months, pushing the German government to switch tactics. 

“We will be asking ourselves every day … how we can coordinate our support even faster and even better,” she said.

CDU lawmaker Johann Wadephul noted on Twitter that the possible support from the Greens and FDP for direct tank shipments meant there may be a parliamentary majority to pass a resolution pressuring Scholz on the matter. 

“If the federal government does not implement this, the Bundestag will have to decide on it,” Wadephul said.