Sep 16, 2022

Bringing About Peace with German Weapons

For the first time, Germany is supplying weapons to a conflict zone, but its goals remain unclear. That is regrettable, since Berlin could have a decisive influence on the course of the war in Ukraine.

Bild: Ein von Deutschland gelieferter HIMARS-Raketenwerfer beim Einsatz in der Ukraine
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“Well? Then we will fight!” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky greeted the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov with these words as he stormed into the official residence on the night of February 23-24, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin has just declared war on Ukraine in a long, televised historical lecture, also mentioning a “special military operation.”

Video surveillance of the border crossings had shown Zelensky and Danilov that Russian battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks were advancing on Ukrainian territory just 150 kilometers north of the capital. Cruise missiles struck the left bank of the Dnipro River within sight of Kyiv’s city center. Danilov hurriedly drew the president’s attention to the command bunkers and command posts at the ready outside Kyiv, but Zelensky told him not to waste time on pointless discussion. Rather, he should get to work as soon as possible and muster all forces for defense.

In those first dramatic hours, Zelensky decided that he would directly oppose Russia’s unprecedented large-scale attack. And almost all Ukrainians agreed to do the same. Putin's attempt to eradicate Ukraine as a state and destroy the Ukrainian nation has since met with united and fierce resistance, carrying far beyond the Ukrainian armed forces. From the president who did not leave his official residence in Kyiv, to the men and women who remained steadfast at their posts under the leadership of their mayors and governors in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv, and the countless people who immediately joined the long lines to voluntarily sign up for the territorial defense forces; to the grandmother who, shopping bag in hand, called on Russian soldiers to leave Ukraine as soon as possible, while handing them sunflower seeds. Ukrainian society decided to stay and, if necessary, to fight to the end.

“There Is Nothing We Can Do”

In the early hours of February 24, 2022, at the same time as this was happening in Dnipro and the defense of Ukrainian society was getting started all over the country, Ukraine was already being written off in Berlin. The tone of many alarmed and helpless statements was, “How terrible, just awful, but unfortunately we can't do anything.” “Russia will overrun Ukraine.” “Ukraine is not in NATO, so we can't help.” “It’s terrible, but then we'll have to see how we deal with Russia when Ukraine is gone.”

Obviously advised by briefings from the relevant services and military experts, who diagnosed stark Russian superiority mainly on the basis of analysis of military potential, political circles in Berlin reached the unanimous conclusion that Ukraine was lost. It followed quite logically that arms deliveries would not be of any use and that a debate about them would therefore be superfluous. The possibility that one might be just at the very beginning of a long war wasn’t even contemplated. One could almost get the impression that Berlin wanted to strongly condemn the war of aggression, but also to shrug it off in order to return to some form of normality as quickly as possible.

In the hours and days that followed, the horrific images and videos of the reality of war, Russia’s inhumane brutality, and the courageous resistance of Ukrainians, bombarded German cell phones and living rooms. Led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, global support and massive arms shipments for Ukraine began. The German government found itself isolated and suddenly under unprecedented public and international pressure. The position it took initially proved untenable. In a dramatic turn of events, on February 27, the Chancellor proclaimed a “turning point,” deciding that Germany would also supply arms to Ukraine from then on.

The first weeks of the war were marked by resistance from the border towns of Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv and battles in suburbs of Kyiv. It quickly became apparent that Russian military planning was based on faulty assumptions. Above all, the role and commitment of Ukrainian society remained a blind spot for Putin and his aides. The security agents’ and Soviet-influenced military’s nihilistic worldview comprised neither intrinsic motivation nor self-confident, resilient citizens. The Russian leadership and Russian soldiers were not at all prepared for the widespread societal defense of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian armed forces, on the other hand, appeared well-trained, motivated, and organized. After critical situations at the beginning of the war, in which Ukraine fended off airborne and commando operations aimed directly at capturing Kyiv and “decapitation” strikes against the Ukrainian leadership, Ukrainian forces quickly posed significant problems for Russian troops outside Kyiv, while Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv continued to hold out. Russia suffered heavy losses.

Arms shipments from partners and the purchase of modern weapons have had a discernible influence on the course of the war in Ukraine's favor. In addition to the results and data from reconnaissance, in the first weeks of the war it was primarily the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, mobile anti-tank weapons such as Javelin and NLAW, and mobile anti-aircraft weapons such as Stinger missiles that enabled Ukraine to inflict damage on Russian vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and battle tanks in military operations. At the same time, Ukraine systematically, patiently, and skillfully slowed the Russian advance using mobile defense and artillery. Entire Russian columns were spectacularly destroyed.

The Ukrainian armed forces’ modern, decentralized command and control concept, with mission-type tactics and plenty of freedom for commanders, proved superior in defense to the rigid Soviet-style, hierarchical Russian command. The Ukrainians shut down the enemy's command and communications facilities, fuel supplies, and munitions logistics. Russia lost the battle for Kyiv.

The supply from Germany trickled in during those early weeks—mostly old Strela missiles, anti-tank weapons, anti-tank mines, Stingers, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, and ammunition—late in comparison to that of its international partners and minimal relative to Germany’s size and economic strength. Nevertheless, Berlin was making valuable contributions that helped Ukraine defeat Russia at that stage of the war.

At the same time, it was already clear that due to Ukraine’s extreme inferiority regarding artillery, battle tanks, armored vehicles, and other weapons would be needed during the continuing course of the war, in particular so-called “heavy” weapons. Because of necessary lead times for training and logistics, decisions on these needed to be made quickly. Ukraine was urgently asking for help with heavy weapons, from Germany as well as others, and was creating high pressure in the public sphere, violating customary peacetime conventions. Simultaneously, Ukrainian representatives were negotiating with manufacturers and industrial partners around the world.

Central and Eastern European countries were leading the way in weapons supply, and the United States and the United Kingdom were also supplying on a massive scale. Even neutral Sweden was changing its position and Indo-Pacific countries such as Australia and Japan were providing significant aid.

Endless Internal Discussion

In the meantime, Germany was becoming entangled in endless loops of deadlocked internal and public discussions. The problems were the same for all countries. Can a shortage in one’s own stock be accepted over a longer period of time? Is it in one’s own interest to help Ukraine with heavy weapons, even if this brings about a training deficit, creating capability shortfalls for one’s own armed forces? Is the training the Ukrainians need affordable and what are the time frames? Can logistics and maintenance be ensured? Is it acceptable to approve exports of weapons systems by the arms industry that, up until now, have not been exported to certain countries for good reasons? Will Russia's own decisions have consequences?

While other countries made these trade-offs with an understanding of the urgency involved, finding pragmatic solutions to deliver ever newer weapons systems to Ukraine, the German government came to no conclusions. Fluctuating justifications and contradictory communications raised the question of whether a lack of political will was being masked. Despite a broadly supported Bundestag resolution on the delivery of heavy weapons, Germany hardly moved forward from rhetorical commitments to concrete results. Once again, the coalition was under pressure, both in relation to the public and international partners, which led to the surprise announcement of the delivery of Gepard anti-aircraft gun tanks.

Meanwhile, the military situation in Ukraine continued to evolve. After its failures around Kyiv, the resistance in Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv, and the fall of Mariupol, Moscow adjusted its tactical approach. By forming a center of gravity in the Donbass region and returning to classic Soviet-Russian military doctrine, Russia made more use of combined arms, relying on the strength of its artillery. With the creeping barrage of incessant artillery bombardment and the subsequent advance, Russia seemed to have found a method to slowly but surely destroy and conquer the Donbass and, from there, other areas of Ukraine.

What Ukraine desperately needed at this stage was long-range 155-millimeter artillery and a constant supply of ammunition, since its own 152-millimeter systems have too small a radius and might run out of ammunition. Moreover, Ukraine suffered very high losses in this phase because of the lack of protected mobility under overwhelming artillery fire on the, very long, front line.

While Germany was internally engaged in tough discussions arguing about alleged escalations, lack of stockpiles or informal agreements between individual NATO countries—which were not resulting in the delivery of armored vehicles—Ukrainian soldiers were unnecessarily getting hit by shrapnel and fragments at the front because they were dependent on buses, pickups, and normal passenger cars for transportation.

Washington decided to supply modern 155-millimeter artillery systems to Ukraine, but training, delivery, and integration into the Ukrainian armed forces would take time. Only when the United States, Australia, Canada, and Italy delivered 155-millimeter artillery, Poland announced the delivery of Krab self-propelled howitzers and France decided to supply Ukraine with CAESAR howitzers, did Germany also agree to supply an initial seven self-propelled howitzer PzH 2000s in cooperation with the Netherlands.

The tense situation in the Donbass improved for Ukraine after several hundred modern artillery systems were integrated and, in concert with HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, with longer ranges and greater precision, could attack Russian command and communications facilities, ammunition depots and logistics. As a result, Russia abandoned the battle for the remaining part of the Donbass and moved forces to the south to defend captured territory against expected Ukrainian counterattacks. Thus began the struggle for the initiative.

The September Offensive

On August 29, Ukraine launched a limited offensive operation against Russian forces on the western bank of the Dnipro River. With a systematic “slice and starve,” Russian troops are being cut off from supplies of ammunition, food, and drinking water. Ukraine is making slow, systematic progress toward Nova Kakhovka and Kherson. Due to a lack of mechanized forces, Ukraine has been continuing to seek to avoid direct engagement in the area. Individual smaller Russian units are already in a precarious position due to supply problems.

With a surprise mechanized advance north of Izyum, Ukraine exploited weak points on the Russian front in the northeast and the rigidity of Russian operational command. Russia had previously attacked further south in the Siversk and Bakhmut directions on and off for weeks, most recently bringing in reinforcements there, so that the front section near Izyum was relatively weakly positioned.

Ukraine ventured a surprise advance with previously well-veiled mechanized forces and broke through the Russian defensive lines. After the breakthrough, Russia offered little resistance and Russian positions collapsed, in some cases chaotically. Ukraine’s armed forces were able to retake the strategically important village of Izyum and the western bank of the Oskil River with the railroad junction in Kupyansk. As a result, Russia can no longer attack the Donbass from the north and can no longer supply large parts of its troops.

The mechanized advance was possible because Ukraine managed to create an effective composite from Polish PT-91 main battle tanks, Krab howitzers, Australian highly mobile Bushmasters, military and civilian drones, and small fighter squads with anti-tank weapons. It is also noteworthy that the Ukrainian Air Force is now able to fly up to 20 sorties a day again for air support. Once again, Ukraine succeeded in large-scale deception through very high discipline in its own operational security and dominance in the information space. However, to successfully strike against the Russian occupiers without sufficient mechanized forces, Ukraine must go high risk and rely on surprise, creativity, and great courage.

Ukraine has won the initiative and will most likely dare further advances to avoid giving Russia time to regroup and stabilize. Further advances toward Luhansk, toward Mariupol, or from Zaporizhia toward Melitopol are conceivable. Armored vehicles of all types have proven very useful to Ukraine after initial skepticism. These include Bushmaster, Mastiff, YPR-765 and other M113 variants, Spartan, Wolfhound, Kipri, Humvee, and Husky. At the same time, it is painful to see that even in the assault formation, columns of Ukrainian soldiers must ride in minibuses and commercial passenger cars.

Germany could provide important support here with armored vehicles such as Fuchs, Dingo, Mungo, and Eagle. The Ukrainian advance near Izyum and Kupyansk was a “proof of concept” for this. More infantry fighting vehicles and battle tanks are needed for Ukraine’s counteroffensive. In order to make efficient use of transatlantic logistics and because of their much lower fuel consumption, Ukraine believes that Marders and Leopards are better suited for this purpose than American models.

Meanwhile, Russian troops are intensively continuing their attacks in the direction of Siversk and Bachmut in the Donbass. Ukraine seems to continue to rely mainly on its well-developed positions. The Russian forces are now increasing its use of missile attacks against power plants, combined heat and power plants, power lines, dams, and civilian infrastructure. The delivery of NASAMS and Iris-T air defense systems will help but comes late.

In parallel with what is happening on the front lines, the battle for Ukraine’s civilian viability and winter resilience is intensifying. Protection and reconstruction of critical infrastructure will require significantly more Western support in the weeks ahead.

Clear Goals

Germany can influence the future course of the war through further arms deliveries. In early fall 2022, the time has come to reassess German military aid and German arms deliveries to Ukraine. Overall, these are better than they are reputed to be. Germany is making significant contributions that matter militarily to Ukraine. A good deal of the criticism of Germany seems interest-driven. Not every partner always plays fair here. Nevertheless, there is no reason for complacency. A Ukrainian soldier under appalling artillery fire for days on end, unable to move on the front line and without protection, is not helped if Germany is busy pointing out that its doing away with a long-held principle—its supply of weapons to a war zone—must be acknowledged.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and the entire German government have repeatedly formulated clear goals: Ukraine must not lose. Russia must not win. The declaration of the G7, which met at Schloss Elmau, states that everything must be done to enable Ukraine to end the war.

In order to achieve these goals, which are also stated German policy, it will be necessary to tailor arms deliveries more consistently to the military situation, even if in some cases this means going ahead instead of just following partners, which has been the case in the past. In addition, unlike most other countries, Germany has stockpiled systems such as the Marder and the Leopard tanks, and others. It also has a very capable defense industry.

If the German government is serious about the goals it has formulated, it should make up its own mind about arms deliveries which should not be made only because of public pressure or the threat of further loss of international prestige. Germany can supply significantly more artillery and armored vehicles, including armored personnel carriers and battle tanks, more ammunition and fuel, and it can do so more quickly; with the will to make a difference—with creativity, pragmatism, and greater ownership.

Political logic must follow military logic; that, too, is part of the Zeitenwende, the historical turn Scholz declared on February 27. This will also mean staying firmly on Ukraine’s side should Russia suddenly show a willingness to negotiate or even declare a unilateral ceasefire due to its own temporary weakness. This difficult test could face German policymakers very soon.

After more than six months of war, it can be stated that the Federal Republic’s large ministerial bureaucracies are geared toward stability in peacetime and are thus cumbersome, slow, and process-oriented, whereas agility, speed, and rapid results are required, especially in wartime. Besides, bureaucratic processes—templates with broad participation and circulation procedures—can only support political deliberations and political leadership, they cannot provide political solutions.

A Political Task

Some observers have the impression that, since the start of the war, the Bundeswehr’s military bureaucracy—ever more sophisticated in its peacetime and administrative operations—is providing apologetic arguments for a hesitant policy with regard to arms deliveries to Ukraine rather than driving them forward. Of course, military leadership bears first responsibility for the operational readiness, equipment, and training of the Bundeswehr. It is also understandable that the trauma caused by years of shortages makes it particularly difficult for Germany’s armed forces to hand over hard-won weapons systems to Ukraine.

But the difficult trade-offs and prioritizations involved are the responsibility of policymakers. It is a high price to pay if artillery troops become unable to train with real equipment for years, or if armored vehicles are unavailable for training operations. However, should Ukraine lose and Russia win, even higher prices will have to be paid politically and militarily.

It is a wise principle to always act in concert with partners. However, for a country like Germany, which is rightly expected to take a leadership role because of its location, size, and economic strength, acting “together with partners” should not mean being the last to do a little of what everyone else has already done. Germany must take its cue from those who lead and who, in doing so, keep an eye on the military situation, such as the Americans, who have also supplied radar guided missiles as part of the latest aid package for Ukraine. The German government’s action in rapidly resupplying an additional 2000 self-propelled howitzers and, above all, the joint action of the US, UK, and Germany on HIMARS and Mars-2 missile launchers point in the right direction. The announcement by German Defense Minister Christiane Lambrecht on September 15 that Germany will be sending 50 Dingos as well as two additional Mars-2 systems is also to be welcomed.

As the war progresses, Germany’s relative importance as an industrial power will increase. Until now, the US and Central and Eastern European countries have supplied a lot very quickly, often from their own stocks and at a very high cost to themselves. What is needed now is a transition from spontaneous, improvised deliveries to systematic planning. There needs to be regular coordination with industry, partners and Ukraine, the agreement of milestones and the special production of material and ammunition, with delivery of pre-paid orders to be fulfilled in winter 2022 and spring 2023.

Then Just Fight

Many of the original analyses and assessments of the Russian war of aggression were wrong. It is high time to part with them once and for all. Russia did not overrun Ukraine; it is not overwhelmingly superior. Russia did not attack Western arms deliveries. The delivery of even very powerful and long-range artillery systems does not lead to further unlimited escalation by Russia. The Ukrainians are very quickly learning to deal successfully with modern Western weapons. There are pragmatic solutions for logistics and maintenance.

In order to implement the Zeitenwende initiated in the spring, this fall Germany will need to ask itself the questions that are etched on the faces of all its partners: how can the large, economically and industrially strong Federal Republic make a decisive contribution to the confrontation with Russia? How can Germany, in a leadership role, support Ukraine with military aid and weapons in such a way that it can end the war and create the peace that everyone wants?

After more than six months of war, Ukraine is in a better position than many thought possible after the first six hours. The country is fighting, sticking together, organizing, improvising, often going above and beyond. It is involving as many people as possible and communicating in an inspiring way. Political and military leadership remain clear, calm, and determined. Ukrainians show impressive resilience, dealing with both brutal situations and awful losses. They are not letting themselves be driven by fear and panic. The world of German politics, government bureaucracy, and the military should urgently draw inspiration from this attitude. What’s more, the majority of citizens in Germany also seem to have long since decided, according to current surveys and gloomy predictions, “Well? Then we’ll fight, too!”

Nico Lange coordinates the Munich Security Conference’s Zeitenwende Initiative. Previously, he worked in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, among others, and most recently lead the Policy Planning Staff of the German Ministry of Defense.

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