The ‘Free the Leopards’ Campaign Paid Off for the West and Ukraine

The ‘Free the Leopards’ Campaign Paid Off for the West and Ukraine
A German Leopard 2A6 tank takes part in a NATO military exercise in Pabrade, Lithuania Oct. 26, 2022 (AP photo by Mindaugas Kulbis).

The Leopards are free. On Wednesday morning, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that Washington will send approximately 30 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine in the coming months. In a coordinated move, Germany then announced it would immediately deliver 14 German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine “as a first step.” The “Free the Leopards” campaign—aimed at pushing Germany to both release its own Leopard tanks and allow NATO allies that had purchased them from Germany to do the same—had been picking up steam for weeks. Germany’s government, specifically Chancellor Olaf Scholz, finally relented.

Berlin’s reluctance to send Leopards was due to self-imposed rules prohibiting both German exports of weapons into war zones and the resale of German-made weapons by NATO allies to non-NATO countries. Those rules reflect Germany’s efforts since the end of World War II to distance itself from a history of militarism and show that it is a responsible ally. But many of Germany’s European partners view supporting Ukraine as vital to the defense of Europe itself, making Berlin’s hesitation look more like irresponsible obstructionism. Something needed to give. That something ended up being Germany’s reluctance.

German Leopards, U.S. Abrams, British Challengers and more are now heading to Ukraine. The near-simultaneity of the decisions is unsurprising. None of these countries want to be seen as being a passive follower or end up on “the wrong side of history” if Ukraine were to falter against Russia. More practically, no side wants to put its defense industry at a disadvantage, since Ukraine will likely be a major market for these tanks into the future.

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