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In embarrassing reversal, Germany’s freshman chancellor agrees to supply tanks to Ukraine

Under pressure both at home and abroad for his dithering over Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reversed course and finally agreed to supply heavy arms to aid in the country’s defense against Russia.

The agreement to deliver antiaircraft tanks to Kyiv was announced on Tuesday in conjunction with a summit meeting among Western nations held at the US Air Force Base in Ramstein, Germany. On the agenda were discussions about how best to prevent a Russian victory in the eastern Donbas region, where combat tactics are different due to the wide-open terrain.

According to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austinwho chaired the meeting, 50 Gepard armored vehicles are to be delivered from existing inventories of the German armed forces. Named after the German word for cheetah, these Gepard tanks are designed to neutralize modern combat aircraft, attack helicopters, remote-controlled missiles, and rockets. The tanks can also detect and eliminate drones thanks to their high-frequency radar.

“That’s exactly what Ukraine needs right now to secure the airspace from the ground,” Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told reporters.

Lambrecht was speaking on the sidelines of a meeting that had been arranged in a matter of days at the behest of Washington. It included representatives from both NATO and non-NATO allies, such as Israel, and is due to meet monthly in a nonofficial capacity as a “consultative group.”

“We will be exploring every option today how we can best support Ukraine in its brave struggle,” Lambrecht continued. “A new era is upon us, one in which we are now enacting policies unheard-of for years upon years, such as the supply of arms to crisis regions.”

Cracks in governing coalition

Until now, the government has only let itself be dragged into to swap deal that would see old Soviet T-72 tanks still owned by Slovenia head to Ukraine, with Ljubljana in return getting modern German mechanized infantry vehicles like the Fuchs and Marder in exchange.

That deal was seen as a way for Berlin to keep its hands clean of direct heavy arms shipments to Ukraine. In addition to sundry other objections Scholz has raised in recent weeks, the chancellor has repeatedly voiced fears his country could be inadvertently dragged into a war with Russia.

Criticism over his inaction reached a deafening pitch last week after he called a press conference merely to defend his handling of the crisis. Scholz spoke in circles, dodged straight answers, and left reporters in doubt as to whether any policy had actually changed.

This forced the economic liberals in his coalition into an embarrassing expression of support: “The chancellor has the confidence of the FDP,” party boss Christian Lindner said on Saturday. Even though Scholz’s partner stopped short of using “unreserved” or “complete,” it served to stave off for the moment further debate in the media as to whether the libertarian-minded FDP might collapse the government.

To a certain degree the blame is unjustified: Germany’s defense ministry, and by extension the armed forces, had been under the control of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats for the past 16 years. The poor state of combat readiness of many of its armaments can hardly be laid at the feet of the new government, which has only been in office since December.

“Move heaven and earth”

But criticism of the SPD doesn’t stop there. Even though he has now committed to supplying tanks to Ukraine, Scholz’s Social Democrats are currently mired in one controversy after another regarding ties between leading party figures and officials from the Russian government.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky recently risked a diplomatic scandal when he refused to host the German head of stateFrank-Walter Steinmeier. Germany’s president had been a leading architect of the country’s failed policy of Russian engagement prior to his election to the largely ceremonial post in 2017.

Former German chancellor and SPD party grandee Gerhard Schröder has been a particular lightning rod of controversy over his personal friendship with Vladimir Putin and his continued involvement as a member of the board of Russia’s state-owned energy group Gazprom.

Tuesday’s meeting in Ramstein was hastily arranged by Secretary Austin and featured representatives from over 40 nations.

Turning to his counterpart from Kyiv, Oleksii Reznikov, Austin said he wanted everyone attending to “keep moving heaven and earth” to help the beleaguered country fight off its Russian invaders.

“Ukraine’s valor and skill will go down in military history,” said the American cabinet secretary. “Your resistance has brought inspiration to the free world, an even greater resolve to NATO, and glory to Ukraine.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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