Without German Permission: Poland Warns it May Violate Leopard 2 Export Contracts to Arm Ukraine

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has warned that his country may provide German-supplied Leopard 2 tanks to the Ukrainian Military even if Berlin continues to refuse to grant permission, which would represent an illegal violation of the contract under which the vehicles were first sold to Poland. Germany has continued to face pressure from Warsaw, London and Washington in particular to allow the transfer of Leopard 2s to Ukraine, with the possibility of illegal exports and a fait accompli by the Polish government potentially moving Berlin to grant approval. “Consent is a secondary issue,” Morawiecki claimed on January 28, highlighting that Warsaw was ready to “do the right thing on our own.” The prime minister further voiced concerns over the appointment of Boris Pistorius as German Defence Minister, implying he could take a softer line against Russia than his predecessor. 

The Leopard 2’s performance record in combat, namely the suffering of severe losses against lightly armed insurgents in Iraq and Syria when deployed by the Turkish Army, has fuelled speculation that the reason for Germany’s hesitancy to allow the vehicles to enter the Ukrainian theatre is that heavy losses there could further ruin their reputation. The tank is considered Germany’s most iconic defence product, and has almost 20 foreign operators with more sales, and sales of an improved derivative the Panther, expected to provide significant revenues to Germany’s defence sector for over a decade into the future. 

Poland is expected to replace its Leopard 2s and older Soviet tank designs with several hundred K2 Black Panther tanks from South Korea, with contracts worth close to $20 billion for Korean arms signed in 2022. K2s have already begun deliveries to the Polish Military, with a smaller continent of 250 M1A2 Abrams tanks from the United States also expected to be delivered by 2025. The Abrams is from the same third generation as the Leopard 2, and entered service just a year later in 1980, while the more modern fourth generation K2 is a considerably newer design which became operational 35 years later in 2014. A number of Leopard 2 operators in Europe have indicated willingness to provide them to Ukraine, among them Denmark, Spain and Finland. Germany has indicated that it would be more willing to consider allowing the tanks to be supplied should the United States also provide Abrams tanks, fuelling speculation that German officials may be concerned that a tarnishing of their tank’s reputation in Ukraine could allow the rival American tank to otherwise claim greater market share internationally.