Germany authorizes a dozen Polish tanks for Ukraine. Hundreds more could follow.

In a major turnaround, the German government signaled this weekend that it would not try to stop the Polish government from supplying German-built Leopard 2 tanks to the Ukrainian army.

The green light for a Leopard 2 transfer, given on French television by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, could free up other NATO countries to donate their own surplus Leopard 2s. There are hundreds of the powerful tanks in storage all over Europe.

But Poland could do it alone and still fulfill Ukraine’s request for an entire brigade with at least 100 Leopard 2 tanks. That’s because Poland is currently one of the world’s largest buyers of new tanks.

With over a thousand of the latest US and South Korean tanks scheduled to arrive in Poland over the next decade, the roughly 250 Leopard 2s in the Polish Army’s inventory should soon be obsolete. Poland could start giving them away now and suffer, at worst, a volatile capacity gap.

The Ukrainian military has wanted Leopard 2s for almost a year, but Ukraine’s foreign allies preferred to supply the Ukrainians with artillery and air defenses first, then with armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles.

Germany has the export license for the Leopard 2 and the country’s reluctance to explicitly supply offensive weapons to Ukraine has been an obstacle to a major NATO effort to re-equip the Ukrainian army’s four tank brigades and dozens of tank battalions.

The United Kingdom and Poland challenged Germany’s recalcitrance earlier this month, when the two countries offered Ukraine about a dozen of their Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks respectively.

The Challenger 2 is made in the UK so the export license is not a problem. But there are only about 400 Challenger 2s in circulation – and 150 of those belong to the British Army’s depleted tank regiments.

Realistically, if Ukraine started rearming its tank corps, it would need Leopard 2s. Finland, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands have also indicated their willingness to donate surplus Leopard 2s to Ukraine. Many of the same countries would presumably provide ammunition, spare parts, and technical and training assistance to form and maintain a Ukrainian Leopard 2 Brigade.

Poland’s bid in January thus marked a turning point. The Leopard 2 with its 120 millimeter gun, thick armor and top speed of 45 miles per hour is one of the best and most balanced tanks in the world. A Ukrainian brigade equipped with Leopard 2s and NATO-style combat vehicles and artillery should be more than a match for even the best Russian tank brigade – and could lead a new Ukrainian counter-offensive in 2023.

And now it is almost certain that the Ukrainian army will be able to face its Leopard 2 brigade in the coming months. Even as every other potential Leopard 2 donor except Poland demure.

Poland has already committed a dozen Leopard 2s to Ukraine and could easily commit another hundred – or more. And the donations could hardly make a dent in the Polish army’s tank depots.

Two years ago, the Polish Panzer Corps, which provides tanks and crews to four tank brigades and six mechanized brigades, owned about 250 Leopard 2s in various variants, as well as about 230 locally made PT-91 tanks and some 320 ex-Soviet T-tanks . -72s. The PT-91 itself is an upgraded T-72.

That’s 800 tanks. As Russia grew more aggressive in the years leading up to the wider invasion of Ukraine that began last February, Poland launched one of the most intensive tank acquisition efforts in modern history.

First it started updating its Leopard 2s. Then it dropped a whopping $4.7 billion on 250 of the latest US M-1A2 SEPv3 tanks, with large-scale deliveries starting in early 2025.

Finally, late last year, Polish officials went shopping in South Korea, where local industry is producing a tank called the K-2, widely regarded as the equal of the Leopard 2 and M-1.

The Poles paid $5.8 billion for one thousand K-2s plus some of South Korea’s first class K-9 howitzers and FA-50 light fighter jets. The first 180 K-2s will come from South Korean factories; Polish factories will build the remaining 820 from 2026.

“We just took our suitcases with money and [are] going around the world like crazy trying to buy,” said General Rajmund Andrzejczak, Chief of Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, Breaking defenses. “We know the strategic goal is [to] support Ukraine.”

The huge tank purchases have freed up the Polish military to donate its older tanks. The T-72s went to Ukraine first, in the spring. PT-91s followed in the summer. The Leopard 2 promise increased the number of Polish tanks earmarked for Ukrainian service to about 275.

But with 1,250 of the world’s newest tanks heading to Poland from the United States and South Korea – that’s 450 more than Poland had two years ago –all of Poland’s older tanks are probably on the verge of becoming obsolete. That’s about 240 Leopard 2s and about 280 PT-91s and T-72s.

The first few M-1A2s and K-2s are already in Poland to help Polish crews train on the new tanks. Hundreds will be added in the coming years, with one enormous increase in deliveries once the Polish K-2 assembly line is up in 2026.

Poland could start giving away all of its older tanks in the next few years — a hundred here, a hundred there — and suffer only a slight and temporary dip in its overall armor inventory. Even without its older Leopard 2s and Soviet-style tanks, the Polish Army will have one of the largest and best tank forces in Europe by the end of the decade.

That is, Germany did not just give Poland permission to send a dozen Leopard 2s to Ukraine. It may have signed off on a Polish-led NATO effort that could eventually steer hundreds of tanks to Ukraine.

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