In six months of hard fighting as part of their long-planned southern counteroffensive, Ukrainian brigades have lost at least a dozen of the 71 German-designed Leopard 2 tanks Ukraine so far has received from its foreign allies.
But now it’s looking likelier Ukraine will more than make good its Leopard 2 losses in 2024. It actually stands a decent chance of significantly growing the fleet. All thanks to Swiss meticulousness, and some patient diplomacy by German officials in Switzerland.
In the late 1980s the Swiss army acquired 380 Pz 87 tanks—versions of the 60-ton, four-person Leopard 2A4 with Swiss machine guns and radios—and, in the 2010s, upgraded 134 of them for ongoing service. The Swiss sold off some of the surplus Pz 87s and put the remaining 96 unimproved tanks into storage.
These stored Pz 87s reportedly were some of the better-preserved Leopard 2A4s. Ukraine obviously has been keen to acquire them, perhaps via an intermediary such as Germany. But there’s a problem: the Swiss government’s strict neutrality.
It has taken the Germans more than a year to hammer out a deal, and for Swiss lawmakers and officials to approve it. On Wednesday, the Swiss federal council finally signed off on the parliament’s earlier approval to export, to German firm Rheinmetall, 25 of the Pz 87s.
The main condition is that the Pz 87s must not wind up in Ukraine. “Of crucial importance is the fact that Germany has given assurances that the tanks will remain in Germany, with NATO or its E.U. partners in order to meet existing shortfalls,” the Swiss government stated.
The obvious loophole is this: Rheinmetall could sell the ex-Swiss tanks to a country that already operates Leopard 2A4s, perhaps with German government financing, and that country then could donate to Ukraine its own Leopard 2A4s.
Indeed, Berlin runs a circular scheme for re-equipping allied countries so they can hand over their existing weaponry to Ukraine. It’s called Ringtausch. Under the program, Berlin has sent 14 Leopard 2A4s to the Czech Republic in exchange for the Czech Republic supplying Ukraine with at least 50 of its old T-72 tanks.
Despite months of talks, the Germans have not yet convinced the Poles to give away, via Ringtausch, any of their 71 remaining Leopard 2A4s. Poland previously donated to Ukraine 14 Leopard 2A4s in addition to hundreds of T-72s and PT-91s.
It’s apparent a dwindling global supply of spare Leopard 2A4s is one problem. The Germans aim to send to Ukraine 14 extra Leopard 2A4s, but need until next year to recondition the old tanks.
Now that the Germans soon will have 25 fresh ex-Swiss Leopard 2A4s—that is, Pz 87s—that reportedly are in good condition, Germany could sell Pz 87s to Poland and make it easier for Poland to give away more of its Leopard 2A4s. The Poles tried to buy Pz 87s last year, but the Swiss demurred.
It’s all very complicated and it’s possible the Pz 87s ultimately don’t displace Leopard 2A4s that then wind up in Ukraine. But if Kyiv does get an extra two-dozen Leopard 2A4s in the coming months, the Swiss decision finally to export Pz 87s to Germany probably will be operative.
Another 25 Leopard 2A4s could make a difference in Ukraine. They combined with the 14 extra Leopard 2A4s Germany already has pledged would amount to a whole battalion of tanks, plus some. At present, the Ukrainian army has just one Leopard 2A4 battalion—part of the 33rd Mechanized Brigade—that started with 40 tanks and now has maybe 33 left.
Thirty-nine additional Leopard 2A4s would be enough to equip a second brigade with its own tank battalion and also back up the two Leopard 2A4 units with a small float for maintenance and the replacement of combat losses.
If it all falls apart and Ukraine doesn’t get the extra Leopard 2A4s … well, it’s not the end of the world. The Ukrainians still have 13 of their 14 British-made Challenger 2 tanks, all 31 of their American-made M-1s plus the first few dozen of nearly 200 Leopard 1s coming from a German-Dutch-Danish consortium. Plus all those hundreds of T-72s and PT-91s.
Yes, Ukraine needs more tanks. But tanks aren’t its greatest need. What Ukraine needs more than anything is … artillery ammunition.