When the German and U.S. governments finally agreed this week to supply some of their most formidable battle tanks to Ukraine, the balance of power within Europe perceptibly shifted. For months, President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, fearing an escalation of conflict between the West and Russia, had stubbornly put off Ukrainian requests for the powerful, highly maneuverable vehicles, and the European states most directly vulnerable to Russian aggression—in Scandinavia, the Baltic region, and Central and Eastern Europe—had grown more and more frustrated with Washington and Berlin. Finally, the smaller countries had had enough. In an impressive show of diplomatic muscle, they forced NATO’s two greatest powers to take a step that Biden and especially Scholz have clearly been afraid of taking.
The episode is a reminder that a security alliance isn’t just a means for major powers, such as the U.S. or Germany, to amplify their own influence by drawing on the forces of smaller nations. In this case, some of NATO’s smaller members and partners understand the Russian threat far more clearly than the U.S. or Germany does, because they don’t have the option of complacency.
Since the start of the war, Germany and the U.S. have tried to give Ukraine enough military aid to perform well on the battlefield, but not so much that the Ukrainians can drive Russian forces out of all of occupied Ukraine—including areas that Russia occupied in 2014. Washington and Berlin have kept sending the same mixed signals: Russia cannot win the war, and Ukraine cannot be allowed to lose, but in the end, the defenders might have to make some significant concessions to the invaders to secure a peace deal.
That message has sounded more and more discordant to states to Germany’s north and east. The longer the war has gone on, and the more grotesque the crimes and destruction that the Russian government has been willing to commit against its neighbor and ostensible “little brother,” Ukraine, the more these states have become convinced that Russia must not only be denied a victory but be defeated outright. During the 20th century, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were incorporated into the Soviet Union against their will. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were ruled as Soviet vassals during the Cold War. These countries’ leaders instinctively understand the threat of Russian imperialism, and take Moscow’s rhetoric about national expansion and greatness as the menace that it is. They want to see Russian power broken.
Four Nordic countries—Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—all have their own well-established reasons for unease about Russia. After World War II, Finland and Sweden opted for (or felt obliged to opt for) a neutral stance in the Cold War, staying out of NATO and hoping that, in exchange, Moscow would respect their independence. Norway uncomfortably shares a border with Russia. Denmark, which controls access to the Baltic Sea, has long had to contend with the presence of Russian military force.
When all of these states saw how easily and with what brutality Vladimir Putin ripped up the post-1945 rule book, embarking on an unnecessary war of national expansion while openly discussing the cultural genocide of another people, their old inhibitions dropped away.
Finland might be the most remarkable member of this new coalition. For decades, Helsinki studiously avoided doing anything to offend the Soviet Union, to the point that Finlandization became shorthand for when a smaller country partially acquiesces to a larger power in the hope of avoiding too much interference in its own internal affairs. However, as soon as Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Finnish government reacted with vigor. It quickly applied for NATO membership—which is almost sure to be granted, regardless of the recent stance of the Turkish and Hungarian governments. Of all world leaders, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has expressed the need to counter the Russian threat most bluntly. She has regretted European Union weakness in opposing Russian actions in Ukraine since 2014 and said that Ukrainian membership in NATO would have prevented the present crisis. She has openly called for Russia’s defeat, saying that its withdrawal from Ukrainian territory is “the way out of the conflict.” Without hesitation, she recently tied her own country’s security to Ukraine’s. “We don’t know when the war will end, but we have to make sure that the Ukrainians will win,” Marin said. “I don’t think there’s any other choice. If Russia would win the war, then we would only see decades of this kind of behavior ahead of us.”
Similar sentiments are coming out of Warsaw, Tallinn, Stockholm, and other capitals in Eastern and Northern Europe. If anything, these governments’ positions have been hardening. The Baltic states, which have consistently given the largest percentage of their defense budgets to aid Ukraine, worked together to persuade Germany to give its advanced Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine. Sweden, maybe most surprisingly, raised the pressure noticeably with a pledge to give the Ukrainians its highly accurate Archer artillery system.
For a while, the U.S. and Germany refused to budge. The Biden administration promised a large number of fighting vehicles, including Bradley armored personnel carriers, but not the Abrams battle tank. Berlin hemmed and hawed, even throwing up new and unexpected conditions on the transfer of Leopards to Ukraine by allied governments. As the NATO states were gathering at Ramstein Air Base in Germany late last week to discuss their latest Ukraine-aid packages, Scholz’s government was insisting that it could not provide Leopards to Ukraine until the U.S. first offered its own battle tanks. This position created the impression in many circles that Berlin was still desperate to protect its relationship with Moscow.
But other European countries simply would not let up. In what became known as the Tallinn Pledge, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands joined NATO states in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia in calling for Russia to be pushed out of all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and other areas occupied before last February 24. Always a leader in the anti-Russian coalition, Poland formally asked Germany to let it convey its own Leopards to Ukraine, and other states discussed doing so even without requesting permission.
Faced with this open revolt, in a breathtaking two days, the U.S. and Germany caved. In addition to granting other nations’ requests, Germany started planning on directly transferring tanks of its own. Then, Biden publicly offered 31 Abrams tanks. Other European states, including Portugal and Spain, immediately piled on with offers of even more tanks.
A new force has emerged in Europe. By acceding to their smaller allies’ demands, Germany and the U.S. are belatedly recognizing a slow but relentless shift in the Western approach toward Russia—which is being determined not in Washington or Berlin but in the capitals of countries that, until recently, have been seen as junior partners. Moreover, these new drivers of European security strategy are unlikely to ease up. They are among Europe’s richest and fastest-growing economies and have some of the continent’s best-equipped militaries. Plus, they will always have Russia close by, and that reality alone will keep them focused.