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U.S. will supply M1 tanks to Ukraine; Germany approves Leopards

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/25/2023 Karen DeYoung, Loveday Morris, Emily Rauhala, Dan Lamothe

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will send 31 of its premier battle tanks to Ukraine, following agreement with Germany for the delivery of scores of its Leopard 2 tanks from across Europe. The decisions end months of debate among Western allies and pave the way for a major shift in the balance of power on the Ukrainian battlefield.

President Biden said after morning calls with European leaders that the decisions belied Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belief that the West would eventually tire of its commitment to Ukraine and “break up” its coalition.

For NATO, founded as a defensive alliance in the wake of World War II, the supply of battle tanks and hundreds of other armored vehicles also being transferred to Ukraine is a prelude to what is shaping up to be ground warfare of a scale not seen in Europe for more than seven decades. While the United States and its allies insist they have no desire to engage Russia directly, the decisions significantly up the ante of how far they are willing to go to help evict Putin’s forces.

Over the 11 months since Russia’s invasion, the sophistication and lethality of armaments provided to Kyiv have steadily risen, from those focused on short-range defense to heavy artillery and precision munitions. Ukraine, which had long urged the supply of heavy tanks, has said it will also need fighter aircraft and long-range missiles if it is to be assured of victory. Both have so far been denied by the West.

“We are fully, totally and completely united,” Biden said in a brief address at the White House. “Today’s announcement builds on the hard work and commitment of countries around the world. … That’s what this is about — helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land.”


But Western unity had been undeniably strained over the past several weeks, as Germany refused to approve sending the tanks that Ukraine had requested or to authorize other countries that also field Leopards to transfer theirs, unless the United States would agree to send its M1 Abrams. The Defense Department had long insisted the Abrams tanks were too complex for transfer and use by the Ukrainians.

Biden congratulated German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, saying that “Germany has really stepped up.” Berlin “didn’t force me to change our mind,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we’re all together.”

Debate over the tanks was resolved in recent days with a compromise. The U.S. tanks — to be purchased from manufacturers rather than transferred from existing American military stockpiles — will not arrive in Ukraine for many months, at the earliest. Administration officials have emphasized that the M1s are part of long-range planning for Ukraine’s armed forces rather than weapons that will be put to immediate use.

What to know about M1 Abrams tanks and why they matter to Ukraine

The plan is to transfer the Leopards, currently spread throughout numerous countries in Europe, in time for Ukraine to defend against an anticipated Russian offensive and launch its own counteroffensive in Russian-occupied territory in the spring.

Stressing the capabilities heavy battle tanks will bring to Kyiv’s efforts, National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby told reporters: “You don’t go after a crocodile with a cornstalk. … They’re going to have an effect.”

In Europe, the goal is to quickly assemble two Leopard tank battalions — equivalent to at least 70 tanks. As a first step, Germany will provide a company of 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks from its army’s stocks, the government in Berlin said in a statement. Germany’s Defense Ministry said it aims for the tanks to be on the battlefield by the end of March. That leaves a tight window for logistics and training expected to begin within days.

Germany will also provide re-export authorization for other countries to provide Leopards in their own arsenals. Poland and Norway have already announced they will contribute. Spain is expected to send some of its large Leopard fleet to Ukraine. The Netherlands is weighing whether to buy some of the Leopards it leases from Germany so it can give them to Kyiv, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Dutch media. Finland, which shares a vast land border with Russia, plans to participate in the effort in some way, but is still weighing whether it can spare its own tanks.

“A Leopard coalition with partners worked!” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted Wednesday. “Leopards look good on Ukraine!”

For Ukraine, what’s so special about Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks?

Earlier this month, Britain announced it would send 14 of its heavy Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, while France said it would transfer an unspecified number of AMX 10-RC light tanks.

In Washington, officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to brief reporters said the Abrams tanks will be paid for with the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a pot of money used to purchase military equipment that the United States does not have readily available.

It was not immediately clear why the Biden administration decided to pursue purchasing new tanks for Ukraine rather than sending some of the thousands that already are in the U.S. military inventory. “The Pentagon assesses that they don’t have any excess Abrams … that all of them are gainfully employed for our own national security defense,” Kirby said.

Even if there were extras available, he said, “it would take many months anyway” to get them in position, as well as provide the necessary training and logistical and maintenance support. “When they get there, we want to make sure that they fall on ready hands.”

M1 Abrams tank crews prepare for an exercise in Jordan late last year. © Spc. Claude Nelson/Task Force Spartan M1 Abrams tank crews prepare for an exercise in Jordan late last year.

The U.S. plan calls for sending enough tanks for one Ukrainian battalion, 30, plus one for command and control, Kirby said. The administration also will send eight M88 armored recovery vehicles, designed to tow and repair tanks.

Administration officials said training in how to operate and maintain the Abrams, and incorporate them into offensive operations with other weapons, will occur outside of Ukraine. One possibility might be the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, the largest U.S. installation of its kind in Europe. This month, the U.S. Army began training a battalion of more than 600 Ukrainian troops there on how to combine artillery, fighting vehicles and other weapons to maximize the damage they can cause.

Asked whether the Germans made it a precondition that the United States commit tanks before they would send theirs, administration officials declined to answer directly. “There’s a lot of diplomacy that went into the announcements today,” Kirby told reporters. “The decision you saw, by both Germany and the United States … was several weeks in the making through many discussions.”

“There was also a military component,” he said. The Abrams tanks “are not going to get there for many months, but these Leopards” will be on the battlefield in the spring. “We’re not wasting any time.”

A senior French official, however, was less certain of the timing. “Even if the Ukrainians have shown a great agility and a very uncanny ability to absorb new equipment,” operational and maintenance training “will take time,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters.

Kirby and other administration officials denied that Washington had undergone an abrupt change of heart on the issue of tanks or that reluctance from the U.S. military had been overruled.

As recently as last week, senior U.S. defense officials insisted that the Abrams tanks would be too burdensome for the Ukrainian military to operate and maintain. “I just don’t think we’re there yet,” Biden’s undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, told reporters after returning from a visit to Kyiv. “The Abrams is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on.”

But recent events on the battlefield have also driven home the urgency of Ukraine’s need. On Wednesday, Ukrainian military spokesman Sergiy Cherevaty confirmed that Kyiv’s forces have withdrawn from the small eastern mining town of Soledar after a fierce push by Russia’s Wagner mercenary group. Wagner claimed it had captured the town more than a week ago, but Ukraine had repeatedly denied those assertions.

While it is of little strategic value, with a prewar population of about 10,000, Soledar is the first significant town taken by Russia since July.

As it long resisted calls to send tanks, Berlin said it would act only in tandem with allies and did not want to be seen as a direct participant in the war or inviting retaliation from Russia. In recent weeks, German officials had been more explicit in linking any decision to send tanks to a similar move by the United States.

But intense international pressure — and the reversal of Washington’s position — broke the logjam. In a speech to parliament Wednesday, Scholz defended his decision to take time to coordinate with allies.

“It is correct to never go it alone,” he said. “We will do anything necessary to support Ukraine, but we want to avoid an escalation of this war, so it doesn’t become a war between Russia and NATO.”

Even as Scholz reminded lawmakers of Germany’s close geographical proximity to the war, Russia’s ambassador to Berlin warned that the decision to send tanks to Ukraine crosses a red line, and he compared it to Nazi tanks invading Russia during World War II.

“This extremely dangerous decision takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation,” Sergei Nechaev said in a statement following the announcement. “Red lines are a thing of the past.”

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Training for Ukrainian forces on the Leopards will begin in Germany “almost immediately,” said German Defense Ministry spokesman Arne Collatz. Poland, which is also planning to send a company of 14 tanks, has said it will begin training Ukrainian soldiers within days.

It is possible that more Leopard 2 tanks will be sent from German industry’s stocks, government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said Wednesday. German arms maker Rheinmetall has told German media that it can deliver 29 Leopard 2A4 tanks by April or May and a further 22 of the same model around the end of 2023 or early 2024.

Inside the urgent push to arm Ukraine for a spring offensive

European allies had hoped to announce a package of Leopards at a meeting on Ukraine at Ramstein Air Base in Germany last week. But Berlin’s new defense minister had said Germany needed more time to make a “careful” decision and assess its stocks.

As Germany dragged its feet, Poland had threatened to send its own German-made tanks with or without Berlin’s permission. On Tuesday, Poland formally requested German authorization for re-export, ramping up pressure on Berlin to come to a decision.

Agreeing to send the Leopards is a big step toward Ukraine ending the war “by winning it,” said Norbert Röttgen, a German parliamentarian with the opposition Christian Democrats and foreign policy expert. But it is a “catastrophic signal” that Germany rejected European action on tanks without an American contribution, he tweeted.

Morris reported from Berlin and Rauhala from Brussels. Vanessa Guinan-Bank in Berlin, David Stern in Kyiv, and John Hudson and Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.


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