With the precision of a military exercise, first Germany and then the United States announced on Wednesday that each had agreed to provide battle tanks to help Ukraine repel invading Russian forces.
By reaching an agreement, the two countries pulled themselves out of a diplomatic quagmire that had captured the attention of Western officials for weeks and exposed divisions among Ukraine’s allies.
Ukrainian leaders, mindful of the tough battles looming in the spring, urged Germany to send in its much-vaunted Leopard 2 tank. Berlin resisted.
Germany made it clear that it would only proceed if the United States sent its own powerful tank, the M1 Abrams. Washington resisted.
And all the while, Poland threatened to give Ukraine Leopards from its own stock – with or without Germany’s permission.
On Wednesday, resistance seemed to be a thing of the past.
“These tanks are further proof of our enduring and unwavering commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the competence of Ukrainian forces,” President Biden said at the White House.
Hours earlier, after Germany announced it would send Leopards to Ukraine and allow other nations to send theirs, Chancellor Olaf Scholz defended his country’s cautious approach.
“We are talking here about very effective weapon systems, and it is normal that we never supply these weapon systems alone, but always in close cooperation,” Scholz told parliament lawmakers.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had campaigned vigorously for the tanks, greeted the news with enthusiasm. He called him “an important step on the road to victory.” But if the Ukraine took advantage of a moment when the cavalry arrived, it was clear that it would not arrive anytime soon.
The first Leopard could take months to arrive on the battlefield, and the Abrams a year or more. The tanks will also be far fewer than the hundreds Ukraine says it needs to defeat the Russians.
But Germany’s decision to send tanks from its own stores clears the way for a dozen other European countries to send theirs – a heavy weapons move that could eventually help Ukrainian forces reduce the advantage of Russia in numbers of troops and equipment, according to military experts.
In total, Kyiv came out of the deal with enough tanks for about three new Ukrainian battalions. The United States said it would send 31 Abrams tanks and Germany said it would send a first shipment of 14 Leopards.
The announcements were well received by Ukraine’s allies.
“At a critical moment in Russia’s war, these can help Ukraine defend itself, win and establish itself as an independent nation,” said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said delivering the Leopards was “a big step”, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Germany had made the “right decision”.
The news received a much colder reception from the Kremlin.
Sergey Yuryevich Nechayev, Russia’s ambassador to Germany, said in a statement that Ukraine’s allies had taken an “extremely dangerous decision” which “brings the conflict to a new level of confrontation”.
The statement also accuses Berlin of abdicating its “historical responsibility to Russia” stemming from Nazi aggression during World War II. This history, and the ensuing decades of relative pacifism for Germany, played a significant role in its reluctance to send the tanks.
Despite all the talk of a unified alliance that followed the tank announcements – “Together we are stronger,” the Polish prime minister trumpeted – in the weeks leading up to the deal, there were signs that the allies could start going their own way.
“We will not sit idly by and watch Ukraine bleed to death,” Morawiecki said over the weekend. “Ukraine and Europe will win this war – with or without Germany.”
Legally, Germany must authorize the transfer of the tanks it has made from one country to another, but the Polish leader insisted that whether Berlin approves or not, Warsaw would form a coalition of nations ready to donate some of the most advanced weaponry in Europe.
News of the tank deal came on a day when Ukrainian forces suffered a setback on the battlefield, retreating from the small eastern town of Soledar after weeks of fierce fighting. A military spokesman has acknowledged that the withdrawal from Ukraine brings Russian forces closer to encircling and possibly capturing the strategic eastern town of Bakhmut.
Spokesman Colonel Sergei Cherevaty said the retreat was ordered “to preserve our personnel”.
With the onset of winter, fighting in Ukraine has slowed considerably, and many of the decisions made by Ukrainian officials and their allies are now based on the belief that as spring begins, a new phase of the war will also start.
Tanks promised by Berlin and Washington on Wednesday will not be delivered in time to help Ukraine defend towns near Bakhmut, where Russian forces recently advanced in a grueling ground assault.
Indeed, it can be months before they are deployed.
Moving them into the conflict zone is far from an easy task, and Ukrainian troops still need to be trained to use the powerful western war machines. The Abrams tank, in particular, is an exceptionally complex machine that is difficult to operate and maintain.
General Robert B. Abrams, a former four-star US Army general who retired in 2021 with decades of experience – the tank is named after his father – echoed other experts’ concerns about logistic. Some Pentagon leaders say it will be difficult for Ukrainian troops to repair and maintain a fleet of gas-guzzling tanks. And that’s after bringing them there.
“The time it would take to get there – to be able to stock up on supplies, deliver the vehicles, train the crews, train the mechanics, gather everything you would need – how long would that take?” General Abrams said in an interview. “I don’t know, but it’s not like 30 days, I can tell you.”
On Wednesday, when a reporter asked if Germany forced him to change his mind about the tank, Mr. Biden replied: “Germany didn’t force me to change my mind. I wanted to make sure we were all together.
He also dismissed Moscow’s claim that sending the tanks was an escalation.
“There is no offensive threat against Russia,” Biden said. “If Russian troops returned to Russia, where they belong, this war would be over today.”
The report was provided by Christopher F. Schuetze, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Michael Schwirtz, Lara Jacques and Thomas Gibbons-Neff.