The American vehicles, numbering at least 30, are unlikely to arrive in the spring, when Russian forces are expected to launch a new offensive and Ukraine plans to launch its own counter-offensive to retake territory occupied by the Russia. Instead, the Abrams are “probably not for close combat,” a US official said, and aren’t expected to arrive for several months or even years.
Tank conflict divides Ukraine’s allies as Zelensky seeks more firepower
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, declined at a Tuesday press conference to answer questions about the tanks, saying “I don’t have any announcements at this time.”
“We want to make sure [the Ukrainians] having the ability to hold it, hold it, train on it,” Ryder said of the Abrams. He stressed that the administration – while “focusing on what Ukraine needs right now, to have an immediate effect on the battlefield” – “continues to have discussions on medium-term defense needs. and long term”. In recent weeks, the administration has announced that it will quickly send hundreds of armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine.
Pentagon officials have stressed in recent weeks that they are planning how to build Kyiv’s security forces for the future. Abrams were expected to be ordered from manufacturers, rather than transferred from existing American stocks, and the main utility of announcing them now seemed designed to break a deadlock with the Germans.
The apparent softening of the US stance comes amid increasingly urgent calls from the Ukrainian government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, to push the issue forward.
For Ukraine, what is so special about the German Leopard 2 tanks?
Germany said it did not want to come first and indicated that it would approve sending its own Leopards, or allow many other European countries that field German tanks to send them, only if such a decision was coordinated with the United States. Lawmakers in Kyiv and the United States had both urged the Biden administration to endorse even a small number of Abrams, believing that would provide Berlin with the superior cover it needed to feel comfortable cooperating.
Tuesday, Poland has formally applied for the required German permission to re-export 14 of its Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and a number of other European NATO members have indicated they are ready to do the same. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected to meet with his cabinet early Wednesday before making his own official announcement.
A European official confirmed reports from several German media, citing government and coalition officials, that Berlin decided to deliver at least one tank company, consisting of about 14 of its own Leopards, and to grant permission to others. A German government spokesman declined to comment on the reports. Earlier Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Biden was considering moving forward with Abramses.
Top national security advisers from Germany, France, Britain and the United States are scheduled to meet Wednesday morning in Washington to discuss Ukraine. Britain has already announced that it will supply a small number of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks.
NATO allies, including the United States, have agreed the heavy armor is needed, particularly as they step up training for Ukrainian forces to perform ‘combined arms’ maneuvers as they move against Russian forces entrenched along the long front line across the eastern part of the country.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at a press conference in Berlin on Tuesday with German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, said the delivery of battle tanks and other armored vehicles is “urgent…because Russia is preparing new offensives”.
Stoltenberg made no mention of the Abrams, but said the allies “need to provide heavier and more advanced systems so that the Ukrainian forces are able to push back the Russian forces.” Not just to survive, but to win, regain territory and establish itself as a sovereign and independent state in Europe.
He sought to praise what Germany has given Ukraine so far, saying he agreed “with the Chancellor and also with the [defense] minister that we must in fact remember and recognize these important German contributions”, including sophisticated air defense and infantry fighting vehicles.
Last week, the issue took up much of a day-long meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany of the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group, senior defense officials from dozens of countries that support the Ukraine.
No tank deal was announced after the session. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to say at a press conference afterwards whether he was disappointed with the apparent lack of a deal and defended Berlin as a reliable ally. Austin noted that Scholz said there was no connection between the United States supplying Abrams tanks and Germany supplying the Leopard, and “this idea of ’unlocking’ German tanks by requiring Abrams” is not not a problem”.
Inside the urgent push to arm Ukraine for a spring offensive
But others said it was a major factor. Zelensky expressed his exasperation with the situation, saying in a video address to Ramstein’s group that “hundreds of ‘thanks’ are not hundreds of tanks”, and that he could not “use thousands of words” against Russian artillery.
In a statement later that day, Zelensky said: “Yes, we will still have to fight for the supply of modern tanks, but every day we make it more evident that there is no alternative to the tank decision-making.”
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in an interview with The Washington Post late last year that if the United States sent even one Abrams, “like a big brother,” it would be a symbolic step that would open the door to the sending of Leopards by Germany.
A senior US defense official briefed at the time on Reznikov’s comments said sending even one Abrams was out of the question. It is difficult for the United States to maintain the Abrams tanks and their sophisticated turboshaft engine, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
For Ukrainians, the official said, “it would be impossible.”
Morris reported from Berlin. Alex Horton and John Hudson contributed to this report.
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