WASHINGTON — Reversing its longstanding resistance, the Biden administration plans to send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, U.S. officials said Tuesday, in what would be a major step in arming Kyiv in its effort to resume its territory to Russia.
The White House is expected to announce a decision as early as Wednesday, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions. An official said the number of Abrams tanks could be around 30.
Over the past month, Pentagon officials had expressed doubts about sending the Abrams, citing concerns about how Ukraine would maintain the advanced tanks, which require extensive training and maintenance. And officials said it would take them years to reach Ukrainian battlefields.
But Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III now believes a pledge to send American tanks is necessary to entice Germany to follow with its coveted Leopard 2 tanks. Department officials of State and the White House argued that giving Germany the political cover it sought to send its own tanks outweighed the reluctance of the Defense Department, the officials said.
The move to send in the Abrams tanks, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, follows a heated confrontation last week at a meeting of NATO defense chiefs over the German chancellor’s refusal , Olaf Scholz, to send in the Leopards, which many military experts believe could be a critical weapon in Ukrainian hands.
German officials privately insisted that they would only send the tanks, among the most advanced in the world, if the United States agreed to send its own M1 Abrams tanks.
Anticipation of a German announcement was high, as various German news outlets reported on Tuesday that Mr Scholz had decided to send the tanks. Much of the attention focused on an expected Chancellor’s speech to Parliament on Wednesday.
Many European countries use German-built Leopards, of which there are around 2,000 across the continent, and Ukraine has advocated for tanks in recent weeks, describing them as necessary to counter Russia’s advantages in arms and men. Western tanks are the latest barrier to fall as Ukraine’s allies supply it with weapons systems they previously resisted sending; earlier this month, as debates over the Leopard and Abrams continued, Britain said it would donate some of its Challenger 2 tanks.
On Tuesday, Poland’s defense minister said his country had officially asked Germany for permission to send Ukrainian Leopard tanks from its own stocks, and other countries said they would do the same. if Germany accepted.
In Kyiv, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told reporters at a press conference that he had discussed the supply of Western tanks to Ukraine with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the change in the Biden administration. As recently as Monday, a Pentagon official told reporters that Abrams tanks would be difficult for Ukrainian forces to maintain, in part because they run on kerosene.
But the decision to send a relatively small number of tanks and the expected delay in delivery could outweigh concerns about the escalation of the war while providing political benefits to the administration.
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Defense officials have repeatedly used the fuel issue as part of the explanation for why the administration was not sending Abrams tanks to Kyiv. But while it’s true that the tanks have gas turbine engines that burn jet fuel, that’s not all, tank experts say. Abrams tanks, they say, can run on any type of fuel, including regular gasoline and diesel.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. General Patrick Ryder on Tuesday did not confirm reports that the administration was about to supply Ukraine with the M1 Abrams tanks. “When and if we have something to announce, we will,” he said.
He called the Abrams tank “a very capable battlefield platform”.
“It’s also a very complex capability,” General Ryder said. “And so, like everything we provide to Ukraine, we want to make sure that they have the capacity to maintain it, to support it, to train on it.”
He did not mention the fuel issue.
The administration had initially hoped the British supply of Challenger tanks would be enough to get the Germans to agree to send their tanks, but Mr. Scholz, US officials said, insisted on the Abrams.
Officials said the Abrams tanks would be paid for under Ukraine’s Security Assistance Program, which provides funds for the purchase of weapons from Ukraine.
A second defense official said the long delivery delay would give Ukrainian troops time to train on the most advanced US tank.
Robert B. Abrams, a former US Army armored officer and four-star general who retired in 2021, said the effort would be “Herculean” but not impossible.
“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, who has extensive experience in the M1 tank, which is named after his father, General Creighton Abrams, said in an interview. “I don’t know, but it’s not like 30 days, I can tell you.”
After a string of Ukrainian battlefield successes last fall, the war has turned into a grueling fight of attrition. The heaviest fighting is concentrated in eastern Ukraine, where Russia and Ukraine have suffered heavy casualties around the town of Bakhmut, as both sides prepare for offensives expected in the spring.
Ukrainian officials say they need tanks to break through newly built Russian defenses and retake more territory seized by Moscow early in the war, and to defend against an expected Russian offensive in the spring. The United States began training hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers in combined arms tactics, for close coordination between infantry, artillery, armored vehicles and, if possible, air support.
Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, said last week that his country would also start training Ukrainians to use Leopard tanks, despite no agreement at the time on whether to send them.
“It’s to prepare for a day that may come, in which case we would be able to act immediately and provide the support at very short notice,” he told reporters.
Ukraine’s allies have provided increasingly sophisticated weapons to help Kyiv defend against the Russian invasion, but have been reluctant to send heavy offensive weapons for fear of provoking Moscow.
Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Russia 11 months ago, they have tried to carefully calibrate their support, which has slowly grown to include howitzers, HIMARS rocket artillery systems, defenses Patriot aircraft and, more recently, armored fighting vehicles, including the Stryker, used by the US military.
Ukraine has been crying out for heavily armored Western tanks for months, with officials saying the country’s current inventory of Soviet-style tanks is not enough to expel Russian forces. When Britain announced last week it was sending 14 tanks, Ukrainian officials thanked the British government but said in a statement that the Challengers were “not sufficient to meet operational objectives”.
Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Lauren McCarthy and Jean Ismay contributed report.