Germany and the United States said Wednesday they will send battle tanks to Ukraine, the first stage of a co-ordinated effort by the West to provide dozens of the heavy weapons to help Kyiv break combat stalemates as Russia’s invasion enters its 12th month.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.S. will send 31 M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, reversing months of persistent arguments by Washington that the tanks were too difficult for Ukrainian troops to operate and maintain.
The U.S. decision follows Germany agreeing to send 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks from its own stocks. Germany had said the Leopards would not be sent unless the U.S. put its Abrams on the table, not wanting to incur Russia’s wrath without the U.S. similarly committing its own tanks.
“This is the result of intensive consultations, once again, with our allies and international partners,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told German lawmakers. “It was right, and it is important that we didn’t let ourselves be driven” into making the decision.
Allies will send enough tanks for 2 battalions
Biden said European allies have agreed to send enough tanks to equip two Ukrainian battalions, or a total of 62 tanks.
“With spring approaching, Ukrainian forces are working to defend the territory they hold and preparing for additional counter-offences,” Biden said.
“To liberate their land, they need to be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed satisfaction at the news. Several European countries have equipped their armies with Leopard 2 tanks, and Germany’s announcement means they can give some of their stocks to Ukraine.
“German main battle tanks, further broadening of defence support and training missions, green light for partners to supply similar weapons. Just heard about these important and timely decisions in a call with Olaf Scholz,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter. “Sincerely grateful to the chancellor and all our friends in [Germany].”
Decision comes at critical point, troops say
Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines said the decision comes at a critical point.
“Tanks will help reduce casualties among our soldiers then gain new results and win this war quicker,” said Oleksander Syrotiuk, commander of a company in the 17th Tank Brigade deployed in Bakhmut.
Ukrainian soldiers and experts said Ukrainian forces are running low on spare parts to repair old Soviet-era tanks and the specific ammunition they require while enduring relentless barrages of Russian artillery. An expected springtime Russian offensive is also looming.
Though it will take months before their debut, the tanks will enable Ukrainian forces to launch counter-offensives and reduce casualties, three military commanders, including two in the army’s tank division, told The Associated Press.
“Without the new tanks, we cannot win this war,” said Maksim Butolin, chief sergeant of the 54th Brigade’s Tank Division. He spoke to the AP by phone earlier this week from near the Bakhmut front.
Ukrainian forces have had to preserve ammunition and deal with frequent breakdowns and maintenance issues, Syrotiuk said.
“The main problem we have with our tanks is they are old,” he said.
Expressing a preference for the Leopard 2, which he said was more suitable for Ukraine’s terrain, Syrotiuk said the modern tanks had more precise targeting systems, better armour and equipment to allow nighttime operations.
Gian Gentile, a U.S. Army veteran and senior historian with the Rand think-tank, said the M1 Abrams and the Leopards will give Ukraine a “mechanized armoured punching force.”
The Abrams tanks can hit a moving target up to 2,000 metres away while rolling across rough terrain, he said.
Scholz spoke by phone Wednesday with Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, the German chancellery said in a statement. The exchange focused on the security situation in Ukraine and continued support for Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression.
All five leaders agreed to continue military support to Ukraine in close Euro-Atlantic co-ordination.
$400M US package
The long-awaited decision came after U.S. officials revealed Tuesday a preliminary agreement to send M1 Abrams tanks to help Ukraine’s troops push back Russian forces that remain entrenched in the country’s east almost a year after Russia invaded its neighbour. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been made public.
It is not clear when or how the tanks would be delivered to Ukraine, or how soon they could have an impact on the battlefield.
Altogether, France, the U.K., the U.S., Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden will send hundreds of tanks and heavy armoured vehicles to fortify Ukraine as it enters a new phase of the war and attempts to break through entrenched Russian lines.
While Ukraine’s supporters previously have supplied tanks, they were Soviet models in the stockpiles of countries that once were in Moscow’s sphere of influence but are now aligned with the West. Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials insisted their forces need more modern Western-designed tanks.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Germany’s decision.
“At a critical moment in Russia’s war, these can help Ukraine to defend itself, win and prevail as an independent nation,” Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.
Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergey Nechayev, called Berlin’s move “extremely dangerous,” saying it “shifts the conflict to a new level of confrontation and contradicts the statements of German politicians about their reluctance to get involved in it.”
Scholz had insisted that any decision to provide Ukraine with the powerful tanks would need to be taken in conjunction with Germany’s allies, chiefly the U.S. By getting Washington to commit some of its own tanks, Berlin hopes to share the risk of any backlash from Russia.
Ekkehard Brose, head of the German military’s Federal Academy for Security Policy, said tying the United States into the decision was crucial, to avoid Europe facing a nuclear-armed Russia alone.
But he also noted the deeper historic significance of the decision.
“German-made tanks will face off against Russian tanks in Ukraine once more,” he said, noting that this was “not an easy thought” for Germany, which takes its responsibility for the horrors of the Second World War seriously.
“And yet it is the right decision,” Brose said, arguing that it was up to Western democracies to help Ukraine stop Russia’s military campaign.
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius cautioned that it would take about three months for the first tanks to be deployed in Ukraine. He described the Leopard 2 as “the best battle tank in the world.”
“This is an important game change, possibly also for this war, at least in the current phase,” he said.
The German government said it planned to swiftly begin training Ukrainian tank crews in Germany. The package being put together would also include logistics, ammunition and maintenance.