The US and Germany will send main battle tanks to Kiev, a significant increase in Western military aid that was condemned by Russia and sparked cheers across Ukraine.
The US will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine — or the equivalent of one Ukrainian tank battalion, senior Biden administration officials confirmed on Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, Germany announced it would send 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks from its army’s supplies. Berlin also announced plans to collaborate with other European countries to create two tank battalions of German-made Leopard 2s, amounting to about 90 tanks.
Both the Abrams and Leopard are among the top-rated modern main battle tanks in the world and Kiev has argued that it needs them to break through a front line that has barely changed in recent weeks and recapture occupied territory. It also says it needs Western tanks to deter a renewed Russian offensive expected in early spring.
The coordinated US-German decision ends months of hesitation in Berlin, where officials pondered the risk of the conflict escalating, and in Washington, where their prospect of getting the heavy vehicles on the ground in Ukraine seemed impractical.
“Armored capabilities will enhance Ukraine’s ability to maneuver, which is a critical asset for Ukraine as they continue to defend and recapture their territory,” a senior US government official said.
The US move to send tanks to Ukraine comes on the heels of a spate of diplomatic activity in recent weeks to ramp up aid to Ukraine, particularly between Berlin and Washington, where officials in both capitals have expressed their opposition to the move in recent days. control of advanced weapon systems.
US President Joe Biden met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday to further coordinate support for Ukraine. Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, met his German, French and British colleagues in Washington for two days.
“It is an impressive display of unity almost a year into the conflict,” said a senior Biden administration official. “President Biden’s guiding principle during this conflict has been to rally the world to support Ukraine and preserve Allied unity — which is exactly what is happening here.”
Scholz said in parliament earlier on Wednesday that Germany would “always lead the way when it comes to supporting Ukraine” and dismissed criticism that he had hesitated too long to heed Kiev’s calls for help. The chancellor said that when it came to military aid “we have to work closely with others”.
Scholz said that when Germany had stepped up its arms shipments to Ukraine — supplying tank howitzers, rocket launchers, air defense systems and infantry fighting vehicles — it had only done so “after our key alliance partners in North America and here in the EU acted in a similar way.”
He also said that Germany will support Ukraine “but at the same time prevent the war from escalating into a war between Russia and NATO”. Many in Berlin had feared that sending tanks would increase the risk of a direct confrontation between Russia and the transatlantic alliance.
In a Twitter post, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Germany’s decision as “important and timely”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the decision “could help Ukraine defend itself, win and triumph as an independent nation”.
“I am very pleased with (Scholz) and Germany’s leadership in supplying Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in consultation with other NATO allies and partners,” he added.
In addition to announcing its own tank deliveries to Ukraine, Germany, as the manufacturer of the Leopards controls their resale and re-export, said it would give the green light to any countries willing to send their Leopard 2s to Kiev.
It also said it would train Ukrainian soldiers to use the weapon system. In addition, the package offered to Kiev includes logistics, ammunition and maintenance of the Leopards.
The Abrams tanks would take “months” rather than “weeks” to reach Ukraine, so their impact on the battlefield would not be immediate, the senior US official said. A “considerable amount of training and maintenance” was required for the Abrams and the Pentagon was already working to get Ukraine the fuel and equipment they needed to operate the tanks. The US also planned to supply eight M88 “recovery” vehicles to Ukraine to help repair any damaged Abrams tanks.
Russian Ambassador to Germany Sergei Nechayev said the German move was an “extremely dangerous decision” that “elevates the conflict to a new level of hostilities”. He accused Germany of neglecting its “historic responsibility to our country” for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II and opting for a “permanent escalation” of tensions over the war in Ukraine.
The US move to supply Germany with Abrams tanks was also “doomed to fail,” said Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. “They clearly overestimate the potential this will bring to the Ukrainian armed forces.”
News of Germany’s decision to send its tanks to Kiev was greeted with cheers by the Ukrainians, who showed their excitement and appreciation online, especially in the matter of clothing.
In a social media “flash mob” organized under the hashtag “#freetheleopards,” Ukrainians shared photos of themselves dressed in leopard-print shirts, jackets, pants, bodysuits and sunglasses.
Ukrainian politician Inna Sovsun shared a photo of herself in a leopard print blouse in the parliament hall. Private Dmitry Mrachnik posted a image of himself brandishing his Kalashnikov rifle and draped in a leopard-patterned blanket he’d slept under for months at the front.
“I don’t normally wear leopard print, but for tanks I do this,” journalist Anastasia Stanko told the Financial Times.
Tetiana Shevchuk, legal adviser to the Anti-Corruption Action Center of Ukraine, said Ukrainian women are now discussing what clothes to wear to draw attention to Ukraine’s need for US F-16 fighter jets. Although the aircraft’s official name is the Fighting Falcon, it is affectionately referred to as the Viper due to its resemblance to the snake.
“I think I need something in viper pattern,” she said.
Additional coverage by Henry Foy in Brussels