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US and Germany are set to send tanks to Ukraine

A US Army Abrams battle tank was in Poland for exercises.MATEUSZ SLODKOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The US and Germany are poised to announce they’ll provide their main battle tanks to Ukraine, offering Kyiv a powerful new weapon to counter Russia and overcoming a disagreement that threatened to fracture allied unity.

The Biden administration is expected to announce as soon as Wednesday it will offer Ukraine the M1 Abrams tank, dropping an argument that the vehicle guzzles too much gas and is difficult to operate, two people familiar with the matter said. Germany, which had insisted it didn’t want to be the only one to offer such tanks, will send 14 Leopard 2 A6′s, a person familiar with the decision said on condition of anonymity.

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The move will give President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s forces access to a significant new capability as the fighting in Ukraine shifts from urban centers to the east where Russian forces have been dug in since invading on Feb. 24. The hope is that the tanks will allow Ukraine to punch through the Russian lines and blunt a spring offensive that officials fear Russia may be planning.

Sending tanks will also allow allied nations to move on from a split that threatened to undermine their unity, a centerpiece of NATO strategy as it looks to isolate President Vladimir Putin. Officials had hoped Germany would announce the Leopards decision at a meeting of of allied defense ministers last week, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz declined to commit to doing so.

Scholz’s stance spurred rising frustration among US officials who argued that the Abrams, which relies on a special fuel and is difficult to maintain, was far less suitable for Ukraine than the Leopard 2, which is easier to operate and in plentiful supply among eastern European nations. The Abrams weighs about 70 tons and may be too much for Ukraine’s bridges and roads.

“After 11 months, the training of the Ukrainian crew can finally begin,” Marcus Faber, a lawmaker and defense expert from the Free Democrats in Scholz’s coalition, said. “Ukraine urgently needs the tanks to convince the invading troops to go home.”

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US and German administration officials declined to comment.

“If there are steps that we can take to see to it that Ukraine acquires quantities or capabilities that it needs, we’ve demonstrated before that we’re prepared to do that,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told a briefing Tuesday, saying the US wouldn’t get ahead of any announcements.

Officials on both sides said they were still discussing numbers and the timing of any delivery. Germany softened its position last week by saying Ukrainian troops would start training on the Leopard 2. People familiar with the matter later said Germany would also allow other nations that had the Leopard 2 to supply them to Ukraine.

Ukraine has repeatedly demanded heavy tanks, saying they will be crucial to helping turn the tide against Russian forces. But allies had also been wary of setting off a new round of escalation with Putin, amid fears he might use nuclear weapons in the conflict.

“Ukraine never asked the American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a speech to Congress in December. “I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves.”

As recently as late last week, senior US officials insisted that that sending the Abrams wouldn’t make sense, calling it expensive and hard to train on. It also requires three gallons of jet fuel for every mile traveled.

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But that claim overlooks the tank’s strengths, according to Tom Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and a retired US Army lieutenant general.

“These are the best tanks in the world, they have the best armor, they have the best digital fire control, and we should not underestimate the military significance,” Spoehr said. The oft-cited concerns about the training and logistics requirements “were kind of dreamed up in order to give the US government breathing room,” he said.

Congressional Pressure

The Biden administration also came under pressure from members of Congress who had argued that it should send the Abrams. That coincided with a broader belief that Ukraine should get the weapons not just to defend itself but to eject Russian forces from the territory they seized after the invasion began.

“Our military said too much training, too much fuel, but it is still a powerful weapons platform that could be very very important " Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters Tuesday. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell added his voice to that chorus, saying it was “past time the Biden administration and our allies get serious about helping Ukraine finish the job and retake their country.”

Germany, wary of provoking Russia’s ire and escalating the war beyond Ukraine’s border, has insisted “we never go alone,” as Scholz said in an interview last week with Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait.

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“If America will decide that they will bring battle tanks to Ukraine, that will make it easier for Germany,” Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said on Bloomberg TV. “You know our history, and we are little bit more reluctant there for understandable reasons.”

--With assistance from Courtney McBride and Erik Wasson.

(Updates with details of US decision throughout.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.