The US and Germany are planning to send advanced tanks to Ukraine, in a move that marks a significant breakthrough in western efforts to bolster Kyiv’s fight against the Russian army.
People familiar with the matter said on Tuesday that the US was preparing to announce that it would deliver M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, while Germany would send Leopard 2 tanks, though they would not confirm the number.
The decision to send tanks marks a notable policy shift for Washington and Berlin. German chancellor Olaf Scholz had long hesitated to provide Ukraine with heavy armour, fearing that it would increase the risk of a direct confrontation between Russia and Nato.
He has also stressed that Germany would never go it alone when it came to tanks, insisting that it act in lockstep with its allies, principally Washington. US officials were sceptical of the need to send Abrams tanks because of what they described as logistical and training challenges.
However, the clamour for tanks had become impossible to ignore. The front line in the war has barely budged in recent weeks and Kyiv has argued western tanks would help it to regain the initiative and reconquer occupied territory. It also says it needs tanks to deter a renewed Russian offensive that is expected in early spring.
Joe Biden’s administration had been facing growing pressure from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to send the Abrams in an effort to break Germany’s resistance to sending its own tanks. The White House and the Pentagon declined to comment on Tuesday.
Relations between Berlin and Washington had become strained last week after a number of media outlets reported Scholz saying that Germany would not send tanks to Ukraine unless the US did the same. German officials later denied any such “linkage”.
However, after days of intense discussions, the US and Germany have agreed to act in concert on tanks and an announcement could come as early as Wednesday. That would mirror a similar move by the two countries in early January, when they jointly announced they would both provide infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine — US Bradleys and German Marders.
A report in the German news outlet Spiegel Online, which first reported the move, said Berlin would send at minimum a company of Leopard 2A6s, typically about 14 tanks. It said they would come from the stocks of the Bundeswehr, the German army.
Berlin is also set to give the green light to Warsaw’s request to send some of Poland’s Leopards to Ukraine. A senior Polish official confirmed the decision to allow the export of Leopard 2s to Ukraine.
“I am just blissfully happy that after, all the hesitation and delay, Germany has finally made this truly historic decision,” said Andrii Melnyk, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister and former ambassador to Berlin. “Now we urge all our western allies to establish a powerful tank coalition which would help us push out the Russian invaders in early spring.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said his country was “willing to consider” purchasing 18 Leopard tanks it had leased from Germany and providing them to Ukraine. However, he stressed that no decision had been made and he first wanted to know what Berlin would do.
Anton Hofreiter, a senior Green MP who has frequently accused Scholz of excessive caution on arms supplies to Ukraine, welcomed the development. “The decision comes late but not too late,” he said. “It will allow Ukraine to defend itself effectively against Russia’s invasion and regain control over its territory.”
By insisting that the US and Germany act together, “the chancellery has ensured that they will share the risk”, said Carlo Masala, a political scientist at the Bundeswehr university in Munich. “If there is a Russian counter-reaction, the Americans will be involved in the Nato reaction to that because they themselves would be directly affected.”
The pressure on Scholz to rethink his position on tanks had been intensifying over the past few weeks.
He endured a barrage of criticism from Germany’s allies, particularly in eastern Europe and the Baltic, who urged him to show leadership. Poland has been particularly strident on the question of sending heavy armour.
Pressure also came from Scholz’s coalition partners, the Greens and liberals, who criticised him publicly for failing to give the go-ahead for the supply of tanks both from the Bundeswehr and Germany’s allies.
Shortly before news of Scholz’s move on Leopards first broke, Russia warned of unspecified consequences if the west provided tanks to Ukraine. Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, said such a move would “definitely leave an inevitable mark”, according to Interfax.
Additional reporting by Barbara Erling in Warsaw, Max Seddon in Riga and Sam Fleming in Brussels