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Western defense leaders fail to resolve divisions over tanks for Ukraine

“This is a crucial moment. Russia is regrouping, recruiting and trying to re-equip,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned as the meeting opened.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

Defense leaders meeting at a U.S. air base in Germany on Friday failed to resolve divisions over who will provide battle tanks to Ukraine after more than five hours of discussions about sending more military aid to the embattled country in its war with Russia.

The defense minister of Poland, which has pledged a company of 14 Leopard tanks on condition that other countries also supply them, said 15 countries that have the German-made Leopards discussed the issue but no decisions were made.

Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak called the meeting a “good discussion among allies” and said the matter would be discussed again at future talks.

Germany would need to consent for the tanks to be given to Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO. Despite pleas from Ukrainian officials, Germany has so far resisted mounting pressure to quickly supply Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv, or at least clear the way for other countries, such as Poland, to deliver them from their own stocks.

The U.S. has resisted providing its own M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, citing extensive and complex maintenance and logistical challenges with the high-tech vehicle. Washington believes it would be more productive to send German Leopards since many allies have them and Ukrainian troops would need less training than on the more difficult Abrams.

U.S. and German officials have given mixed signals about whether Germany is hesitant to provide the Leopards unless the U.S. provides Abrams tanks.

A U.S. official familiar with White House thinking reiterated that Germany has expressed hesitance to providing its tanks without the U.S. sending Abrams. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Biden administration deliberations, added that there was some bewilderment in the administration over the German position, since Britain, another NATO ally, has already agreed to provide tanks.

But Steffen Hebestreit, a spokesman for the German government, denied that Berlin demanded that the U.S. supply Abrams tanks alongside any shipment of Leopards.

At a news conference Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted Germany’s denial that it had linked one type of tank to the other. “This notion of our locking, you know, in my mind, it’s not an issue, he said.”

Ukrainian leaders and supporters of Kyiv have repeatedly criticized Germany for what they see as holding back critical assistance in the war. U.S. Defense chief Austin defended German leaders after Friday’s meeting. Asked by a reporter if Germany was doing enough to show “real leadership” in Europe, Austin replied, “Yes, but we can all do more.”

“They are a reliable ally and they’ve been that way for for a very, very long time,” he said. “And I truly believe that they’ll continue to be a reliable ally going forward.”

Austin also downplayed the immediate importance of tanks, noting that Stryker combat vehicles and Bradley armored vehicles being sent for the first time would give Ukraine new capabilities in the war. “This isn’t really about one single platform,” he said.

Britain's Challenger 2 tank moves at the Tapa Military Camp, in Estonia, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
Britain's Challenger 2 tank moves at the Tapa Military Camp, in Estonia on Jan. 19, 2023. Pavel Golovkin / AP

Speaking to reporters outside the conference hall at midday, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that while there was no resolution yet, “we will make our decisions as soon as possible.”

He said he had ordered the ministry to look into the tank stocks Germany has so he can be prepared for a possible green light and be able to “act immediately.” Pistorius added that Germany will “balance all the pros and contras before we decide things like that. — I am very sure that there will be a decision in the short term but — I don’t know how the decision will look.”

The defense leaders opened their day hearing an impassioned plea for more military aid from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Speaking live via video link, he told the gathering that “terror does not allow for discussion.” He said “the war started by Russia does not allow delays.”

Meanwhile, a Kremlin spokesman said the deployment of Western tanks would trigger “unambiguously negative” consequences.

“All these tanks will require both maintenance and repairs, and so on, so (sending them) will add to Ukraine’s problems, but will not change anything with regard to the Russian side achieving its goals,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a media briefing Friday.

Austin and U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were expected to discuss the latest massive package of aid the U.S. is sending, which totals $2.5 billion and includes Stryker armored vehicles for the first time.

The United Kingdom announced last week that it would send Challenger 2 tanks, describing that move as a natural progression of military aid to Ukraine.

The latest package of U.S. aid includes eight Avenger air defense systems, 350 Humvees, 53 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, more than 100,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and rockets, and missiles for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. It was announced Thursday by the Pentagon.

Other pledges announced ahead of the Ramstein meeting included S-60 anti-aircraft guns from Poland with 70,000 rounds of ammunition, additional Stinger air-defense systems and two M-17 helicopters from Latvia, and two Russian-made Mi-8 helicopters and dozens of L-70 anti-aircraft guns with ammunition from Lithuania.

Nearly 11 months into the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy has expressed frustration about not obtaining enough weaponry from the Western allies. Speaking by video link on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he bemoaned a “lack of specific weaponry.”

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, who took office Thursday just an hour before he met with Austin, said that opinions among allies were mixed on the tank issue, and added that “the impression that has occasionally arisen that there is a united coalition and Germany is standing in the way is wrong.”

The group, which coordinates international military support for Ukraine, is meeting as the first nations are beginning to promise the delivery of western main battle tanks to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses delegates via video link at Ramstein Air Base on Friday. Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images

Milley told reporters traveling with him this week that new U.S. training of Ukrainian troops, combined with an array of new weapons and armored vehicles heading to Ukraine, will be key to helping the country’s forces take back territory that has been captured by Russia in the nearly 11-month-old war.

The goal, he said, is to deliver needed weapons and equipment to Ukraine so the newly trained forces will be able to use it “sometime before the spring rains show up. That would be ideal.”

The influx of new weapons, tanks and armored carriers comes as Ukraine faces intense combat in the country’s east around the city of Bakhmut and the nearby salt mining town of Soledar. The battles are expected to intensify in the spring.

Milley said Friday that the number of Russian dead and wounded is now “significantly over” 100,000 people, a figure he gave in November.

“This is a very, very bloody war and there’s significant casualties on both sides,” he said. “Sooner or later, this is going to have to get to a negotiating table at some point in order to bring this to a conclusion.”