Home World Dispute over Germany’s Leopard tanks divides Ukraine’s allies

Dispute over Germany’s Leopard tanks divides Ukraine’s allies

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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Ukraine’s Western backers failed Friday to resolve a dispute over which nation will supply the government in Kyiv with powerful battle tanks that President Volodymyr Zelensky told them are needed to mount a new offensive against entrenched Russian forces.

Debated behind closed doors among dozens of defense ministers gathered at this vast U.S. military facility, the disagreement centers on whether Germany is willing to transfer its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, or at least authorize other nations that field the German-made tanks to supply them.

Noting that Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, had told the gathering that “they have not made a decision,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Germany was a “reliable ally” and that the United States and others were sending a range of armored vehicles, and that Britain had agreed to transfer some British-made Challenger 2 heavy tanks.

Speaking after the meeting alongside Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Austin told reporters that “what we’re really focused on is making sure that Ukraine has the capability that it needs to be a success right now. So we have a window of opportunity here between now and the spring whenever [the Ukrainians] commence their counteroffensive … that’s not a long time.”

Why is Germany under pressure to send tanks to Ukraine?

Germany has publicly linked its position on the Leopards to U.S. reluctance to transfer its own Abrams M1 tanks, which Pentagon officials have said are not the best fit for Ukraine in terms of operability and the time it would take to arrive.

Austin, while skirting the question of U.S. refusal, said “this isn’t really about one single platform. Our goal … is to provide the capability that Ukraine needs to be successful in the near term.” He listed the number of armored vehicles the coalition has already sent and agreed to send, including recently announced American Bradley fighting vehicles and Stryker armored vehicles.

“This is a very, very capable package,” Austin said. “If employed properly, it will enable them to be successful.”

U.S. defense chief in Berlin for talks as Germany stalls on tank deliveries

In his own remarks at their joint news conference, Milley described training for Ukrainian forces currently underway by the United States and others, that will allow them to perform “combined arms maneuver” with the newly arriving vehicles along what he described as a lengthy “static front line” where the Ukrainians are facing off against entrenched Russian occupiers.

But he cautioned that victory using the new tactics and equipment would be neither fast nor easy, and indicated the war may go on at least into next year.

“From a military standpoint, I would maintain that, during this year, it would be very very difficult for Ukraine to eject Russian forces from all of Russian-occupied Ukraine,” Milley said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but it will be very, very difficult.”

There is a “very, very short time” to assemble the equipment, train troops to use it, and launch an offensive, he added, saying: “It will be a very, very heavy lift. Yes, I think it can be done, but I think it will be a challenge.” Whether it will succeed, Milley said, “remains to be seen.”

In his remarks to the senior military representatives from dozens of countries, Zelensky, speaking by video, said that “Hundreds of ‘thank you’ are not hundreds of tanks. … All of us can use thousands of words, but I can’t put words, instead of guns needed, against Russian artillery.”

The debate over heavy tanks, a rare split among the coalition of nations that has come to Ukraine’s aid, has dragged out for days, as billions of dollars in other heavy weapons flow to the battlefield.

Germany holds a key position in whether large numbers of battle tanks from allies are sent, leverage that appears to have frustrated some of the allies. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wednesday that he will send 14 of his country’s Leopard tanks to Ukraine regardless of whether Germany approves. Berlin’s permission is required for other countries to send the German-made weapons, according to export agreements with those countries.

Pistorius told the session that Berlin continues to weigh the pros and cons of sending tanks. The impression that other allies are ready to send their Leopards and Germany is “standing in the way” is wrong, he claimed, adding that not everyone is united.

“None of us can yet say when a decision will be made and what the decision will look like,” he said. Germany is not “hesitating,” he insisted, but “we have to be careful.”

Germany’s approach to sending arms to Ukraine has been defined by a desire not to stick its neck out, resulting in public U-turns. In the past, it has publicly laid out how certain deliveries were not possible, before relenting in the face of international pressure. When it comes to the delivery of tanks, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly said he does not want to “go it alone” in sending them, even as allies like Britain promise to send some of theirs.

The dispute is unusual among a coalition that has held together for months as Russia pursues its invasion and Ukraine makes regular pleas for more weapons. Many countries have in turn provided increasingly sophisticated and powerful arms, as the Ukrainian military demonstrates ferocity and professionalism.

The United States announced another sprawling $2.5 billion package of military aid on Thursday night, including 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker armored vehicles. It is the first time United States has included Strykers in the nearly $27 billion in military assistance that the Biden administration has approved since Russia’s February 2022 invasion. No American tanks were included.

Austin did not address the issue directly in remarks at the outset of Friday’s meeting, but said that this is a decisive moment for Ukraine and that countries rallying to Kyiv’s aid “will support Ukraine’s self-defense for as long as it takes.”

“We need to keep our momentum and resolve,” Austin told the allies. “We need to dig even deeper.”

Austin cast Russia’s invasion as increasingly hapless, saying that Moscow is running out of ammunition, suffering “significant battlefield losses” and turning to just a few partners that it has left for help. “Even Iran and North Korea won’t admit that they are supplying Russia.”

The Pentagon chief warned that Russia is trying to recruit, regroup and reequip.

“This is not a moment to slow down,” Austin said. “The Ukrainian people are watching us. The Kremlin is watching us. And history is watching us.”

Austin introduced Zelensky, who thanked the ministers for their support and urged them to move with alacrity.

“Terror does not allow for discussion,” he said. “Time remains a Russian weapon.”

Zelensky added that the defense ministers are “strong people from strong countries,” and asked them to find a way to send a “principled supply” of tanks, F-16 jets, and long-range weapons.

“The Kremlin,” he said, “must lose.”

Ukraine has openly broadcast that it intends to launch a new, muscular counteroffensive in coming months against Russian units, many of which are deeply dug into fighting positions that include a network of trenches and antitank obstacles.

U.S. begins expanded training of Ukrainian forces for large-scale combat

For the first time, the United States last weekend began training a battalion of more than 600 Ukrainian forces at the U.S. Army’s Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, advising them on how to best integrate tanks, artillery and other advanced weapons to go on the offensive in what the U.S. military terms combined-arms warfare. The training is expected to last five to six weeks, with the Ukrainians returning home after.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week in a conference call that the training goes “hand-in-hand” with the provision of tanks to Ukraine. Zelensky, he said, is “no doubt” seeking to add tanks because they are a “big part” of mechanized maneuver operations.

“We believe that the provision of modern tanks will significantly help and improve the Ukrainians’ ability to … fight where they’re fighting now and fight more effectively going forward,” Kirby said. Ukraine has kept some of its old, Soviet-era T-72 tanks in the war, he added, but there is a “finite limit” to how long that can last.

As Ukraine builds up its armor, its military leaders have shown professionalism and discipline by not overcommitting resources too soon, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and former commander of U.S. Army Europe. The main effort for Ukraine, he said, is likely to be an effort to cut off and then take back Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia seized and annexed in 2014.

Hodges said Ukraine wants to build the equivalent of a full armored division, a formation that typically includes 10,000 to 15,000 troops. It must be trained and prepared to serve as the “breakthrough formation” in the next major counteroffensive, he added.

Ukraine in the next few months will probably attempt to set the conditions for the liberation of Crimea, first through long-range strikes and then with an armored offensive designed to cut ground routes from Crimea back to Russia, Hodges predicted. That, coupled with additional long-range strikes against vulnerable Russian facilities and units in Crimea, could make it untenable for Russian forces to stay.

Kyiv would still benefit from the United States providing Gray Eagle drones, small-diameter bombs and the long-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), Hodges said, but such weapons have not been approved.

Obtaining more air defense is still Ukraine’s top priority, said Kori Schake, a defense analyst who has visited Kyiv. While Russia has not been able to establish air dominance over Ukraine, the government in Kyiv is running short of air defenses and Western allies are beginning to run short in supplying them, she said.

Ukraine also still has challenges in carrying out long-range strikes, Schake added. The United States has shortages of weapons it can offer, beyond the policy restrictions that the Biden administration has imposed on sending such weapons, she said.

Morris reported from Berlin. Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw and Victoria Bisset in London contributed to this report.

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