A push to provide battle tanks to Ukraine is stalled after U.S. officials this week expressed reluctance over difficulties in maintenance and training for the advanced tracked vehicle.
The U.S. decision effectively prevents Ukraine getting tanks from other NATO allies as well, as Germany this week made clear it would only allow other countries to send German-made tanks if the U.S. commits its own M1 Abrams tank first.
Ukraine has repeatedly asked for Western tanks to help in its fight with Russia, a topic that was front and center this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and will again be in the spotlight at a gathering of top defense ministers for a Ukraine Contact Group meeting on Friday.
German officials have been mulling allowing Ukraine to have its Leopard 2 tanks, with speculation that the U.S. and Germany may announce a deal on Friday to finally grant Kyiv’s wish for heavy tanks.
But the United States believes “it just doesn’t make sense” for Washington to send over the Army’s main battle tank now, Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Thursday.
“It’s more of a sustainment issue,” Singh said. “This is a tank that requires jet fuel. . . .. The maintenance and the high cost that it would take to maintain an Abrams, it just doesn’t make sense to provide that to the Ukrainians at this moment.”
Months of pressure on the United States and Germany to hand over battle tanks appeared to make headway this week with the new appointment of German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius as well as discussions on tanks at Davos and high-level NATO meetings in Brussels.
Also viewed as positive momentum was the U.S., French and German commitment earlier this month to provide Bradleys, AMX-10 RCs and Marder fighting vehicles, respectively, the first time the countries have done so.
But former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst — who on Monday said it appeared that a deal to allow tank exports to Ukraine had “been worked out” between Washington and Berlin — told The Hill Wednesday that it appears a wrench had been thrown into the process.
“There’s a game that’s been going on involving Berlin and the White House for months, which is the Germans would say ‘we’re not going to send any Leopards until the Americans sends Abrams.’ … The Americans say, ‘yes, we have no objection to Germany sending Leopards, we’re not gonna send Abrams.’ And then both countries get to avoid sending something they consider provocative to the Kremlin,” said Herbst, now a senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
While the West hasn’t completely closed the door on committing tanks to Ukraine — with the United Kingdom last week announcing that it will send the nation 14 Challenger 2s — reluctance reigns on shipping other heavy tanks to Kyiv.
Some experts agree the Abrams isn’t a prudent addition to Ukraine’s war effort at the moment due to the sheer amount of effort it would take to run it, said Jeffrey Pryce, a former Defense Department special counsel now at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“The Abrams is a majestic tank, but it comes with corresponding logistical and maintenance burdens,” Pryce told The Hill. “What we’ve focused on is providing Ukrainians with capabilities that they can effectively use in the short term, and the Abrams doesn’t seem to be in that sweet spot.”
He also disagreed with assertions that the U.S. was shying away from the system due to fears of escalating the conflict, pointing to Washington’s commitment to send such high-tech systems as the Patriot missile defense system and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
“I think it’s just a judgment as to what’s most helpful, what they can most efficiently absorb and effectively use in combat in the middle of a war,” he said.
Late Thursday the United States announced a major $2.5 billion weapons package for Kyiv, to include 90 Stryker armored combat vehicles but no Abrams tanks. The military aid was announced ahead of a gathering of the Ukraine Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, to be attended by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and about 50 other top defense officials from NATO as they look to coordinate future lethal assistance to Kyiv.
Leaders of Ukraine’s military, which until now have used Soviet-era tanks on the battlefield, insist more modern tanks are needed, and soon, as Russia appears to gear up for a renewed spring offensive.
“There is no rational reason why Ukraine has not yet been supplied with Western tanks,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said earlier this month.
On Thursday, Zelensky reupped the request, saying that the need for Western tanks is still a “pressing and very sensitive” issue for Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that he expected further announcements on military deliveries to Ukraine to come out of Ramstein but would not comment on whether Washington is pushing Berlin to give the green light for Leopard tanks for Kyiv.
“On the question of, of tanks, and for that matter, any weapons system, these are sovereign decisions for each country to make,” Blinken said.
On Thursday, Singh echoed that message, noting that Leopards are easier to fuel and maintain.
“Ultimately this is Germany’s decision. It’s their sovereign decision on what security assistance they will provide. So we won’t be able to speak to them, but I think that we are certainly doing what we can to support Ukraine in what they need,” she said.
“We’re continuing to work with other partners and allies around the world to see what else can be provided to Ukraine, and that’s the whole point of tomorrow’s meeting,” Singh added.
While the Biden administration has offered little detail of its conversations with Germany, the German side has been clear about wanting the U.S. to make the first move on heavy tanks, a message delivered by German chancellor Olaf Scholz in a call with President Biden and in-person to an American congressional delegation in Davos.
Finland, Poland and the Baltic states all possess Leopard 2s in their own stocks and have publicly endorsed shipping the vehicle to Ukraine, but need Germany’s permission to do so due to German components within the tanks.
The impasse has angered a number of American lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who on Wednesday tweeted for the two sides to “stop bickering.”
“This impasse needs to come to an end. The tanks need to go to Ukraine from BOTH countries as soon as possible. The future of Europe and a rules-based world is at stake,” Graham wrote.
And Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) on Thursday called for Germany to “immediately” allow Poland and Finland to contribute Leopards.
The latest public statements from Berlin and Washington suggest Ukraine may have to keep waiting; however. all involved will be keeping a close eye on the meetings at Ramstein on Friday.
“There’s a decision that’s going to have to be made and we’ll see if there’s an agreement at Ramstein,” Pryce said.