In Europe, the goal is to quickly assemble two Leopard 2 tank battalions — equivalent at least about 80 tanks — for Ukraine, the German government said in a statement. As a first step, Germany will provide a company of 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks from Bundeswehr stocks. Other European allies will also provide tanks.
Ukrainian officials are counting on the Leopard 2s— which are fast, relatively easy to operate and plentiful in Europe — to help their forces gain an advantage on the battlefield. It is unclear when the German tanks could be delivered.
Berlin had long resisted calls to send tanks without acting in tandem with allies, saying that it did not want to be seen as a direct participant in the war, inviting retaliation potential from Russia. In recent weeks, German officials had been more explicit in linking any decision to send tanks to a similar move by the United States.
But intense international pressure — and an apparent reversal of Washington’s position on sending its battle tanks — appears to have provided impetus.
“We are acting in a closely coordinated manner internationally,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in the statement.
As manufacturer of the Leopard 2, one of the most widely used tanks in Europe, Germany held the key to the entire package the tanks being prepared for delivery to Ukraine because Berlin’s approval is required for reexport. Poland and a number of other European members of NATO had indicated they are prepared to send Leopard 2s. Finland, Greece, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey all own at least 100 of them.
“The decision to release and deliver the Leopard 2 was a tough one, but inescapable,” Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the German parliament’s defense committee tweeted. “It is redeeming news for the battered and brave Ukraine.”
European allies had hoped to announce a package of Leopards at at meeting on Ukraine at Ramstein Air Base in Germany last week. But Berlin’s new defense minister had said Germany needed more time to make a “careful” decision and assess its stocks.
As Germany dragged its feet, Poland, which is planning to send a company of Leopards, or 14 tanks, had threatened to do so with or without Berlin’s permission. On Tuesday, Poland formally requested German authorization for reexport, ramping up pressure on Berlin to come to a decision.
Top national security advisers from Germany, France, Britain and the United States are also set to meet Wednesday in Washington to discuss Ukraine. Britain has said it would send a small number of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks.
Agreeing to send the Leopards is a big step towards Ukraine ending the war “by winning it,” said Norbert Röttgen, a parliamentarian with the Christian Democrats and foreign policy expert. But it is a “catastrophic signal” that Germany rejected European action on tanks without American contribution, he tweeted.
“Scholz successfully put pressure on the Americans with the condition that they only deliver together with the USA,” he added. “Washington won’t soon forget that.”
Ukrainian officials and U.S. lawmakers had urged the Biden administration to approve even a small number of Abrams tanks, arguing it would provide Berlin with the cover it needed to feel comfortable sending its own tanks.
Another U.S. official said the United States was expected to order at least 31 Abrams tanks and eight support vehicles under the plan. They’ll be purchased using money from the congressionally provided Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, rather than pulled from the U.S. arsenal, as many other weapons sent to Ukraine have been, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
As recently as last week, though, senior U.S. officials insisted that the Abrams would be too burdensome for the Ukrainian military to operate and maintain.
“I just don’t think we’re there yet,” Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl told reporters last week, after returning from a visit to Kyiv. “The Abrams is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on.”
The addition of more modern tanks into Ukraine’s military raises questions about how the United States or its allies might train Ukrainian forces to use them and incorporate them into battlefield formations with other recently provided Western equipment.
Polish officials said last week they planned to begin training Ukrainians on Leopards within days.
Another possibility might be training a larger number of Ukrainian forces at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany’s Bavarian countryside. The U.S. facility, the largest of its kind in Europe, began hosting a battalion of more 600 Ukrainian troops this month to learn how to incorporate artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, and other Western weapons into “combined-arms” warfare to go on the offense. The facility also is used for tank training.
The Leopard, at about 55 tons, is slightly smaller than the 65-ton-plus Abrams. The German tank runs on ubiquitous diesel fuel, while the Abrams has a multi-fuel turbine engine that commonly runs on JP-8 jet fuel but can accept other kinds.
Lamothe and DeYoung reported from Washington. Vanessa Guinan-Bank in Berlin contributed.