Washington and Berlin end tank taboo with promise of Abrams and Leopards

Washington and Berlin end tank taboo with promise of Abrams and Leopards
Washington has been as reluctant to send Ukraine its Abrams main battle tank, but under pressure to match Berlin's decision to send its Leopards, the White House has promised three companies. / bne IntelliNews
By Dominic Culverwell in London January 26, 2023

The great tank taboo has finally been broken with the United States announcing it will send 31 Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine just hours after Germany agreed to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced on January 25.

US President Joe Biden made it clear that the $400mn decision "is not an offensive threat to Russia", but will give Ukraine the capability it needs to fight against the larger aggressor. Ukrainian troops will be trained “as soon as possible,” he added.

It is not known when the Abrams tanks will arrive, but Biden said it could take some time. Meanwhile, the first Leopards will likely arrive within three months, according to German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, Radio Free Europe reported. Berlin’s protracted hesitation garnered criticism from Ukraine’s more ardent European supporters and the failure to make a decision at the Ramstein Conference earlier this week frustrated many. Nevertheless, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz eventually approved the delivery, saying it is “the right principle”.

“This decision follows our well-known line of supporting Ukraine to the best of our ability,” Scholz said, as quoted by Bloomberg. “We are acting in a way that is closely agreed and co-ordinated internationally.”

President Zelenskiy thanked both Washington and Berlin for their decision, following months of arduous requests. “It's an important step on the path to victory,” he wrote on Twitter. 

Moreover, Berlin has greenlit the delivery of Leopards from other European countries. Poland in particular has been a major proponent of sending the tanks to Ukraine, calling on European nations to pledge 100 Leopards for its neighbour. Norway immediately announced its plan to transfer an unspecified number from its arsenal, European Pravda reported. The Nordic country has 36 Leopards, with early reports suggesting that it will send eight. In addition, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden have said they are also considering sending Leopard tanks, the Kyiv Independent reported.

Zeleskiy and allies upped the pressure to send tanks at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly called for other nations to provide tanks, following London’s decision to deliver 14 Challenger 2 main battle tanks in mid-January. Despite concerns that the decision will escalate the conflict further, Johnson said that the main focus should be on giving Ukraine the tools it needs and dismissed the fears of escalation and possible nuclear retaliation from Russia.

“People argue we shouldn’t escalate, that it will further provoke [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. How can you escalate against a guy who is doing all out war against a civilian population,” Johnson said at the Ukrainian Breakfast forum in Davos last week.

“He is not going to use nuclear weapons,” Johnson added, claiming that the economic and political backlash is enough to deter Putin from going down the nuclear route.

Looking towards the future, Kyiv is keen to get hold of Western-made fighter jets, the Kyiv Independent reported. Ukraine currently flies Soviet-era jets, including MiG-29s; however, it requested that allies send modern planes in the early stages of the war, including the US-made F-16s.

"If we get them (Western fighter jets), the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense (...) It's not just F-16s: fourth generation aircraft, this is what we want," Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Defence, told Reuters.

Considering the time and effort it took Ukraine to receive tanks, a delivery of fighter jets may be a long way in the future, if it happens at all. Nevertheless, Ukraine remains optimistic and sees the tank deliveries as a guarantee that allies will eventually give the country what it needs to defend itself from Russian aggression.

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