BERLIN (AP) — Germany and the United States announced on Wednesday that they will send main battle tanks to Ukraine, the first phase of a coordinated Western effort to provide dozens of heavy weapons to help Kyiv break the combat deadlock , when the Russian invasion entered its 12 month.
US President Joe Biden said the US would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks, reversing months of persistent arguments by Washington that they were too difficult to operate and maintain for Ukrainian troops.
The US decision follows Germany’s agreement to send 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks from its own stocks. Germany had said the Leopards would not be sent unless the US put their Abrams on the table, as they did not want to incur the wrath of Russia without a similar commitment from the US.
“This is the result of renewed intensive consultations with our allies and international partners,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told German lawmakers. “It was the right thing to do and it’s important that we don’t let ourselves be pushed to make the decision.”
Biden said European allies agreed to send enough tanks to equip two Ukrainian tank battalions, or 62 tanks in total.
“As spring approaches, Ukrainian forces are working to defend the territory they hold and are preparing for additional counterattacks,” Biden said. “To liberate their country, they must be able to counteract the evolving tactics and strategies of Russia on the battlefield in the short term.”
Several European countries have equipped their armies with Leopard 2 tanks, and Germany’s announcement means they can turn over part of their holdings to Ukraine.
“German main battle tanks, further expansion of defense support and training missions, go-ahead for partners to supply similar weapons. I just heard about these important and timely decisions in a phone call with Olaf Scholz,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter. “I am sincerely grateful to the Chancellor and to all our friends in (Germany).”
Ukrainian soldiers on the front line welcomed the news and said the decision comes at a critical juncture.
“Tanks will help reduce casualties among our soldiers…then get new results and win this war faster,” said Oleksander Syrotiuk, commander of a company of the 17th Tank Brigade based in Bakhmut.
Ukrainian soldiers and experts said the Ukrainian armed forces are running out of spare parts to repair old Soviet-era tanks and the special ammunition they need while withstanding the relentless barrage of Russian artillery. An expected Russian spring offensive is also looming.
Though it will be months before their debut, the tanks will allow Ukrainian forces to launch counteroffensives and cut casualties, three military commanders, including two in the army’s armored division, told The Associated Press.
“We cannot win this war without the new tanks,” said Maksim Butolin, senior sergeant of the 54th Brigade’s armored division. He spoke to AP by phone earlier this week from the Bakhmut frontline.
Ukraine’s armed forces have had to conserve ammunition and deal with frequent breakdowns and maintenance issues, Syrotiuk said.
“The main problem we have with our tanks is that they are old,” he said.
Syrotiuk expressed his preference for the Leopard 2, which he felt would be better suited to Ukraine’s terrain, saying the modern tanks had more precise targeting systems, better armor and equipment to enable night operations.
Scholz spoke by telephone with Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Wednesday, the Federal Chancellery said in a statement. The exchanges focused on the security situation in Ukraine and continued support for Ukraine’s struggle.
All five leaders agreed to continue military support to Ukraine in close Euro-Atlantic coordination.
The $400 million package announced by the US on Wednesday also includes eight M88 recovery vehicles – tank-like tracked vehicles that can tow the Abrams if it gets stuck.
Altogether, France, Britain, the US, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden will send hundreds of tanks and heavy armored vehicles to fortify Ukraine as it enters a new phase of the war and attempts to breach entrenched Russian lines.
While Ukrainian backers used to supply tanks, it was Soviet prototypes in the stockpiles of countries once under Moscow’s sphere of influence but now allied with the West. Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials insisted that their armed forces needed more modern western-design tanks.
Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, called Berlin’s decision “extremely dangerous” and said it “shifts the conflict to a new level of confrontation and contradicts statements by German politicians about their reluctance to engage”.
Scholz had insisted that any decision to supply Ukraine with the powerful tanks had to be made in cooperation with Germany’s allies, most notably the US. By getting Washington to commit some of its own tanks, Berlin hopes to share the risk of a Russian backlash.
Ekkehard Brose, head of the Bundeswehr Academy for Security Policy, pointed out the deeper historical significance of the decision.
“German tanks will once again face off against Russian tanks in Ukraine,” he said, adding that it was “not an easy thought” for Germany, which takes its responsibility for the horrors of World War II seriously.
“And yet it’s the right decision,” Brose said, arguing that it’s up to western democracies to help Ukraine stop the Russian military campaign.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius warned that it would take around three months for the first tanks to be stationed in Ukraine. He called the Leopard 2 “the best main battle tank in the world”.
The federal government announced that it would start training Ukrainian tank crews in Germany as soon as possible. The package would also include logistics, ammunition and maintenance.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the German and American intentions as “a rather catastrophic plan”.
“I am convinced that many specialists understand the absurdity of this idea,” said Peskov.
“From a technological point of view alone, this is a pretty disastrous plan. The main thing is that this is a completely obvious overestimation of the potential (supply of tanks) that would increase the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It’s another fallacy, a pretty profound one,” the Kremlin official said.
Peskov predicted: “These tanks will burn down like any other. … Except they cost a lot, and that will fall on the shoulders of European taxpayers,” he added.
Ahead of Scholz’s official announcement, members of his tripartite coalition government welcomed the cabinet’s agreement to supply the domestically made tanks.
“The leopard is freed!” German MP Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a senior Green Party MP, said.
However, two smaller opposition parties criticized the move. The far-right Alternative for Germany, which is on friendly terms with Russia, called the decision “irresponsible and dangerous”.
“In doing so, Germany risks being drawn directly into the war,” said party chairman Tino Chrupalla.
Scholz tried to reassure people in his country who were worried about the impact of tank shipments to Ukraine.
“Trust me, trust the government,” he said. “Through internationally coordinated action, we ensure that this support is possible without the risks for our country growing in the wrong direction.”
Other European nations such as Finland and Spain on Wednesday signaled their willingness to part with their own Leopard or similar main battle tanks as part of a larger coalition.
Kullab reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee in Washington, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
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