The United States and Germany will supply Ukraine with armored combat vehicles, President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a joint statement Thursday, marking a significant policy shift after months of resisting Kyiv’s pleas for tanks to face increasingly dug-in Russian forces along the lengthy southern and eastern fronts.
The statement, which followed a telephone call between the two leaders, confirmed that U.S.-produced Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Germany’s Marder infantry fighting vehicles would be transferred. “Both countries plan to train Ukrainian forces on the respective systems,” the statement said.
Scholz has been under increasing pressure from within his own ruling coalition to overcome his reluctance to have Germany be the first NATO country to supply advanced Western-made fighting vehicles. That logjam was broken Wednesday, when France announced it would provide Ukraine with an unspecified number of light tanks, and Biden acknowledged to reporters that Bradleys were on the table.
U.S. officials said the Bradleys could be included in a new package of weapons to be announced as soon as this week.
The first supply of Western mobile armor is another major milestone in the escalating provision of advanced weaponry to Ukrainian forces, including heavy artillery and long-range precision rocket launchers. It comes just weeks after the Biden administration announced that it would supply Kyiv with a Patriot missile battery, the most sophisticated air defense weapon in the U.S. arsenal, to defend against waves of Russian missile and drone attacks on energy and civilian infrastructure far from the front line.
In Thursday’s statement, Biden and Scholz also said Germany will supply an additional Patriot battery to Ukraine.
The front line, where the Ukrainian military is engaged in a grueling fight for incremental gains against Russian ground forces, is spread for hundreds of miles along a north-south front in the eastern part of the country. U.S. officials have said the Ukrainians need the ability to conduct combined arms maneuvers, with armored vehicles allowing them to engage the enemy and move forward while under fire.
The United States assesses that “there will be continued fighting along that line … for the foreseeable future,” a senior administration official said, with little expectation that combat will slow during the winter months. In a shift from training only small units to operate specific weapons systems, the allies are now pulling thousands of Ukrainian soldiers off the front lines for combined maneuver training in Europe.
But until now, Ukraine’s allies have rebuffed Kyiv regarding Western armor, arguing that the equipment is too logistically complicated to be useful.
Much of the West’s hesitation to send advanced armaments has revolved around reluctance to provoke Russia to escalate the war. Decisions to send systems such as HIMARS, the U.S. precision rocket launchers that were first transferred last summer, have come as the situation on the battlefield “evolved,” the administration official said.
As expected, each advancement in arming Ukraine has brought charges from Russian President Vladimir Putin that NATO is actively fighting a war against Russia. But it is Moscow’s brutality, especially attacks against civilians, that has made the West more forward-leaning, administration officials counter.
“Let’s just be crystal clear here,” said the administration official, one of several who discussed the sensitive issue on condition of anonymity. “Mr. Putin can claim all he wants that this is a war by the West,” and he is fighting “essentially for [Russia’s] security. … We all know this is a bunch of BS. This is a Russian war of aggression on Ukraine.”
“We are and will continue to provide them the kind of systems to defend themselves,” this official said.
The decision to send armored combat vehicles comes just weeks after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urgently appealed for tanks during a lightning visit to Washington late last month. On Wednesday, in his nightly address to the Ukrainian people, Zelensky hailed the French announcement as “a clear signal to all our other partners: There is no rational reason why Ukraine has not yet been supplied with Western-style tanks. … We must put an end to the Russian aggression this year exactly, and not postpone any of the defensive capabilities that can speed up the defeat of the terrorist state.”
“Modern Western armored vehicles, Western-type tanks are just one of these key capabilities,” Zelensky said.
The administration continues to rule out sending even larger Abrams battle tanks, which weigh 55 tons and rely on a turbine engine that guzzles fuel at a drastic rate, said a second senior administration official. They are also prone to breakdowns and require extensive maintenance expertise.
The battle tanks are so heavy that then-President Donald Trump was dissuaded from plans to include them in the 2019 July Fourth celebration in Washington on grounds that their steel-plate tracks would destroy city streets. The Abrams ultimately stayed in a “static display” on rail cars near Anacostia Park, while Trump was flanked by Bradleys for his Independence Day speech.
The Bradley, while technically not a tank, would offer a significant upgrade for Ukrainian ground forces. Weighing about 28 tons, it travels on tank-like tracks and carries a three-person crew with room for up to six additional soldiers inside. The United States has thousands of the vehicles, and sending an unspecified number to Ukraine would not undercut U.S. inventories.
Named after Gen. Omar Bradley, a senior U.S. commander during World War II, the Bradley lacks the firepower of the 120mm “main gun” cannon fitted on an Abrams. But it is equipped with heavy armor and an array of other weapons, including a 25mm chain gun and M240 machine gun. It is designed to travel up to 35 mph, fast enough to keep up with the Abrams in American combat units.
France’s plan to supply French-made AMX-10 RC light tanks was announced Wednesday after a phone call between Zelensky and French President Emmanuel Macron. It was not immediately clear how many tanks would be delivered, or when they would arrive.
The wheeled vehicles have been in service with the French military since 1981 and are being gradually decommissioned and replaced with an updated system. Primarily used for reconnaissance and transporting troops, its 105mm gun is smaller than that of many tanks, but the vehicle is considered highly agile and maneuverable.
Also on Wednesday, Poland signed a $1.4 billion deal to purchase a second tranche of U.S. Abrams tanks, replacing more than 300 Soviet-era tanks and armored personnel carriers sent to Ukraine last summer.
Ukrainian forces have also added hundreds of captured or abandoned Russian tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers to their existing stock of Soviet-era vehicles. But spare parts and ammunition have been hard to find.
Loveday Morris in Berlin and John Hudson contributed to this report.