The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tank dispute splits Ukraine’s allies as Zelensky seeks more firepower

Germany has rebuffed requests for its Leopard tanks to be used against Russian forces, roiling a meeting of defense ministers from nations aiding Ukraine

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged allies to “dig even deeper” in supporting Ukraine at a conference on Jan. 20 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. (Video: The Washington Post)
9 min

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Ukraine’s Western backers failed Friday to resolve a dispute over which nations will supply Kyiv with powerful battle tanks that President Volodymyr Zelensky told them are needed to mount a new offensive against entrenched Russian forces.

The disagreement, debated behind closed doors among dozens of defense ministers gathered at this vast U.S. military facility, centers on whether Germany is willing to transfer its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, or at least authorize other nations that field the German-made vehicles to supply them.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, had informed the gathering that “they have not made a decision,” while he told reporters that Germany was a “reliable ally.” The United States and others were sending a range of lighter armored vehicles, he said, and Britain has agreed to transfer 14 of its Challenger 2 heavy tanks.

The tank debate was the most significant since Austin first convened the international group, which has held monthly meetings since April to coordinate fulfillment of Ukraine’s requests for weaponry to help defend itself against Russian aggression.

The gathering came as the 11-month war is approaching a pivotal moment, with Zelensky’s government urgently requesting heavy armament, particularly tanks, to forestall a new Russian offensive in the spring, when it hopes to launch its own major effort to retake Russian-occupied territory.

Speaking alongside Gen. Mark A. Milley at a news conference after the meeting, Austin said that “what we’re really focused on is making sure that Ukraine has the capability that it needs to be a success right now. So we have a window of opportunity here between now and the spring, whenever [the Ukrainians] commence their counteroffensive. … That’s not a long time.”

Why is Germany under pressure to send tanks to Ukraine?

Germany has publicly linked its position on the Leopards to U.S. reluctance to transfer its own M1 Abrams tanks, which Pentagon officials have said are not the best fit for Ukraine in terms of operability and the time they would take to arrive.

While skirting the question of American tanks, Austin said that “this isn’t really about one single platform. Our goal … is to provide the capability that Ukraine needs to be successful in the near term.” He listed the number of armored vehicles the coalition has already sent and agreed to send, including U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Stryker armored vehicles announced over the past week.

“This is a very, very capable package,” he said. “If employed properly, it will enable them to be successful.”

Inside the urgent push to arm Ukraine for a spring offensive

Milley described how the United States and others are now training Ukrainian forces on how to conduct “combined arms” maneuvers, using the newly arriving vehicles, along what he described as a lengthy “static front line” where the Ukrainians are facing off against the entrenched Russians.

But the general cautioned that victory, even with the new tactics and equipment, would be neither fast nor easy, and he indicated the war may go on at least into next year.

“From a military standpoint, I would maintain that, during this year, it would be very, very difficult for Ukraine to eject Russian forces from all of Russian-occupied Ukraine,” Milley said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but it will be very, very difficult.”

There is a “very, very short time” to assemble the equipment and train troops to use it, he said, adding: “It will be a very, very heavy lift. Yes, I think it can be done, but I think it will be a challenge.” Whether it will succeed, Milley said, “remains to be seen.”

In his remarks to the gathering, delivered via live video from Kyiv, Zelensky said that “hundreds of ‘thank you’ are not hundreds of tanks. … All of us can use thousands of words, but I can’t put words, instead of guns needed, against Russian artillery.”

Germany’s leverage over whether large numbers of battle tanks are sent in the short term appears to have frustrated some of the allies who want to transfer some of their own German Leopards. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wednesday that he will send 14 of them to Ukraine regardless of whether Germany approves. Berlin’s permission is required for other countries to send the German-made weapons, according to export agreements with those countries.

But on Friday, Poland appeared willing to wait. After a separate meeting here Friday among all 15 countries that operate the Leopards, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that while no agreement was reached, he was hopeful that a breakthrough would eventually be made and Germany would give permission for the re-exports.

Pistorius told reporters that Berlin continues to weigh the pros and cons of sending tanks. The impression that Germany is “standing in the way” of other allies willing to send their Leopards is wrong, he said, adding that not everyone is united.

“None of us can yet say when a decision will be made and what the decision will look like,” Pistorius said. Germany is not “hesitating,” he said, but “we have to be careful.”

Biden scrambles to avert cracks in pro-Ukraine coalition

Germany’s approach to sending arms to Ukraine has been defined by a desire not to stick its neck out, resulting in public U-turns. In the past, it has publicly laid out how certain deliveries were not possible, before relenting in the face of international pressure. When it comes to the delivery of tanks, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly said he does not want to “go it alone” in sending them — a position interpreted as meaning he wants the United States to go first.

The United States announced another sprawling $2.5 billion package of military aid on the eve of Friday’s meeting, including 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker armored vehicles. It is the first time the United States has included Strykers in the nearly $27 billion in military assistance that the Biden administration has approved since Russia’s February 2022 invasion. No American tanks were included.

Austin said that this is a decisive moment for Ukraine and that countries rallying to Kyiv’s aid “will support Ukraine’s self-defense for as long as it takes.”

“We need to keep our momentum and resolve,” he told the allies before reporters were ushered out of the meeting room. “We need to dig even deeper.”

Austin cast Russia’s invasion as increasingly hapless, saying that Moscow is running out of ammunition, suffering “significant battlefield losses” and turning to just a few partners that it has left for help. “Even Iran and North Korea won’t admit that they are supplying Russia.”

The Pentagon chief warned that Russia is trying to recruit, regroup and reequip.

“This is not a moment to slow down,” Austin said. “The Ukrainian people are watching us. The Kremlin is watching us. And history is watching us.”

Austin introduced Zelensky, who thanked the defense ministers for their support and urged them to move with alacrity.

“Terror does not allow for discussion,” he said. “Time remains a Russian weapon.”

Zelensky added that the defense officials are “strong people from strong countries” and asked them to find a way to send a “principled supply” of tanks, F-16 jets and long-range weapons.

“The Kremlin,” he said, “must lose.”

U.S. begins expanded training of Ukrainian forces for large-scale combat

Ukraine has openly broadcast that it intends to launch a new, muscular counteroffensive in coming months against Russian units, many of which are deeply dug into fighting positions that include a network of trenches and antitank obstacles.

For the first time, the United States last weekend began training a battalion of more than 600 Ukrainian troops at the U.S. Army’s Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, advising them on how to best integrate tanks, artillery and other advanced weapons in what the U.S. military terms “combined-arms warfare.” The training is expected to last five to six weeks, with the Ukrainians returning home after.

The Biden administration has said it agrees that Ukraine needs tanks, which White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week go “hand in hand” with the tactics the Ukrainian troops are learning, and are a “big part” of mechanized maneuver operations.

“We believe that the provision of modern tanks will significantly help and improve the Ukrainians’ ability to … fight where they’re fighting now and fight more effectively going forward,” Kirby said. Ukraine has kept some of its old Soviet-era T-72 tanks in the war, he added, but there is a “finite limit” to how long that can last.

As Ukraine builds up its armor, its military leaders have shown professionalism and discipline by not overcommitting resources too soon, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe. The main effort for Ukraine, he said, is likely to be an attempt to cut off and then take back Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia seized and annexed in 2014.

Ukraine, Hodges said, wants to build the equivalent of a full armored division, a formation that typically includes 10,000 to 15,000 troops. It must be trained and prepared to serve as the “breakthrough formation” in the next major counteroffensive, he added.

Ukraine in the next few months will probably attempt to set the conditions for the liberation of Russian-occupied Crimea, first through long-range strikes and then with an armored offensive designed to cut ground routes from the Black Sea peninsula back to Russia, Hodges predicted.

Morris reported from Berlin and DeYoung from Washington. Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw and Victoria Bisset in London contributed to this report.