The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. to give Ukraine advanced M1 tanks

The American-made Abrams tanks, probably numbering at least 30, are not likely to arrive in time for an expected spring offensive, however

M1 Abrams tanks move toward firing points during a training exercise at Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany in 2018. (Staff Sgt. Sharon Matthias/22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
6 min

The Biden administration has decided to provide M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, overriding previous concerns that the heavy battle tanks, the world’s most powerful, are too logistically burdensome for Kyiv’s forces, according to U.S. officials.

The decision, due to be announced Wednesday, comes after a rare dispute last week among Western allies over the provision of tanks made in Germany, which has been reluctant to allow its Leopard 2 main battle tanks to be transferred to Ukraine unless the United States first provides Abrams.

The U.S. vehicles, probably numbering at least 30, are unlikely to arrive by spring, when Russian forces are expected to begin a new offensive and Ukraine plans to launch its own counteroffensive to take back Russian-occupied territory. Instead, the Abramses are “probably not for the near fight,” one U.S. official said, and are not likely to arrive for many months, if not years.

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

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, declined at a news briefing Tuesday to respond to queries about the tanks, saying “I have no announcements at this time.”

“We want to make sure [the Ukrainians] have the ability to maintain it, sustain it, train on it,” Ryder said of the Abrams. He emphasized that the administration — while “focused on what is it that Ukraine needs right now, to have an immediate effect on the battlefield” — is “continuing to have discussions about what are the medium- and long-term defense requirements.” In the last few weeks, the administration has announced it will quickly ship hundreds of armored combat vehicles to Ukraine.

A Pentagon spokesperson said on Jan. 24 that the U.S. would support Ukraine's security requirements, ahead of President Biden's decision on the M1 Abrams tanks. (Video: The Washington Post)

Pentagon officials have emphasized in recent weeks that they are planning how to build Kyiv’s security forces for the future. The Abramses are expected to be ordered from manufacturers, rather than transferred from existing U.S. stocks, and the main usefulness in announcing them now appeared designed to break a logjam with the Germans.

The apparent softening of the U.S. position comes amid increasingly urgent pleas from the Ukrainian government, with President Volodymyr Zelensky in the lead, for movement on the issue.

For Ukraine, what’s so special about Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks?

Germany said it did not want to go first, and indicated it would approve sending its own Leopards, or authorize other numerous other European countries that field the German tanks to send them, only if such a move was coordinated with the United States. Kyiv and U.S. lawmakers had both urged the Biden administration to approve even a small number of Abramses, believing it would provide Berlin with the top cover it needed to feel comfortable cooperating.

On Tuesday, Poland formally requested required German authorization to re-export 14 of its Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and a number of other European members of NATO have indicated they are prepared to do the same. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected to meet with his Cabinet early Wednesday before making his own formal announcement.

One European official confirmed reports from several German news outlets, citing government and coalition officials, that Berlin has decided to deliver at least one tank company, consisting of about 14 of its own Leopards, and to grant permission to others. A German government spokesman declined to comment on the reports. Earlier Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Biden was considering moving ahead with Abramses.

Top national security advisers from Germany, France, Britain and the United States are expected to meet Wednesday morning in Washington to discuss Ukraine. Britain has already said it would supply a small number of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks.

NATO allies, including the United States, have agreed the heavy armor is needed, particularly as they step up training of Ukrainian forces to perform “combined arms” maneuvers as they move against entrenched Russian forces along the lengthy front line across the eastern part of the country.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at a news conference in Berlin on Tuesday with German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, said that delivery of battle tanks and other armored vehicles is “urgent … because Russia is preparing new offensives.”

Stoltenberg made no mention of the Abrams, but said that allies “must provide heavier and more advanced systems so that the Ukrainian forces are able to repel the Russian forces. Not only to survive, but to win, take back territory and prevail as a sovereign, independent state in Europe.”

He was at pains to praise what Germany has given Ukraine thus far, saying that he agreed “with the Chancellor and also the [defense] minister that actually we need to remember and recognize these significant German contributions,” including sophisticated air defense and infantry fighting vehicles.

Last week, the issue occupied much of a day-long meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, senior defense officials from dozens of countries that support Ukraine.

No deal on the tanks was announced after the session. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to say at a news conference afterward whether he was disappointed in the apparent lack of agreement, and defended Berlin as a reliable ally. Austin noted that Scholz had said there is no linkage between the United States providing Abrams tanks and Germany providing the Leopard, and “this notion of unlocking” German tanks by requiring Abrams “is not an issue.”

Inside the urgent push to arm Ukraine for a spring offensive

But others said it was a major factor. Zelensky expressed exasperation with the situation, saying in a video address to the group at Ramstein that “hundreds of ‘thank you’ are not hundreds of tanks,” and that he couldn’t “use thousands of words” against Russian artillery.

In a statement later in the day, Zelensky said that, “Yes, we will still have to fight for the supply of modern tanks, but every day we make it more obvious there is no alternative to making the decision about tanks.”

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in an interview with The Washington Post late last year that if the United States sent even one Abrams, “like a big brother,” it would be a symbolic step that opened the door to Germany sending Leopards.

A senior U.S. defense official, informed at the time of Reznikov’s comments, said that sending even one Abrams was out of the question. It is hard for the United States to maintain the Abrams tanks and their sophisticated turbine engine, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

For the Ukrainians, the official said, “it would be impossible.”

Morris reported from Berlin. Alex Horton and John Hudson contributed to this report.