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U.S. defense chief in Berlin for talks as Germany stalls on tank deliveries

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, right, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a news conference in Berlin on Thursday. (Michele Tantussi/Reuters)
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BERLIN — Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met his newly appointed German counterpart on Thursday for talks that took on greater urgency after Berlin put conditions on tank deliveries to Ukraine.

In a call this week with President Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz indicated that in order for Germany to unlock a package of Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine, Washington should send tanks, too, according to a German and a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation.

It’s a move Washington doesn’t want to make, citing the high fuel consumption and maintenance burden of the U.S. military’s M1 Abrams battle tanks. Austin was hoping to break the deadlock in Berlin and persuade Germany to send tanks, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

U.S. readies another massive military package for Ukraine

As the manufacturer of the Leopard 2, Germany’s approval is technically required for any country in Europe to send those tanks on to Kyiv. But as frustrations mounted, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki threatened Wednesday night to send the 14 tanks Poland has promised — regardless of whether Germany approves.

German defense minister Boris Pistorius spoke to reporters at a NATO meeting on Jan. 20 regarding global pressure to supply German Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)

The controversy marks a baptism of fire for Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, who met with Austin just an hour after being sworn into office on Thursday morning, amid a new wave of criticism that Germany is a weak link in NATO support for Ukraine. His predecessor resigned Monday after a string of blunders that raised questions about her ability to steer the ministry at a critical time.

Why is Germany under pressure to send tanks to Ukraine?

Ukraine’s allies have been working to put together a package of military aid for Kyiv ahead of a meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday.

Berlin has long signaled that it did not want to go it “alone” in sending tanks — and be seen as escalating the war by sending offensive weaponry, inviting retaliation from Russia.

Allies had hoped that a British government pledge to supply Challenger 2 tanks, alongside pledges from other European countries, would encourage the German government to greenlight the Leopard 2 battle tanks Ukraine says it desperately needs. But in recent days, Scholz has signaled that Germany is looking for the United States to act in lockstep when it comes to tank deliveries.

“We are never doing something just by ourselves, but together with others, especially the United States,” Scholz said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday. When asked about tanks, he said that Germany is among “the ones that are doing the most” in military aid, listing its deliveries.

The Biden administration is preparing to announce a roughly $2.5 billion military aid package for Ukraine that is expected to include dozens of Bradley and Stryker armored vehicles but not the M1 Abrams.

The United States is “not there yet” when it comes to giving Abrams tanks to Ukraine, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters on Wednesday.

“The Abrams tank is very complicated. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine. … It is not the easiest system to maintain,” he said. While he didn’t directly address Germany’s call for the United States to provide tanks, he said the Pentagon doesn’t want to give Ukrainians equipment “they can’t repair, they can’t sustain and they over the long term can’t afford.”

“This isn’t about the news cycle or what’s symbolically valuable. It’s what will actually help Ukraine,” Kahl said.

The Abrams tank weighs 60 tons or more, depending on the variant, and uses JP-8, a jet fuel, in a gas-turbine engine. The Leopard weighs about 45 tons and uses more common diesel.

Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said he has tried to encouraged Scholz to do more. But Germany’s consent to Poland sending tanks is “secondary,” he told Polish broadcaster Polsat on his way back from the World Economic Forum. “Either we will obtain this consent, or we will do the right thing ourselves.”

He has previously said he hopes about 100 Leopard tanks can be sent from European stocks. Ukraine has said it needs about 300 tanks to shift momentum on the battlefield.

As fighting grinds on through the winter, and ahead of a possible Russian offensive this spring, Western officials generally agree that Ukraine needs more advanced weapons. “The force ratio between the Russians and Ukrainians is too finely balanced,” said one Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to brief the media. “Something needs to break that deadlock, especially if they are to win territory back.”

The United States and other key allies also want to help position Ukraine to go on the offensive.

“It’s not just about what Russia wants to do, but about what Ukraine wants to do,” said a second Western official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.

Defense ministers from Poland, Britain and the Baltic states met in Estonia on Thursday, as efforts to pressure Germany on tanks stepped up. In a joint statement, they said they had committed to an “unprecedented set of donations” for Ukraine, including battle tanks and heavy artillery. The statement said they planned to urge others to do the same at Ramstein on Friday.

Germany’s foot-dragging is characteristic of Berlin’s reluctance to be seen as leading on military support, and Scholz has stressed that he doesn’t want to be part of the conflict or trigger another world war.

“The German side is predominantly driven by what others do, it’s not so much about what Ukraine needs and the war, but not to fall out of line and not to lead,” said Gustav Gressel, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who estimated that 200 Leopard 2s could be mustered from current European stocks if there was the political will. Even once cleared, there would be complex questions related to the delivery, refurbishment and replacement processes, Gressel said.

“Eleven months have been wasted,” he said. “A political decision is much easier than supplying — so it’s better to think ahead.”

The appointment of a new defense minister in Germany is unlikely to make much of a difference to “big ticket” decisions on military aid, which are made in the chancellery, said Gressel. But some have expressed concerns about Pistorius’s political leanings, and just days after the announcement of his appointment, he is deflecting criticism for a past pro-Russian stance.

A former interior minister of the German state of Lower Saxony for Scholz’s center left Social Democrats, Pistorius in 2018 called for a review of sanctions against Russia espousing a “friendly” but “critical” approach to Moscow, according to German news reports.

Since the invasion, he has been forthright in his criticism of Russia. Ahead of his meeting with Austin on Thursday, Pistorius said discussion would focus on continued support for Ukraine amid Russia’s “terrible war of aggression.”

Morawiecki said in his Wednesday night interview that the little he heard about Pistorius filled him with a “certain anxiety.” In particular, he noted the defense minister’s association with former German chancellor and Vladimir Putin ally Gerhard Schröder.

But the minister needs to be given “a few days” to see “what his first steps will be,” Morawiecki said.

Lamothe and Rauhala reported from Brussels. Karen DeYoung in Washington and Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw contributed to this report.