A dispute over tanks is the latest battle over Ukraine’s western support
Mass graves and other Russian atrocities discovered in towns near Kyiv
A war-damaged apartment in Makariv, Ukraine, on April 19. Local residents said that the building was attacked by Russian tanks. Credit—John Moore—Getty Images
The Ukrainian military’s request for hundreds of US-made M1 Abrams and German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks has emerged as a key issue for a meeting of defense chiefs in Germany this the week, with Western allies divided over whether and how to use them Provide Ukraine officials with heavy weapons Participation is essential to gain an advantage in their war against Russia.
Germany and the United States each believe that the other should be the one to provide Kyiv with the modern tanks it is looking for. According to US officials, Berlin has privately insisted that Washington provide the tanks first. But the Biden administration says it has no plans to send American tanks for now because they are too challenging for Kyiv to maintain and operate.
The debate is the latest focus on the Western allies’ incremental approach to providing Ukraine with the military support it needs to repel the Russian invasion. Since President Vladimir Putin’s order to invade Ukraine, the United States and its allies have repeatedly refused to provide Ukraine with sophisticated weapons to avoid a major conflict with Russia. As the war has dragged on, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been criticized for being slow to provide Ukraine with what it needs to gain an advantage to defending her homeland.
The dispute threatened on Thursday in a meeting between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Germany’s new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius. Austin and his team made an argument for why leopards are seen as a better fit for Ukraine, a senior US defense official told TIME. The Pentagon claims that the Leopards burn less fuel than the Abrams tanks, are easier to maintain, and, perhaps most importantly, are already in widespread use across Europe. Many NATO allies operate Leopards, and at least two, Poland and Finland, have publicly stated that they are willing to supply the tanks to Ukraine, although such transfers would require German approval.
As allies vacillate, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country was in a race against time and international partners “must not hesitate” to provide its military with the tools to win the war. against Russia. “Tragedies overcome life. Tyranny is overtaking democracy,” he said Wednesday in a conference call at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “The time that the free world uses to think, the state of terror uses to kill.”
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Fighting has intensified in recent weeks in the flat and open region of eastern Ukraine, where Russia is trying to capture the entire Donbass region at the cost of heavy casualties to its own forces. Officials from the United States, Russia and Ukraine have described the brutal conflict as a “meat grinder” whose streets are strewn with the corpses of soldiers. Ukrainian officials believe the main battle tanks are crucial to defend their troops on the battlefield and help repel the Russians.
Ukraine currently operates a fleet of Soviet-era tanks, and US officials agree to their claim. “We believe that the deployment of modern tanks will greatly help and improve the ability of Ukrainians to fight where they are fighting now and to fight more effectively in the future,” said the Spokesman of the Council of White House National Security John Kirby on Tuesday Wednesday to reporters.
But US defense officials say the American-made military hardware demanded by Ukraine may not be the answer. “The Abrams tank is very complicated; It is expensive; it’s hard to train for,” Colin Kahl, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. “I think it’s about three gallons per mile on jet fuel. It is not the easiest system to maintain. It may or may not be the right system. But we will continue to see what makes sense.”
Kahl said that the Biden administration has yet to make a final decision. “I don’t think we’re there,” he said. “But I want to say that one of the things that Secretary of State Austin was very focused on is that we should not operate the Ukrainian systems that they cannot fix, that they cannot maintain, and that over the long term. term, they cannot.” perform because it would not be helpful.”
Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who once commanded all US Army forces in Europe, says the maintenance and logistics problems associated with main battle tanks are no reason to hold them back. “The United States should stop talking patronizingly about how difficult it will be for the Ukrainians to meet their fuel needs,” he says. “The Ukrainians will solve it. They’re going to MacGyver a solution like they’ve been doing for months – give them the skills they need.”
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Zelenskyy has directly asked for new armor since last April, asking NATO for just “one percent” of the alliance’s combined main battle jets and tanks. This never happened, although Britain announced this week that it would send 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. That’s a pittance compared to the 300 tanks the Ukrainian military forces need for a successful defense. The UK contribution “is insufficient to meet operational objectives,” Ukrainian officials said in a statement on Thursday. “We call on all these and other countries with the appropriate capabilities to join the initiative to create an international armored coalition in support of Ukraine and to give their practical contribution to this cause.”
Thousands of Leopards are already across Europe because the tank is operated by 13 European armies, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. They also have diesel engines like other armored vehicles currently in Ukraine’s arsenal, which makes them easier to maintain.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz avoided a question from a Ukrainian official at the Davos summit on Wednesday about whether he was ready to supply Leopard tanks, saying instead, “We never do anything alone, we do it together with others, especially the States United, which is far. important.” this common task of defending the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine.”
The issue is expected to be the focus of a special summit at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday, where 50 defense ministers will discuss and coordinate future military aid packages for Kyiv. It is the fifth in-person meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group since the Russian invasion.
Western decisions in the coming days are likely to be critical in the coming months, with Ukraine and Russia likely to launch offensives in the spring to gain ground. Biden’s team believes that tanks, armored vehicles and other heavy weapons — and the timing of deliveries — could be crucial in determining which side wins the next phase of the war.