Amid the escalating war, Ukraine pleaded with the West to finally send its heavy tanks as the defence chiefs of the United States and Germany headed for a showdown over weapons.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be in Germany on Thursday and meet its new defence minister, a day before they host a meeting of dozens of allies to pledge weapons for Ukraine.
On Friday, defence leaders from 50 countries will gather at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to discuss the way forward to support Ukrainian armed forces.
Top of the agenda is heavy tanks, which Kyiv says it needs to fend off a new Russian onslaught and launch counter-offensives to recapture its occupied territory.
“We have no time, the world does not have this time,” Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Thursday.
“The question of tanks for Ukraine must be closed as soon as possible,” he said. “We are paying for the slowness with the lives of our Ukrainian people. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a similar plea by video link to leaders gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, urging them to supply his country before Russia mounts its next missile and armoured ground attacks.
US-Germany talks on tanks
But for the West to send tanks, Washington will have to resolve a stand-off with Berlin, which has so far been reluctant to authorise countries to send its Leopard 2 tanks, a workhorse of militaries across Europe.
The Leopard tanks which Germany made in the thousands during the Cold War and exported to its allies are the only suitable option available in big enough numbers.
As reported, the German government said Berlin would lift its objections if Washington sends its own Abrams tanks. But U.S. officials say the Abrams is inappropriate for Ukraine because it runs on turbine engines that use too much fuel for Kyiv’s strained logistics system to keep them supplied at the front.
Pentagon’s top policy adviser said on Wednesday that Abrams tanks were not likely to be included in Washington’s next $2 billion military aid package, which will include Stryker armoured vehicles.
“I just don’t think we’re there yet,” a Pentagon official said. “The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It is expensive. It’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine.”
In the past, Germany has exported its Leopard tanks to Poland and Finland. Both countries have already announced that they would be willing to send Leopards if Germany lifts its veto.
Meanwhile, Britain added to the pressure by offering a squadron from its fleet of Challengers, though far fewer of these are available than Leopards.
Germany’s new priority
Germany replaced its defence minister this week and says the tank decision is the first item on the agenda of the new minister, Boris Pistorius, due to meet Austin.
After taking over, German Defence Minister Pistorious said, “the biggest part of upgrading German armed forces is ahead of us.” Ukraine, which has relied primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tank variants, says the new tanks would give its troops the mobile firepower to drive out Russian troops in decisive battles.
Fighting has been concentrated in the south and east of Ukraine, after Russia’s initial assault from the north aimed at taking Kyiv was thwarted during the first months of Russia’s “special military operation”.
After major Ukrainian gains in the second half of 2022, the frontlines have largely been frozen in place over the past two months, with neither side making big gains despite heavy casualties in intense trench warfare.