Germany confirmed it will send a long-demanded contingent of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in a major sign of support for Kyiv that is expected to be matched by the United States.
The announcement by Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday, coupled with an anticipated decision by the US to send about 30 M-1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, marks a landmark moment that followed weeks of intense pressure on Berlin from some of its NATO allies.
Scholz told his Cabinet of his decision that Germany will further strengthen its military support for Ukraine, German government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit said. "The Federal Government has decided to make Leopard 2 battle tanks available to the Ukrainian armed forces," he said.
"This is the result of intensive consultations that took place with Germany's closest European and international partners. This decision follows our well-known line of supporting Ukraine to the Ukraine to the best of our ability."
The announcement came a day after CNN reported that the Biden administration is finalizing plans to send US tanks to Ukraine, a move that appeared to break the diplomatic logjam with Scholz's government. German officials had openly stated that they would only send their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine if the US sent Abrams tanks as well, despite US officials repeatedly stressing that the Abrams tanks are overly complex and difficult to maintain.
The dispute over whether the Germans would send Leopards to support Ukraine threatened to show some of the first cracks in the united Western response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But the announcement from Scholz and news that Washington is readying its own shipment appears to show the US and its allies are still working in lockstep when it comes to supporting President Volodymyr Zelensky and his nation's fight against the Russians.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN's Kate Bolduan on "At This Hour" that the German and US decisions were "important announcements" and that he "welcomed US leadership" in making them happen.
"It will significantly strengthen their combat capabilities," Stoltenberg said of the effect the tanks will have on Ukraine's military.
The Germans' goal is to assemble two tank battalions with Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine, the government statement said. In a first step, Berlin will provide a company of 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks from Bundeswehr stocks, with the training of the Ukrainian crews to begin quickly in Germany. In addition to training, the package will also include logistics, ammunition and maintenance of the systems.
The German defense minister said the Leopard tanks could be operational in Ukraine in about three months. Boris Pistorius, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said training would come first, then the tanks would be sent east.
The German army has 320 Leopard 2 tanks in its possession but does not reveal how many would be battle ready, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defense previously told CNN.
Germany will also allow other countries to export the battle tank, it said. Poland on Tuesday formally asked for approval from Germany to transfer some of its German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Several European countries also own some Leopards, and Poland had led an effort to re-export those to Ukraine even if Germany was not on board.
Addressing the German parliament following the announcement, Scholz said he had spoken to Zelensky before coming to parliament.
During his speech, the German leader said Germany together with the US and UK had sent the most weapons systems to Ukraine and insisted that his country would be at the forefront of support for Ukraine.
Sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine will provide Kyiv's forces with a modern and powerful military vehicle ahead of a potential Russian spring offensive. It will also come as a blow to the Kremlin, which has seen a growing campaign to equip Ukrainian troops with high-tech fighting systems as Russia's ground war nears the one-year mark.
Germany had initially resisted a growing drumbeat of Western pressure to ship some of the tanks to Ukraine, with new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius repeatedly calling for more time and insisting that the move would come with pros and cons for Berlin.
US makes an about-face on Abrams tanks
The US decision to provide Abrams tanks to Ukraine represents an abrupt about-face from its earlier stated position.
While the Biden administration had never taken the possibility of shipping American tanks entirely off the table, US officials said publicly last week that it was not the right time to send the 70-ton M-1 Abrams tanks because they are costly and require a significant amount of training to operate.
The tanks, instead, were repeatedly floated as a long-term option -- even as critics said it was the right time, as Ukraine braces for the possibility Russia will mobilize more troops and launch a new offensive. Zelensky has consistently asked Western allies for modern tanks as his country prepares braces for an expected major Russian counteroffensive in the spring.
The decision to send US-made Abrams tanks will rely on an "iterative process" assessing Ukraine's needs, what aid is appropriate for the US to send and technical considerations surrounding operation and maintenance of the tanks, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said Tuesday evening.
"We have talked about the fact that the Abrams are an incredibly capable system but it's a very expensive system to operate and to maintain," Kirby told CNN's Anderson Cooper on "AC360."
"It has a jet engine -- it doesn't mean that the Ukrainians can't learn it, it just means that we have to factor all that stuff in with any system that we're going to potentially provide to them," he added.
Sky News Arabia was first to report the news that the US was considering sending the tanks.
Allies back Berlin's move
The UK had set the precedent for providing Ukraine with main battle tanks last week after it pledged to send Kyiv 14 of its British Army Challenger 2 tanks. The agreement crossed what had previously appeared to be a red line for the US and its European allies.
Ukrainian officials have consistently pleaded with their Western allies to provide modern battle tanks -- to be used not only to defend their present positions but also to take the fight to the enemy in the coming months. Ukrainians fear that a second Russian offensive may begin within two months.
Although Ukraine has stocks of Soviet-era tanks, modern Western tanks provide a greater level of speed and agility. In particular, the Leopard's relatively low-maintenance demands compared to other models lead experts to believe the tanks could help Ukraine quickly on the battlefield.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hailed Germany's move as the "right decision" in the wake of Wednesday's announcement.
"The right decision by NATO Allies and friends to send main battle tanks to Ukraine. Alongside Challenger 2s, they will strengthen Ukraine's defensive firepower. Together, we are accelerating our efforts to ensure Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace," Sunak wrote on Twitter.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's chief of staff welcomed the news and reiterated the country needed "a lot" of Leopard tanks. Writing on Telegram, Andriy Yermak said: "The first tank step has been taken. Next up is the 'tank coalition'. We need a lot of Leopards."
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki praised German Chancellor Scholz for his decision. "Thank you Olaf Scholz. The decision to send Leopards to Ukraine is a big step towards stopping Russia. Together we are stronger," Morawiecki wrote on Twitter.
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