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January 27, 2023 12:37 pm

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Allies Fail to Agree on Sending Tanks to Ukraine

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Officials tried to play down the rift. But Germany is still insisting it will not be the country to take the first step alone, for fear of incurring Moscow’s wrath.

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A Leopard 2 tank at a military training area in Munster, northern Germany.

A Leopard 2 tank at a military training area in Munster, northern Germany.Credit…Patrik Stollarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Erika Solomon

BERLIN — Western defense officials meeting in Germany said on Friday that they had failed to reach an agreement for sending battle tanks to Ukraine, in a setback to Kyiv’s hopes to quickly receive weapons that President Volodymyr Zelensky has called crucial to the next phase of the war.

The officials had hoped to reach agreement on sending advanced, German-made Leopard 2 tanks, which are stocked by many European countries. But Germany has refused to send its own Leopards to Ukraine or to give its approval to other countries to export them, not wanting to be the first to take the step and asking that the United States send its best tank, the M1 Abrams, as well.

The failure to strike a deal was quickly criticized by some Ukrainians as well as the Polish and Latvian governments, who have argued that tanks are critical to claw back territory seized by Russia early in its invasion and to defend against an expected Russian offensive in the spring.

“Arming Ukraine in order to repel the Russian aggression is not some kind of decision-making exercise. Ukrainian blood is shed for real,” Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, said on Twitter. “This is the price of hesitation over Leopard deliveries. We need action, now.”

Still, American and German officials sought to play down the disagreements, emphasizing that Germany might yet approve sending Leopards to Ukraine. The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, told reporters at Ramstein Air Base that Germany was “a reliable ally, and they’ve been that way for a very, very long time.”

His German counterpart, Boris Pistorius, said his country would begin an inventory of its vehicles, in case of a future deal, and would begin training Ukrainians on how to use the tanks.

“This is not to prejudice the outcome,” he said. “It’s to prepare for a day that will possibly come, at which point we would be able to act immediately and deliver the support within a very short period of time.”

The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, center, with the German defense minister, Boris Pistorius, left, and the Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, at Ramstein Air Base on Friday.Credit…Andre Pain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

From the beginning of the war, the Biden administration has carefully calibrated weapons deliveries to Ukraine, holding back more powerful weapons to avoid provoking a Russian escalation.

But after a string of battlefield successes, Ukraine has convinced the White House and its Western supporters to drop a series of taboos and provide more powerful offensive weapons, including infantry fighting vehicles and, this week, American Stryker armored vehicles. Yet, the provision of main battle tanks remained a step that many countries were reluctant to take.

That began to change in recent weeks, as Britain announced a shipment of tanks to Ukraine and pressure rose on Germany from Eastern European and Baltic countries to at least allow them to send their Leopard 2 tanks, which number about 2,000 in 14 countries across Europe. But even that step has been ruled out, for now, creating widespread frustrations, particularly as time is running short to ship the tanks to Ukraine and train its soldiers in their use.

“Many countries, including Latvia, are stepping up military assistance to Ukraine, but it is not enough,” said Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics. “Leopard tanks must be provided to Ukraine now!”

The pressure on Germany reached new heights when Britain announced it would send 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine.Credit…Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

German officials insist Berlin is not standing in the way, and have hinted that perhaps other countries, too, have concerns about making that move without a broader coalition.

“There is no unified consensus,” Mr. Pistorius said. “The impression that has occasionally been created that there is a united coalition and that Germany is standing in the way is wrong.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany has insisted in recent months that he will not let Germany “go it alone” on weapons deliveries to Ukraine, and Germany has requested that the U.S. contribute some of its M1 Abrams tanks as part of the package. But the Pentagon has resisted, pointing to the logistical hurdles posed by a fuel-guzzling vehicle that requires continuous maintenance.

The German government has tried to soften the impression that it has demanded the United States provide Abrams tanks. At a news conference on Friday, the chancellor’s spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit, said that Germany was following three principles: “The first is to back Ukraine as much as possible. The second is to prevent NATO and Germany from becoming warring parties. The third thing is that we are not going it alone nationally, but are coordinating very closely with our international partners — above all the U.S.A.”

Germany’s reluctance to send tanks is likely to stem from fears about the risks of escalation and potential retaliation by Russia, said Thorsten Benner, the director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.

“It would be a significant step for this main battle tank, the Leopard system, to go into Ukraine, and they want maximum reassurance from the U.S.,” he said. “There must be something in their heads about Germany being targeted in retaliation for sending this kind of signature German main battle tank — what that is, Scholz hasn’t spelled it out.”

American M1 Abrams tanks during a NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia.Credit…Ints Kalnins/Reuters

For all the efforts to play down the divisions among the Western allies, the failure to reach a deal showed there were still major rifts among Ukraine’s supporters, especially between Eastern European nations demanding speedy action and the countries that have called for caution.

“Every day is worth its weight in gold, Ukraine needs to be supported, so we continue this diplomatic pressure together,” Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Pawel Jablonski, said after the meeting. “We will use different methods of direct and indirect persuasion, and we hope that this attitude will change — as it was with the Patriots.”

But aides to Germany’s chancellor argue that Mr. Scholz’s position is very close to that of President Biden, who has only gradually provided Ukraine with advanced weapons such as HIMARS rocket systems and Patriot missile air defenses.

Mr. Austin and Mr. Pistorius denied there were demands connecting U.S. and German tanks, though they provided no explanation for what was stalling a deal.

“There is no linkage between providing M1s and providing Leopards,” said Mr. Austin, adding that officials at the meeting were “pushing hard” to meet Ukraine’s needs for tanks and armored vehicles. The defense chiefs said that the United States and Germany would both step up training for Ukrainian troops, including on Leopard 2 tanks.

Some German lawmakers said privately this week that even countries calling to send Leopards want to present a united front, and are reluctant to request re-export licenses until all European partners — including Germany — agree to send tanks.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine attended the meeting at Ramstein via video conference. He has said that receiving the battle tanks is crucial to the next phase of the war.Credit…Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

The German defense minister’s remarks made clear that other countries were also hesitating to deliver tanks, said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmerman, the head of the Defense Committee in the German Parliament and a member of the governing coalition, though she added it was unclear which nations or what their concerns are.

“Ultimately, however, this should not be the issue,” she said. “The countries who want to do it should do it, and Germany should take a lead.”

Mr. Pistorius said there was no timeline for a deal on tanks, suggesting it could take days or weeks. Mr. Austin, on the other hand, said the clock was ticking.

“We have a window of opportunity here, between now and the spring, whenever they commence their counteroffensive,” he said, referring to the expected Russian campaign. “That’s not a lot of time.”

The lack of agreement was certain to disappoint many in Ukraine, including President Zelensky, who had appealed directly to the officials before the talks began. “Hundreds of thank-yous are not hundreds of tanks,” he said in a video address. “All of us can use thousands of words in discussions, but I cannot use words instead of guns.”

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels, Lara Jakes from Rome, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin and Anatol Magdziarz from Warsaw.