Inside the US and German standoff over sending tanks to Ukraine

Jan 20, 2023, 7:00 AM | Updated: 4:03 pm
A US Bradley Fighting Vehicle patrols the countryside of the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in S...
A US Bradley Fighting Vehicle patrols the countryside of the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province in April of 2022. Photo credit: Delil souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

 (CNN) — The Biden administration is stuck in a standoff with Germany over whether to send tanks to Ukraine ahead of a key meeting of Western defense leaders in Germany on Friday.

In recent days, German officials have indicated they won’t send their Leopard tanks to Ukraine, or allow any other country with the German-made tanks in their inventory to do so, unless the US also agrees to send its M1 Abrams tanks to Kyiv — something the Pentagon has said for months it has no intention of doing given the logistical costs of maintaining them.

“They have us over a barrel,” a senior Biden administration official told CNN Thursday, adding that the Germans are demanding tanks for tanks, and not budging on considering any other offers the US has made to spur Berlin to send the Leopards.

The tank standoff comes amid a much larger debate between the US and its European allies over whether to send increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine, including longer-range missiles that would allow Ukraine to hit targets as far as 200 miles away.

The UK, Poland, Finland and the Baltic states have all been pushing for NATO members to provide heavier equipment to Kyiv amid what they believe is a key inflection point in the war. Both Ukraine and Russia appear to be gearing up for new offensives and there are signs that Moscow could be preparing an additional troop mobilization.

Last week, the British added pressure to their Western allies when they announced they would send 14 of their Challenger tanks to Ukraine. But Germany and the US were still opposed to the idea of sending their own tanks as of Wednesday.

Berlin then dragged the Biden administration deeper into the standoff, suggesting their delivery of tanks was contingent on the US doing the same.

“If America will decide that they will bring battle tanks to Ukraine, that will make it easier for Germany,” German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck told Bloomberg from Davos on Tuesday.

Asked on Wednesday at Davos about supplying tanks to Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a similar point, saying Germany was “Strategically interlocked together with our friends and partners” and that, “we are never doing something just by ourselves but together with others, especially the United States.”

A Western official explained that for Scholz, the tanks question “is a red, red, red line. German tanks [fighting] Russia again. Moral issue. Understandable, from the historical viewpoint. Still, speaking of moral burden, I wish Germans were nowadays more sympathetic with Poland. Let alone with Ukraine. Didn’t German tanks kill Ukrainians 80 years ago as well? Now they can defend them from Russian barbaric aggression.”

Pressure building in Berlin

Ahead of a meeting on Thursday in Berlin between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his German counterpart, a senior US defense official said that the US is “very optimistic that we will make progress” on the tanks question.

But not everyone in the US government shares that optimism. A number of senior administration officials privately expressed frustration with German officials for making what the US believes is a false equivalency between the US and German tanks.

“It’s silly,” a senior administration official said of the German request for American tanks alongside German ones. “It’s as if they think they’re the same and they’re not. It doesn’t feel like they understand the difference.”

US officials familiar with the situation told CNN on Thursday that the tank question is still undecided ahead of Friday’s meeting, and that it would be surprising if Germany changed its mind, despite Austin’s private pressure campaign.

“I think if there was a concern about being alone in providing this capability, that shouldn’t be a concern but at the end of the day the German government is going to make a sovereign decision,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said on Wednesday.

Pressure is mounting in some corners for the US to go ahead and send Abrams tanks simply as a way to get the Germans on board.

“Scholz wants to be in lockstep with the US,” Rep. Seth Moulton told CNN after discussing the matter with Scholz this week in Davos. “I think the US should give a few tanks if that is what is required for Germany. That is called leadership.”

On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki suggested that Warsaw may simply ignore any limits Germany seeks to impose on Poland’s export of its supply of the German-made tanks.

“Consent is a secondary issue. Either we will get this consent or we ourselves will do what must be done,” Morawiecki said. “Germany is the least proactive country out of the group, to put it mildly. We will continue pressuring the chancellor.”

New weapons package

This all comes as the US on Thursday announced a new $2.5 billion Ukraine security package, including for the first time Stryker combat vehicles and more armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

But the package does not include M1 Abrams tanks, and it is unlikely that the US is going to provide them anytime soon because they are difficult and expensive to supply and maintain, US officials said.

“One of the things that Secretary Austin has been very focused on is that we should not be providing the Ukrainians systems they can’t repair, they can’t sustain, and that they over the long term can’t afford because it’s not helpful,” Kahl said on Wednesday. “And this isn’t about a news cycle or what’s symbolically valuable, it’s what will actually help Ukraine on the battlefield.”

Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh poured more cold water on the German demand on Thursday, telling reporters that providing the Abrams tanks “doesn’t make sense.”

Singh painted Leopards as the better option for Ukraine.

“It’s a little bit easier to maintain, they can maneuver across large portions of territory before they need to refuel. The maintenance and the high cost that it would take to maintain an Abrams it’s just — it just doesn’t make sense to provide that to the Ukrainians [Abrams tanks] this moment.”

Western tanks would represent the most powerful direct offensive weapon provided to Ukraine so far, and if used properly, they could allow Ukraine to retake territory against Russian forces that have had time to dig defensive lines. The US has begun supplying refurbished Soviet-era T-72 tanks, but modern Western tanks are a generation ahead in terms of their ability to target enemy positions.

Ukrainian officials have said they will need around 300 of these modern tanks to beat back the Russians, and the European Council on Foreign Relations estimates that around 2,000 Leopard tanks are spread across Europe.

“We welcome the bold and very timely decision of the United Kingdom to transfer the first squadron of Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine,” Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba and Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a joint statement on Thursday. “However, it is not sufficient to achieve operational goals.”

The Ukrainian ministers appealed to countries with the Leopard 2 tanks in their inventory, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey, and promised to “use these weapons responsibly and exclusively for the purposes of protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine within internationally recognized borders.”

Long range missiles

The debate amongst the allies about how far to go in arming Ukraine, particularly when it comes to long-range missiles, reflects a broader disagreement over the risks of escalation between NATO and Russia.

To date, the US has refused to send long-range missiles known as ATACMS to Ukraine out of concern that they could be used to attack targets inside Russia. But in keeping with London’s more forward-leaning attitude toward military support for Ukraine, some British officials have expressed an openness to supplying the longer-range systems, sources familiar with the matter told CNN.

For now, the US is still opposed to the idea.

“On the ATACMS issue, I think we’re kind of at the, ‘agree to disagree’ position on that,” Kahl told reporters on Wednesday.

Taking note of the Brits’ more aggressive public posture, Ukrainian officials have asked the UK to take more of a leading role in Friday’s meeting, people familiar with their requests told CNN. They also want British officials to more aggressively brief allied foreign secretaries and defense ministers on what the Ukrainians believe are the operational realities of the war — and what they need to win it.

Those discussions are happening quietly, because the UK has traditionally not wanted to be seen as out of step with its allies. But there are signs that London is becoming more willing to break with the US publicly — most recently with its announcement that it will supply tanks to Ukraine.

Before visiting Washington this week, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also made the case in an op-ed that “now is the time to accelerate and go further and faster in giving Ukraine the support it needs.”

“This war has been dragging on for a long time already. And now is the time to bring it to a conclusion,” Cleverly added, in a conversation with CNN at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also jumped into the fray on Wednesday, calling for the allies to supply “heavier” and more modern weaponry.

“The main message [at Ramstein] will be more support and more advanced support, heavier weapons, and more modern weapons,” Stoltenberg said, referring to the Contact Group meeting of NATO defense leaders at Ramstein Air Base on Friday. “Because this is a fight for our values, is a fight for democracy and we just have to prove that democracy wins over tyranny and oppression.”

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Inside the US and German standoff over sending tanks to Ukraine