WASHINGTON – Reversing its longstanding resistance, the Biden administration plans to send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, US officials said Tuesday, in what would be an important step to arm Kyiv in its efforts to retake its territory from Russia.
The White House is expected to announce a decision on Wednesday, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions. An official said the number of Abrams tanks could be as high as 30.
Over the past month, Pentagon officials have expressed doubts about shipping the Abrams, citing concerns about how Ukraine would maintain the advanced tanks, which require extensive training and servicing. And officials said it could take years for them to reach Ukrainian battlefields.
But Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has now concluded that committing to sending American tanks is necessary to encourage Germany to stick with its coveted Leopard 2 tanks. State Department and White House officials They argued that giving Germany the political cover it sought to send its own tanks overcame the reluctance of the Defense Department, the officials said.
The move toward shipping Abrams tanks, first reported by The Wall Street JournalIt follows a testy confrontation last week during a meeting of NATO defense chiefs over German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s refusal to send the Leopards, which many military experts believe could be a critical weapon in Ukraine’s hands.
German officials privately insisted they would send the tanks, which are among the most advanced in the world, only if the United States agreed to send its own M1 Abrams tanks.
Anticipation for a German announcement was high, as several German media outlets reported on Tuesday that Scholz had decided to send the tanks. Much of the attention was focused on the chancellor’s long-awaited speech to Parliament on Wednesday.
German-built Leopards are used by many European countries, numbering around 2,000 across the continent, and Ukraine has advocated for tanks in recent weeks, describing them as necessary to counter Russia’s advantages in arms and men. Western tanks are the latest barrier to fall, as Ukraine’s allies supply it with weapons systems it had previously been reluctant to send; Earlier this month, as discussions of the Leopard and Abrams continued, Britain said it would hand over some of its Challenger 2 tanks.
On Tuesday, Poland’s defense minister said his country had formally requested Germany’s permission to send Leopard tanks from Ukraine from its own stocks, and other countries indicated they would do the same if Germany agreed.
In Kyiv, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told reporters at a news conference that he had discussed supplying Western tanks to Ukraine with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the change in the Biden administration. As recently as Monday, a Pentagon official told reporters that the Abrams tanks would be difficult for Ukrainian forces to maintain, in part because they run on jet fuel.
But the decision to send a relatively small number of tanks and the expected delay in delivery could outweigh concerns about the escalation of the war while providing political benefits for the administration.
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Defense officials have repeatedly used the fuel issue to partly explain why the administration did not send Abrams tanks to Kyiv. But while it’s true that the tanks have gas turbine engines that burn jet fuel, that’s not the whole story, tank experts say. Abrams tanks, they say, can run on any type of fuelincluding ordinary gasoline and diesel.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder would not confirm news reports on Tuesday that the administration was about to provide Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks. “When and if we have something to announce, we will,” he said.
He called the Abrams tank “a very capable battlefield platform.”
“It’s also a very complex capability,” General Ryder said. “So like anything we’re providing to Ukraine, we want to make sure they have the ability to maintain it, sustain it, train it.”
He did not refer to the issue of fuel.
Initially, the administration hoped that the British offer of Challenger tanks would be enough for the Germans to agree to send their tanks, but Scholz, US officials said, insisted on the Abrams.
Officials said the Abrams tanks would be paid for through Ukraine’s security assistance package, which provides funds for weapons to Ukraine.
A second defense official said the long delivery delay would give Ukrainian troops time to train on the most advanced US tank.
Robert B. AbramsA former US Army armored officer and four-star general who retired in 2021, said the effort would be “herculean” but not impossible.
“The time it would take to get there, to be able to build up the inventory of supplies, deliver the vehicles, train the crews, train the mechanics, gather everything that I would need, how long would it take?” General Abrams, who has extensive experience with the M1 tank, which is named after his father, General Creighton Abrams, said in an interview. “I don’t know, but it’s not like 30 days, I assure you.”
After a series of Ukrainian successes on the battlefield last fall, the war has turned into a grueling fight of attrition. The heaviest fighting is concentrated in eastern Ukraine, where Russia and Ukraine have suffered heavy casualties around the city of Bakhmut, as both sides prepare for expected spring offensives.
Ukrainian officials say they need tanks to break through newly built Russian defenses and retake more territory seized by Moscow early in the war, and to fend off an expected Russian offensive in the spring. The United States has begun training hundreds of Ukrainian troops in combined arms tactics, for close coordination between infantry, artillery, armored vehicles and, where possible, air support.
Germany’s new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said last week his country would also start training Ukrainians to use Leopard tanks, despite a lack of agreement at the time on whether to send them.
“It is to prepare us for a day that will possibly come, when we can act immediately and provide the support in a very short period of time,” he told reporters.
Ukraine’s allies have provided increasingly sophisticated weapons to help Kyiv fend off invasion by Russia, but have been reluctant to send heavy offensive weapons for fear of provoking Moscow.
Since the full-scale invasion of Russia began 11 months ago, they have tried to carefully calibrate their support, which has slowly grown to include howitzers, HIMARS rocket artillery systems, Patriot air defenses and, more recently, armored fighting vehicles, including the Stryker, used by the US Army.
Ukraine has been asking for heavily armored Western tanks for months, and officials maintain that the country’s current inventory of Soviet-style tanks is not enough to drive out Russian forces. When Britain announced last week that it would send 14 tanks, Ukrainian officials thanked the British government, but said in a statement that the Challengers were “not sufficient to achieve operational objectives.”
Matthew Mpoke Bigg, lauren maccarthy Y John Ismay contributed reporting.