War Stories

A Delicate Pact Was Forged to Get Ukraine More Tanks

Germany has the tanks that Ukraine needs, but it wouldn’t send them without a certain agreement from the U.S.

A big tanks rolls across a field with fire beside it.
A Leopard 2 tank in a training exercise. DPA / Picture Alliance

President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz cut a deal on Tuesday: Biden agreed to send Ukraine some Abrams M1 tanks; in response, Scholz agreed to send Ukraine some of its Leopard 2 tanks—and to let several European allies send Ukraine some of their Leopards, bought from Germany, as well.

Scholz had resisted sending Leopards, fearful of alienating constituents or provoking Russia into escalating the war further. He had demanded that the United States send some of its main battle tanks as a precondition.

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Now the terms have been agreed upon: The U.S. will send 31 tanks, enough to fill a single Ukrainian tank battalion—a substantial but not enormous number—and those will arrive not in weeks, but in several months, and possibly not for another year.

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This is because the tanks will be ordered from the General Dynamics factory, which will have to build them from scratch, and will not be drawn from America’s existing stockpile, though the U.S. Army has about 4,400 Abrams tanks, many of them already in Europe.

I could not get a straight answer when I asked officials why they decided not to take 31 tanks from American stocks and later replace them with newly produced tanks. If they were to do so, the tanks would have to be modified—export versions of the Abrams don’t have all the high-tech features of those built for the U.S. Army—but that would take less time than building completely new vehicles.

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Until today, officials in the Pentagon and the White House had opposed sending any M1s, saying the tanks were too complex—too prone to breaking down and too dependent on staggering supply lines, especially when it comes to refueling—for the Ukrainians to operate, maintain, and sustain. As recently as Friday, a White House official told me the administration wasn’t sending M1s because it was pointless to send weapons that the Ukrainians couldn’t use.

These officials haven’t changed their minds on this question. Many in the Pentagon still insist that the Abrams is not suitable for the war in Ukraine. However, Biden decided, and many top advisers agreed, that he had to send some M1s in order to prod Scholz into sending Leopards. A few outside advisers had suggested sending a handful of M1s, just for show. However, officials, including those opposed to sending any tanks, thought that this would be worse than nothing: a too-transparent sign that the shipment was merely symbolic. So the compromise was for the U.S. to send just enough to make a tangible difference to the fight—hence, enough for a Ukrainian tank battalion.

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It is unclear how tangible a difference they will make. At a background briefing Wednesday morning, a senior administration official said that the Abrams tanks’ main purpose will be “to boost Ukraine’s long-term defenses,” emphasizing the phrase “long-term,” and adding that they would enhance Ukraine’s security for the “months and years to come.” By contrast, the official said, the Leopards, provided by Germany and other European countries, would cover Ukraine’s “short-term” defense needs. Some of these tanks will arrive in Ukraine in as soon as a few weeks.

Scholz announced that Germany would send 14 Leopard tanks right away, as a first step. In all, Germany and other European countries—including Poland, Spain, Norway, Finland, and possibly others—will send about 80 tanks, enough for two battalions plus some. Britain has also agreed to send 14 of its Challenger tanks, which are similar to the Abrams and the Leopard. The U.S. and the Netherlands are together sending 90 refurbished Soviet-built T-72 tanks, similar to those that Ukraine—a former Soviet republic—has been using.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who expressed gratitude to the Western leaders for their decision, has said he needs 300 Western tanks to mount an effective counteroffensive against Russian troops and thus regain Ukrainian territory that Russians have captured. It is unclear how he came to the number 300—or how the Western nations calculated the number of tanks they would send. There are disagreements, even among officials tracking the battle, about precisely what, and how much, Ukraine needs. One defense analyst also told me, “There is a gap between what Ukrainian officials say they want publicly, what their military says they need privately, and what the U.S. assesses is a priority for them.”

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Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus told me in an email that one or two battalions’ worth of modern Western tanks may not seem to be a lot, but, he added, “Having seen what a small number of great tanks with skilled soldiers can do in combat, it is significant,” especially if combined with infantry, engineers, air defense, electronic warfare, artillery, and drones. M1s and Leopard 2s are “really hard to take out without a sophisticated ATGM [anti-tank guided missile] or skilled tank crew,” he said.

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In a televised noontime announcement on Wednesday, Biden said Ukrainians would begin training on Abrams tanks “as soon as possible,” so they would be ready to use them upon delivery. This suggests that some of their troops will train on M1s that are already deployed, perhaps in Germany, though this wasn’t spelled out.

Biden began his announcement on Wednesday by noting that “Germany has really stepped up” in meeting its defense commitments. (It ranks second only to the U.S. in economic and military aid to Ukraine.) He also praised Scholz personally as a “strong, strong force for unity” within the Western alliance. This is what the agreement to send Abrams tanks is really about—touting Scholz publicly as a reward for doing something he was very reluctant to do. It is also meant to preserve the political unity of NATO and the 50-member Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which has held together much longer, and much more firmly, than many had predicted at the start of the war 11 months ago—but which Germany’s refusal to send Leopards was threatening to disrupt.

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