The U.S. and Germany announced Wednesday that they are sending dozens of advanced tanks to Ukraine to help the war-torn country bolster its defenses for an expected Russian offensive this spring.
At the White House, President Biden said the U.S. will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks for the effort. It was a reversal of the administration’s stance that the tanks were too difficult for Ukrainian troops to operate and maintain.
“With spring approaching, Ukrainian forces are working to defend the territory they hold and preparing for additional counteroffenses,” Mr. Biden said. “To liberate their land, they need to be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term.”
Also on Wednesday, Berlin announced that it will contribute 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks and allow other European nations to send their own German-built tanks. That freed up France, Britain, Poland and the Netherlands to send hundreds of tanks and other fighting equipment to Ukraine.
The U.S. and German assistance combined will give Ukraine the equivalent of three tank battalions. Western nations hope the move will change the balance of power on the battlefield.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed satisfaction at the news. Several European countries have equipped their armies with Leopard 2 tanks, and Germany’s announcement means they can give some of their stocks to Ukraine.
“German main battle tanks, further broadening of defense support and training missions, green light for partners to supply similar weapons. Just heard about these important and timely decisions in a call with Olaf Scholz,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a post on Twitter. “Sincerely grateful to the chancellor and all our friends in [Germany].”
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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Germany’s decision. “At a critical moment in Russia’s war, these can help Ukraine to defend itself, win and prevail as an independent nation,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in a Twitter message.
The joint move ends a diplomatic logjam. Fearing it would face Russia’s fury alone, Germany was refusing to send the Leopard tanks unless the U.S. offered the Abrams.
Mr. Biden sought to downplay any suggestion of tension among Western allies nearly a year into the conflict.
“These tanks are further evidence of our enduring, unflagging commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the skill of Ukrainian forces,” said Mr. Biden, flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Mr. Biden emphasized that the tanks would not be used to carry the war into Russia.
“That’s what this is about — helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land. It’s not an offensive threat to Russia. There is no offensive threat,” Mr. Biden said.
The president called on Russian troops to lay down their arms. He said the war “would be over today” if they returned to their home country.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the U.S. and German plan will be “disastrous.”
“These tanks will burn down just like all the other ones,” he said, “except they cost a lot, and this will fall on the shoulders of European taxpayers.”
Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, said the tanks are “another blatant provocation against the Russian Federation.” He predicted that the tanks will be destroyed along with other NATO military equipment.
Ukrainian forces have conducted an organized retreat from a town in the eastern region of the Donbas, an official said Wednesday, in what is a rare but modest battlefield triumph for the Kremlin after a series of setbacks in its invasion, which began almost 11 months ago.
The Ukrainian army retreated from the salt mining town of Soledar to “preserve the lives of the personnel,” Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s forces in the east, told The Associated Press.
Moscow has portrayed the battle for Soledar, near the city of Bakhmut, as crucial to capturing the entire Donbas.
The accomplishment takes the Russian forces a step closer to Bakhmut, but military analysts say capturing Soledar is more symbolic than strategic.
Ukraine’s military, which has held out in Soledar against months of onslaught from superior Russian forces, has said its fierce defense of the eastern stronghold helped tie up Russian forces.
It is not clear when the first Abrams could arrive in Ukraine. Some U.S. officials said delivery of the 70-ton vehicles could take as much as 12 months. White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby suggested that the length of time to get the tanks to Ukraine means the war is expected to drag on.
“We need to prepare ourselves to have to support Ukraine for a long time,” he said.
The Abrams will be delivered as part of a $400 million U.S. package that also includes eight M88 recovery vehicles, which can pull an Abrams if it gets stuck. The package will be funded by the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a pot of money approved by Congress to purchase military equipment for Ukraine that the U.S. doesn’t have readily available.
A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told reporters that the U.S. will not deplete its inventory of Abrams to assist Ukraine. Instead, the U.S. will purchase more tanks.
The Biden administration had long resisted calls to send the Abrams to Ukraine. It said the tank was too challenging to operate and maintain.
As recently as Friday, a top defense official told reporters that the U.S. shouldn’t contribute tanks Ukraine can’t repair, sustain or afford.
A White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity said the U.S. would provide training to Ukrainian soldiers to operate and maintain the Abrams. It was not immediately clear how soon training would start or when that training would be complete.
The German Defense Ministry said it expects the Leopard tanks to be on the Ukrainian battlefield by the end of March. That leaves a short time frame to get the vehicles into Ukraine and have soldiers trained to operate them.
Leaders of NATO nations hailed the U.S. and German moves. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was “the right decision.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called it “a big step toward stopping Russia.”
Those nations threatened to send their own tanks while Berlin and Washington waited. On Tuesday, Poland requested German approval to export some of its tanks, putting more pressure on Berlin to reach a decision.
Berlin wouldn’t budge unless the U.S. sent its own Abrams tanks, and both sides ultimately reached a compromise.
“Germany has really stepped up,” Mr. Biden said in praise of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
When a reporter asked Mr. Biden whether Germany forced him to change his mind, Mr. Biden replied, “Germany didn’t force me to change my mind. I wanted to make sure we are all together.”
Mr. Biden spoke by phone Wednesday with Mr. Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Mr. Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Republicans in Congress welcomed Mr. Biden’s announcement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the move was overdue.
“Modern main battle tanks will provide highly maneuverable, armored firepower that will help Ukraine liberate territory and keep pressure on the Russian aggressors, but time is of the essence,” he said.
Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Mr. Biden for the delay in sending tanks to Ukraine and called on the president to do more.
“The fact that the administration eventually provided these capabilities – under pressure from allies and members from both parties – does not diminish the strategic, material and human cost that resulted from the delay. It should not be this hard to give the Ukrainians what they need to win,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.