Politics

How the US agreed to Abrams tanks

By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Steve Holland and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – They are expensive and difficult to maintain. They run on jet fuel. And they are difficult to operate.

The US Pentagon presented its best arguments, publicly and privately, against sending Abrams – its most advanced tanks – to Ukraine.

But President Joe Biden ultimately decided to approve the delivery of 31 tanks on Wednesday, which senior US officials said came from the need to maintain unity among allies supporting Ukraine.

Biden’s decision capped a week of failed diplomatic efforts to get Germany to send its main Leopard tank to Ukraine without a corresponding move from Washington.

The reversal ended a rare public split in the alliance that officials in Washington feared Moscow could exploit.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden and European allies have tried to present an image of harmonious support for Ukraine despite occasional disagreements.

The billions of dollars’ worth of Western weapons brought into the country, Western allies said, were tangible signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin had failed to divide the West as he pushed for his nearly year-old invasion.

But the split over German tanks undermined those efforts and raised questions about whether the West would fall short in providing the heavy armor Kyiv says it needs to launch a spring counteroffensive.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Berlin last Wednesday to convince Germany’s new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius that Germany should at least allow countries like Poland to re-export their Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

“The secretary will press the Germans on this,” a senior U.S. defense official said at the time.

The trip, which included a daylong meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, failed to produce a breakthrough and left US officials frustrated.

DELIVERY OF TANK POSSIBLY MONTHS AWAY

In Washington, senior US officials had privately expressed dismay at Germany’s attempt to tie up Abrams tanks for delivery of the Leopards.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that U.S. officials did not believe the Abrams tanks were a net positive for Ukraine because they are difficult to operate and maintain.

But Germany did not want to go it alone, the official said, prompting Americans to wonder if there was a deeper reason in Berlin that has to do with the symbolism of German tanks rolling into Eastern Europe for a country still scarred after starting World War II.

At the same time, US officials tried to respond to Ukraine’s demand for tanks while impressing on the Ukrainians that there are limits to aid in the long run.

The Germans refused to budge. When Austin landed in Berlin, German officials told reporters that Berlin would allow German-made tanks to be sent to Ukraine if the United States agreed to send its own tanks.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had emphasized that provision several times behind closed doors. He also discussed the issue in several phone calls with Biden this month, senior Biden administration officials said.

That led to media coverage of US-German rifts that raised eyebrows back in Washington, where officials believed they had been clear against sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

US officials claimed that US contributions to Ukraine’s war effort had been substantial, with Bradley Fighting Vehicles, air defense systems, millions of artillery rounds and other potent weapons. Each Abrams tank costs more than $10 million, including training and maintenance.

“The headline is not whether or not we have reached an agreement with Germany on tanks. The headline is that the US has provided $5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine in the last month,” a senior official said Friday.

In public, the US took the high road, insisting that it was Berlin’s sovereign decision to make.

But at one point during Austin’s trip, Washington asked Berlin to stop publicly tying Germany’s approval of the Leopard tanks to the Biden administration sending the Abrams tanks.

The American pressure seemed to have worked, at least for a while. Pistorius, the German defense minister, said in a television interview on Thursday that he was not aware of any requirement for Ukraine to receive American and German tanks at the same time.

On Friday, a German government spokesman even said that the delivery of Leopard tanks to Ukraine was never tied to the US making a similar move.

But back in Washington, officials were looking for “creative solutions.” However, the issue came as a surprise on Wednesday when Biden announced his endorsement alongside a similar German announcement.

The compromise appears to have been a decision to send Abrams not now, but sometime down the road — months from now.

Despite the uncertain timeline, Ukraine has welcomed the decisions. “It’s an important step on the road to victory,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Steve Holland and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Mary Milliken and Josie Kao)

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