German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has agreed to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks, according to media reports, after weeks of mounting pressure on Berlin to give Kyiv the heavier weapons it says it needs to drive back invading Russian forces.
The news that Berlin will provide battle tanks to Kyiv comes as officials in the United States told media that Washington was also poised to start a process that would eventually send dozens of M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine’s front lines.
A US government source told Al Jazeera there would be an announcement at the White House on Wednesday regarding the provision of the Abrams. A source familiar with the matter told the Reuters news agency that the US commitment could total about 30 Abrams to be delivered over the coming months.
Berlin has also granted other countries, such as Poland and Finland, the licence to re-export their stocks of German-made tanks to Ukraine, German media reported on Tuesday citing unnamed government sources. Countries that buy military weapons from Germany are generally required to obtain permission from Berlin before re-exporting those weapons to another country.
The Spiegel media outlet, which first reported the news of Scholz agreeing to provide tanks to Ukraine, said Germany would provide at least one company of Leopard 2A6 tanks out of the German army’s — the Bundeswehr’s — stocks. Generally, equipping a company means handing over more than 14 tanks.
There was no official comment from the German government.
The Kremlin has said supplying tanks to Ukraine would not change matters and that the West would regret its “delusion” that Kyiv could win on the battlefield against Russia.
Russia’s ambassador to the US said the possible delivery of Abrams tanks to Kyiv by Washington would be “another blatant provocation” against Moscow.
“It is obvious that Washington is purposefully trying to inflict a strategic defeat on us,” ambassador Anatoly Antonov said in remarks published on the embassy’s Telegram messaging app on Wednesday.
“If the United States decides to supply tanks, then justifying such a step with arguments about ‘defensive weapons’ will definitely not work. This would be another blatant provocation against the Russian Federation,” he said.
Until now, the US has resisted providing the M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, citing extensive and complex maintenance and logistical challenges with the high-tech weapons. Washington believed it would be more productive to send German Leopards since many allies have them and Ukrainian troops would need less training than on the more complex Abrams.
By agreeing to send Abrams tanks, the US administration appears to be meeting the German Chancellor’s demand that Germany needed to be in lockstep with Washington.
Scholz had held out for months against the growing chorus of people urging him to send Kyiv the tanks — not just Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy but also NATO allies and members of Scholz’s coalition government.
Zelenskyy took an especially tough line, saying Berlin’s foot-dragging was costing Ukrainian lives.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said the Leopard tanks could provide the Ukrainian army with advantages over Russian forces.
“The thing to remember here is the real value that the main battle tank Leopard 2 possesses is that it is a heavier and faster tank than many of the tanks the Russian army has in Ukraine,” he said.
“It’s also the case that very many different European Union countries have certain forms of the Leopard 2 tanks. The principle here is clear: There are many of them in the EU but also in NATO European countries,” he said.
Germany is one of Ukraine’s biggest military donors. But there is scepticism about the value of sending tanks among a broad area of the German public who worry it could draw Germany more deeply into an escalating war in Eastern Europe.
Kane said that while the German government has been prepared to provide Ukraine with armoured personnel carriers and its own form of anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence systems, there was reluctance to send the Leopard 2 battle tank, an offensive weapon.
“Germany has the historical legacy since World War II that weighs on all of the shoulders of German chancellors, in that they don’t want to be seen in direct confrontation with the Russians,” he said.
Ukraine has been calling for Western-designed battle tanks for months to fight the invading Russian forces. The front line in eastern Ukraine has barely moved for weeks. With the tanks, Ukraine hopes to claw back more terrain seized by Russia.
Analysts also say that Russia is preparing for a significant offensive in the spring, which in Ukraine begins in March.
After media reports emerged on Tuesday of Germany’s decision, officials in Kyiv swiftly hailed what they said was a potential game-changer on the battlefield in a war that is 11 months old.
“A few hundred tanks for our tank crews — the best tank crews in the world. This is what is going to become a real punching fist of democracy against the autocracy from the bog,” Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskyy’s office, wrote on Telegram. Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), welcomed the centre-left government’s move.
“The decision is right,” the CDU chairman told the DPA news agency.
Green Party legislators in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, also welcomed the decision.
“The Leopard’s freed!” Bundestag Vice President Katrin Goring-Eckardt wrote on Twitter.
“Now hopefully it can quickly help Ukraine in its fight against the Russian attack and for the freedom of Ukraine and Europe.”
No Western-designed heavy tanks have yet been delivered to Ukraine for combat against Russian forces. So far, Ukraine has received only Soviet-made tanks that were in the inventory of Eastern European NATO countries.
Of the 14 European states that have Leopard tanks, only Finland and Poland had so far publicly signalled their willingness to deliver them to Ukraine. The United Kingdom has pledged 14 Challenger tanks.