Allied defense leaders meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany Friday struggled to resolve a dispute over who would provide battle tanks to Ukraine.
Despite pleas from Ukraine leaders, Germany has so far resisted mounting pressure to quickly supply Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv, having recently indicated they would not send their Leopard tanks unless the U.S. also agrees to send its M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
As the Ramstein conference began, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that “this is a crucial moment. Russia is regrouping, recruiting and trying to reequip.”
Speaking to reporters outside the conference hall at midday, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that while there was no resolution yet, “we will make our decisions as soon as possible.”
The tank standoff comes amid a much larger debate between the U.S. and its European allies over whether to send increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine, including longer-range missiles that would allow Ukraine to hit targets as far as 200 miles away.
The UK, Poland, Finland and the Baltic states have all been pushing for NATO members to provide heavier equipment to Ukraine. Last week, the British added pressure when they announced they would send 14 of their Challenger tanks to Ukraine. But Germany and the U.S. were still opposed to sending their own tanks as of Wednesday.
The U.S. on Wednesday did finalize a roughly $2.5 billion security aid package to Ukraine that reportedly included Stryker combat vehicles, as well as more armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles, but the Biden Administration pushed back on sending M1 Abrams tanks because of logistical and maintenance complications.
Even if Germany does not send its own Leopards, another option is available: Germany, as the tank’s maker, could authorize the other 12 European nations that use them to donate some to Ukraine. Security analysts have argued for the transfer of Leopards to Ukraine to be shared across Europe, easing the burden on individual countries. So far, however, Germany has resisted this option, as well.
Even if they were sent, Ukrainian crews would have to be trained in using them.
Roughly 11 months into the Russian invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has expressed frustration over obtaining enough weaponry from Western allies. Speaking by video link to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he said, “There are times where we shouldn’t hesitate or we shouldn’t compare when someone says, ‘I will give tanks if someone else will also share his tank.’”
The tank standoff comes as Ukraine faces intense fighting in the east around the city of Bakhmut and its forces admitted Thursday to “stepping back” from the bitterly contested salt mining town of Soledar. The battles are expected to intensify in the spring.