WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the U.S. will send 31 of its frontline battle tanks to Ukraine, reversing his previous reluctance to provide armored vehicles as Ukrainian forces prepare for a new Russian offensive.
The M1 Abrams tanks, which Kiev requested and Biden faced international pressure to deliver, are viewed as critical to stave off a springtime offensive by Russian forces and to help the Ukrainians claw back parts of their country seized during the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“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,” Biden said in remarks from the White House Roosevelt Room.
More:Biden administration plans to send Ukraine battle tanks to help in its war with Russia
It could take months to deliver the M1 Abrams tanks because the U.S. has to purchase them through a procurement process. The tanks, spare parts and other equipment are valued at $400 million.
The move marks a reversal for the Biden administration, which had resisted sending the tanks because of its sophisticated maintenance and training, and comes as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced his country would provide 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks for Ukraine’s military. Britain said earlier this month it will provide 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks and France plans to contribute 10 armed fighting vehicles.
Asked by a reporter whether Germany convinced the U.S. to change its position on the tanks, Biden said, “Germany didn’t force me to change my mind. We wanted to make sure we were all together.”
John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said, “What’s changed ithe conditions on the ground.”
Biden touted a “worldwide commitment” to Ukraine, pointing to wartime contributions from other NATO allies.
“Today’s announcement builds on the hard work and commitment from countries around the world, led by the United States of America, to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Biden said. “It is not an offensive threat to Russia.”
Ukraine has said it needs 300 tanks to fight off Russian forces. The U.S. will provide training for the Ukrainians on how to operate and service the tanks in an unspecified location outside Ukraine.
As it nears one year since Putin invaded Ukraine last February, Biden said the U.S. and other allies remain “united and determined as ever in our conviction and our cause.”
Germany pledges 14 Leopard tanks
Scholz announced earlier Wednesday his country would provide 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks for Ukraine’s military.
“This decision follows our well-known line of supporting Ukraine to the best of our ability,” Scholz said at a Cabinet meeting in Berlin, adding that the decision had been coordinated with international partners.
Scholz said other European partners would also be handing over Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. He didn’t say how many. In addition to training, Germany’s package of support will include logistics, ammunition and system maintenance, he said.
And by providing Abrams tanks to Ukraine, the Biden administration has abandoned its reluctance to send the Pentagon’s most lethal weapons for fear of provoking Russian retaliation. A Russian strike on a NATO ally, a supply line leading into Ukraine, for example, could lead to direct conflict as Biden has vowed to defend every inch of NATO territory.
Why does Ukraine want Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams tanks?
Modern, capable tanks are seen as critical to Ukraine’s ability to resist an expected springtime offensive by Russian forces and to help the Ukrainians claw back parts of their country seized during the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Ukrainians operate Russian and Soviet-era tanks. Western tanks would provide them with vehicles that have more firepower, mobility and armor.
The Biden administration has already sent Ukraine $27 billion in military aid since Russia’s invasion in Feb. 2022. The arms sent have grown increasingly sophisticated and lethal. The tanks and armored personnel carriers now being given to Ukraine are the same ones operated by the U.S. Army’s frontline soldiers.
Why has it taken so long to send modern tanks to Ukraine?
The Pentagon has resisted sending the tanks, citing the heavy maintenance it requires as well as its need for jet fuel for its engine. Germany’s Leopard tank, which several European allies use, runs on easier-to-source diesel fuel.
“Right decision. But too late!” said Peter Beyer, a German lawmaker who is a senior member of that country’s foreign relations committee, in a private WhatsApp message.
“(Ukraine needed these tanks) the first quarter of last year … The chancellor only acted under pressure from inside his coalition government, the opposition and because of pressure from friends in the U.S. and from other allies.”
At the outset of Russia’s invasion, the White House was reluctant even to name some of the defensive weapons it was supplying Ukraine, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles. Over the past year, that reticence has disappeared as Ukrainian resolve and skill on the battlefield has stymied the Russian advance and offered the prospect of retaking parts of the country that have been occupied since 2014.
The administration’s moves have seemed calibrated not to invite a response from Putin. This summer, the Pentagon sent highly accurate rocket-assisted artillery systems that Ukraine used to strike deep behind Russian lines, destroying command posts and logistics hubs. But the White House so far has declined to provide longer-range missiles that could strike inside Russia.
In the last few weeks, the Pentagon announced that Bradley and Stryker armored personnel carriers – the vanguard of U.S. ground attack forces – would be sent to Ukraine. How Putin responds to Russian tanks being shredded by U.S. heavy armor will be closely watched.
M1 Abrams, Leopard 2: What can these tanks do that other can’t?
The Abrams is lethal, fast and heavily armored. Weighing about 70 tons, the Abrams has a 120 mm canon and .50-caliber machine gun. The Abrams was developed during the Cold War and the first tanks delivered to the Army in 1980. They saw combat in 1991 for the first time during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.
The Leopard 2, Germany’s main battle tank, is known for its range, mobility and precision. It can travel more than 300 miles and has a top speed of 42mph.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison
Contributing: Michael Collins