KYIV, Ukraine — President Biden’s announcement on Wednesday that the U.S. will send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine in the coming months represents a watershed moment in Western military assistance to the embattled nation, which, just under a year ago, was all but written off for defeat. “Abrams tanks are the best in the world,” Biden said at a press conference in the White House today, flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. “This is a tremendous new capability that Ukraine will be getting to boost its long-term defenses.”
The emphasis here should be on “long-term.”
And the unstated policy behind Biden's surprising reversal was how it was designed to bring Germany, a major European power traditionally soft on Moscow, in line with helping Ukraine not just fend off another large Russian attack but take the fight to its attacker. Main battle tanks are offensive rather than defensive weapons, an integral part of combined-arms warfare, which consists of infantry and the three so-called As: artillery, armor and air power. As of today, Ukraine has or is getting the artillery and armor from Western partners and only lacks the air power, although now even F-16 fighter jets are rumored to be on the table for future security assistance negotiations. The Abrams, generally viewed as trickier to operate and maintain by foreign militaries, was never meant to go to Ukraine; rather its German counterpart, the Leopard 2, easily adaptable and in service in over a dozen other European armies, was. Now Kyiv is getting both, though the Leopard 2s from Germany and third-party nations will arrive faster.
The story of how the U.S. and its allies coaxed, finessed and finally convinced the Germans to release the Leopards has as much to do with Berlin politics as it does with creative transatlantic statecraft.
Ukraine has long needed to replace its aging fleet of ex-Soviet battle tanks either during or after the war, and for all practical purposes there were only two Western models available: the American Abrams and the German Leopard 2. The Biden administration had repeatedly resisted providing Abrams tanks to Ukraine, claiming the turbine-powered American vehicles were too complex to maintain and required too much fuel to be practical. Only a week ago, Defense Department official Colin Kahl ruled out supplying the tanks to Ukraine, citing exactly these reasons.
The Abrams does have a larger logistical footprint than comparable vehicles, especially the Leopard, but for the Ukrainian military, any logistical hurdles are seen as worth surmounting to be on par with a superpower’s armored divisions.
Ukraine’s new Western tanks will not be a quick fix; crews and mechanics will need to be trained not just to operate the vehicles, but also to handle the specialized support equipment needed to keep such sophisticated military equipment in the fight. Eight M88A2 armored recovery vehicles, especially designed to tow the heavy M1A1 Abrams, will be provided as part of the American package.
Washington has therefore unexpectedly and reluctantly decided not just to commit to defending Ukraine from a vicious ongoing Russian invasion, but to invest in its military future well beyond that. That future lies in one direction now: greater integration with the West and a bulwark against further Russian expansionism.
Indeed, U.S. officials are now making noises about a newfound willingness to help Kyiv retake land not only lost in February 2022, but in February 2014, when Russia invaded and illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Gone or greatly diminished now are fears of crossing Russian President Vladimir Putin, though his nuclear arsenal still stands as a deterrent to a wider conflagration with NATO. The Pentagon's plan for arming Ukraine is now believed to be driven more by accountancy and logistics than Russia's vague warnings of retaliation.
“The outstanding issue for weapons systems now is our inventory and supply chain, not the Russian response to what we choose to send Ukraine,” one senior U.S. official, requesting anonymity, told Yahoo News. “That response consists of a lot of shouting and threats but no significant military retaliation.” That assessment is no doubt undergirded by credible U.S. and Western intelligence about Russia’s true capability and intentions as opposed to its stated ones.
Dr. Alex Crowther, a retired U.S. Army colonel and the former special assistant for Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, foresees an upgrade in Kyiv’s status with Washington in the near to short term. “Ukraine will probably be treated like Taiwan after the war,” Crowther said, “unless the Ukranians can kick Russia out of their territory, in which case the U.S. will probably declare them a major non-NATO ally on par with Japan, Australia and Israel.”
Eleven months ago, U.S. intelligence assessments gave Ukraine a lifespan of about three days before succumbing to Moscow’s overwhelming firepower and technological advantages.
Yet another remarkable development in this war is the behind-the-scenes wrangle with U.S. allies that moved Biden to yes on the Abrams tanks. It was all about getting the Germans to jawohl on Leopards.
Berlin had long resisted pressure to supply its main battle tank, the Leopard 2, to Ukraine, with the alleged fear being that to do so would be to act in a “unilateral” manner. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz originally said he’d release his Leopards if other NATO allies also sent their main battle tanks. The United Kingdom obliged, agreeing last week to supply Ukraine with a squadron of 14 Challenger 2 tanks. Scholz then shifted his you-first condition, claiming only Washington agreeing to send American heavy armor to Ukraine would satisfy this requirement.
Biden now has, and the Germans followed.
Speaking in the Bundestag, or Parliament, on Wednesday, Scholz announced that Germany would send 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks to Ukraine, finally making the decision that seemed more and more inevitable. As significant as Germany's own pledge, Berlin also agreed to allow the numerous countries in Europe that operate the German tank to export the vehicles to Ukraine. Reporting suggests that the final tally of Leopard 2s destined for Ukraine will be close to 100, though the final details are not yet clear.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius added that a battalion of the newer German 2A6 models would arrive within a period of three months, after Ukrainian crews had been trained on their new vehicles, with a second battalion of the older 2A4s arriving later.
While this news was greeted with elation in Kyiv, the foot-dragging caused exasperation in European capitals, whose political establishment felt Scholz should and could have moved more quickly.
“Germany has become one of the most unreliable EU and NATO members,” a senior European diplomat told Yahoo News, explaining how donations by smaller European countries such as Denmark, which donated its entire stock of brand-new Caesar self-propelled howitzers, and Estonia, which delivered the remainder of its FH70 155mm guns to Ukraine, were a way of cajoling the Germans to act.
The Tallinn Pledge, made last week, was a joint statement signed by the defense ministers of several European countries including Estonia and the United Kingdom at a military base in the eponymous Estonian capital. The pledge emphasized the importance of supplying modern Western battle tanks to Ukraine, adding to the pressure on Berlin to follow.
Poland, another signatory of the Tallinn Pledge, threatened to send 14 Polish army Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine if the Scholz government refused to officially approve the transfer — a contract violation that would risk future arms deals with Berlin. Piotr Muller, a Polish government spokesman, alluded to Poland’s bad-cop role after the German decision in comments made to the Polish media: “We are glad that our arguments and our common allies convinced the German government to change its mind.”
Sławomir Dębski, director of Polish Institute of International Affairs, told Yahoo News that without the pressure from Poland and others, the German action would have taken longer to arrive. A good segment of the German population sees any inclination toward militarism as an anathema, not just because of their country’s role in two devastating world wars but because Germany was long the epicenter of where a potential third one might erupt. “Postwar Germany has always been under the umbrella of United States protection,” Dębski said. “Wartime leadership is new to them. Poland understands the experience of fighting a war surrounded by enemies, running out of ammunition.”
Paradoxically, Germany has been surprisingly robust in its assistance to Ukraine. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, if the country's commitments to Ukraine are taken together with its portion of EU contributions, Germany is second only to the United States, with 12.6 billion euros in aid pledged as of Dec. 7, 2022. (That figure does not take into account the Leopards 2 package.) Furthermore, Germany has been the second- or third-largest donor of military aid to Ukraine, depending on the calculation used, also behind the United States and nearly level with the U.K. Berlin has supplied sophisticated air defense systems, armored vehicles, and some of the best self-propelled artillery currently in Ukraine's arsenal.
The German-supplied Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft gun has been particularly praised by Ukrainian soldiers, who have used to great effect against the ubiquitous Russian Shahed 136 suicide drones supplied by Iran. Hours after speaking in the Parliament, Scholz announced that Germany intended to “expand what we have delivered” to Ukraine, in a press conference alongside Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir.
“Scholz’s position has always been ‘Ukraine must not lose and Russia must not win,’” according to Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Kiesewetter, a former staff officer in the Bundeswehr, or Germany army, is critical of the chancellor’s approach toward Ukraine.
“He speaks in the language of armistice and frozen conflict, not Ukrainian victory, and this echoes others in Germany who would like for nothing more than to see Minsk III,” Kiesewetter said, referring to the two ceasefire agreements implemented (with varying abidance) in 2014 and 2015, after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine. “They still think we should end the war no matter what and begin new trade opportunities with Russia,” Kiesewetter said.
In June, according to Kiesewetter, Scholz told the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs that sending Marder infantry fighting vehicles would be a “horrible” escalation. “The chancellor claimed there was no intimidation from Putin against himself or against Germany, but clearly there had been. Our neighbors, including Spain and Poland, started asking in May or June of last year, to let us deliver Leopard tanks.”
So what changed?
On Jan. 4, the same day he announced the delivery of "light tanks" to Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron publicly shifted his own outlook on the war, one that previously mirrored Scholz's in seeking merely to forestall Ukrainian defeat. Now Macron came out for Ukraine's outright victory. "Until victory, until peace is restored," Macron tweeted a quote from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
France, a longtime ally of Germany, thus found itself moving its narrative on the war and leaving Scholz alone among European leaders against Eastern European, Scandinavian and Baltic countries that insisted “a more modern, agile and deterrent Europe should emerge,” according to Kiesewetter. “Macron thinks geopolitically. Germany he sees as not a reliable partner any longer.”
“Scholz is still stuck in that world of yesterday,” Benjamin Tallis, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Yahoo News. “His approach has meant Germany, whilst giving a lot in absolute terms, is still having its reputation dragged through the mud.”
Scholz has hewed closely to the foreign policy legacy of his Social Democratic Party (SPD), once defined under former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt as Ostpolitik, the seeking of rapprochement with the Warsaw Pact nations. In recent decades the SPD, along with most other German parties, evolved into a more transactional and accommodating position to post-communist Russia. Angela Merkel, Scholz's immediate predecessor and a leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, welcomed cheap Russian energy into Europe, overseeing the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines. Gerhard Schröder, a former SPD chancellor, remains one of Putin's most outspoken defenders in Europe; he was pressured last spring into resigning his $600,000-per-year chairmanship of the board of Rosneft, Russia's state oil company. Schröder continued to tout his friendship with Putin even as the bloody Ukraine war dragged on.
The same can’t exactly be said of Scholz.
At the start of the war, he undertook a major about-face with respect to German policy toward the Kremlin. Speaking on Feb. 27 in the Bundestag, just three days after Russia's full-scale invasion, Scholz gave what is now known as Zeitenwende speech, owing to his use of a German term for a major turning point.
“Whether we permit Putin to turn back the clock to the 19th century and the age of the great powers,” he said, “or whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check.” The speech heralded a marked increase in German defense spending, promising that it would soon be in excess of 2% of the country’s gross domestic product.
Stalwart and militaristic though Zeitenwende sounded 11 months ago, it was still predicated on a prevailing German assumption that Ukraine would lose badly and swiftly to Russia, according to Dębski, the Polish think tank analyst.
“It was an absolutely fantastic speech,” Dębski said, “but as a curtain-raiser for a new era for Germany in which Russia was now seen as an aggressor nation and Berlin would be the natural leader of Europe around which all other nations would rally. It was not a speech about helping Ukraine through arms. What Scholz didn’t count on, and what he’s been reckoning with ever since, was the ferocity of Ukrainian resistance.”
Like many politicians, Scholz is closely tuned to public opinion in his country. His inner circle believes in forging a “middle-ground consensus” in the German electorate, according to Rebecca Harms, a former member of European Parliament from the German Green Party.
“The chancellor’s nickname for many years was ‘Scholzomat,’” Harms said. “He is neither very emotional nor very charismatic. So after Merkel it seems that another careful actor has taken over power in Germany and that perhaps reflects what’s going on with many Germans because they voted for him. And his election in December 2021 was not a given.”
By requiring America act first on sending tanks to Ukraine, Scholz indemnified himself to criticism at home, while beefing up Ukraine’s offensive capability abroad.
It has also meant incurring the enmity of the Russians that Scholz once considered as partners in peace. Moscow responded to the news that German and American tanks would soon be en route to Ukraine with a mixture of fury, special pleading and grief. Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, called the decision a “blatant provocation against the Russian Federation,” claiming it was “obvious that Washington is purposefully trying to inflict a strategic defeat on us.” Obvious indeed: Inflicting a “strategic defeat” on Moscow has been acknowledged American policy for months.
On Russian state media, propagandists responded with characteristic bombast. Scholz and his government, they said, were "Nazis scumbags" and Russia would soon be bombing Berlin and Dresden.
On unofficial channels, pro-war Russian commentators were a bit more nervous. Alexei Zhivov, a Russian military journalist, called the German and American tanks "formidable and dangerous weapons" that would likely be used effectively by the Ukrainian military in operations supported by Western intelligence — just as the M142 High Mobility Artillery Systems (HIMARS) have been. Russian military analysts were now "going through five stages of grief," Zhivov said.