Germany greenlights sending lethal Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine

A Leopard 2 tank being assembled at the German weapons manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann in Munich. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BERLIN – Germany announced plans on Wednesday to deliver main battle tanks to Ukraine, with the United States poised to do so too, a breakthrough Kyiv hailed as a decisive military boost but condemned by Moscow as a reckless provocation.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement Germany would send an initial company of 14 Leopard 2 tanks from its own military inventory, and allow its allies to send more tanks from their own stocks till Ukraine could have two full battalions of these lethal war machines.

Two sources in the US said Washington would also provide dozens of its Abrams M1 tanks.

Ukraine has been calling for months for its allies in the West to send their main battle tanks that it calculates will give its forces the firepower, protection and mobility to break through Russian defensive lines and swoop through territory now occupied by Russian troops.

“A few hundred tanks for our tank crews... This is what is going to become a real punching fist of democracy,” Mr Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration, wrote on Telegram.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any American tank sent to Ukraine would “burn like all the rest”.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Germany’s and Nato’s decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine was the “right decision”. 

“Alongside Challenger 2s, they will strengthen Ukraine’s defensive firepower,” Mr Sunak said on Twitter.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also took to Twitter to say: “Thank you @Bundeskanzler (German Chancellor) Olaf Scholz. The decision to send Leopards to Ukraine is a big step towards stopping Russia. Together we are stronger”

On the front as early as March

Pressure had been building for weeks on Mr Scholz’s government to send the tanks and allow other Nato allies to do the same ahead of expected spring offensives by both sides that could help turn the tide of the war.

“This decision follows our well-known line of supporting Ukraine to the best of our ability. We are acting in a closely coordinated manner internationally,” he said in his statement.

Twenty armies worldwide field Leopards, which Germany has made in their thousands.

Poland and Finland had already pledged to send them once Berlin agrees, and several other countries are expected to follow swiftly. Britain has already offered a company of its comparable Challengers, and France is considering sending its Leclercs. 

Mr Mark Hertling, a former commander of US ground forces in Europe, said the Leopard 2 tanks could be on the battlefield in Ukraine as soon as March, while the Americans’ M1 tanks, which need more logistical support, could be more than eight months away. 

Russia has said supplies of modern offensive weaponry to Ukraine will only prolong the war and postpone what it claims will be its inevitable victory. 

Western officials who support sending the tanks have dismissed Moscow’s threats as bluster, arguing that Russia is already waging war at full tilt in Ukraine, and has been deterred from attacking Nato or using nuclear arms. 

Apart from its military significance, the decision to send tanks removes one of the last taboos in Western support: against providing weapons that have a mainly offensive rather than defensive purpose. 

Just last week, allies pledged billions of dollars’ worth of fresh military aid but stopped short of sending the tanks, with some politicians in Germany notably wary of provoking Moscow. 

Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said on Wednesday that Germany will support Ukraine as long as necessary, but without becoming a warring faction.

“We will not become a party to the war, we will make sure of that,” Mr Pistorius said in Berlin.

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Germany discussed with countries including Canada, Spain and Portugal how to best proceed and expects it will take several months until the tanks will be operable in Ukraine, he said.

The Russian embassy in Germany said on Wednesday that Berlin’s decision to approve the delivery of the Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine meant it was abandoning its “historical responsibility to Russia” arising from Nazi crimes in World War Two.

In a statement, the embassy said that the decision would escalate the conflict to a new level.

“This extremely dangerous decision takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation and contradicts the statements of German politicians about the unwillingness of the Federal Republic of Germany to be drawn into it,” Ambassador Sergei Nechayev said.

Frozen frontlines

In the 11 months since it invaded, Russia has killed thousands of civilians, forced millions from their homes and reduced entire cities to rubble.

Ukraine defeated Russia’s troops on the outskirts of Kyiv in 2022 and later drove them out of swathes of occupied land. But Moscow still occupies around a sixth of Ukraine, which it has declared part of Russia forever.

Ukraine says it will not stop fighting until it recaptures all its territory, and the only way to secure peace is for allies to help it win. 

The frontline has been largely frozen in place for two months despite heavy losses on both sides, with both believed to be planning new offensives for the spring. 

Mr Zelensky said Russia is intensifying its push toward Bakhmut, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine where thousands of troops have been killed in months of trench battles that both sides refer to as a meat grinder. 

The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk region said units of Russia’s Wagner contract militia were now moving forward inside Bakhmut. 

“Fighting is already taking place in the outskirts and in neighbourhoods that until very recently were held by the enemy,” TASS news agency quoted Mr Denis Pushilin as saying. 

Western military experts say Russia’s focus on Bakhmut has made its forces vulnerable by squandering manpower on a costly battle for a target with limited strategic significance.

But analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the slow pace of Western arms supplies so far has hindered Ukraine’s ability to take advantage. 

The question of whether to send heavy tanks dominated debate for weeks among allies over how best to support Ukraine, and became an intense domestic political issue in Germany, which replaced its defence minister last week. REUTERS

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