Despite the intense pressure being brought on Berlin to allow Europe’s Nato members to send their advanced Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, a summit at the Nato Ramstein airbase failed to approve the measure.
Germany denied Kyiv's request for tanks at the Ramstein conference, but the new German Defence Minister Boris Pistorious said that a final decision has yet to be made. In the meantime, he has instructed the German Armed Forces to assess how many and which Leopards it could send when the decision comes through.
He said: “We all cannot say today when a decision [on potentially sending Leopard tanks] will come and what it will look like,” as cited by Reuters.
A few hours before Pistorious’ announcement, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy repeated his urgent calls for the heavy main battle tanks, considered to be amongst the most advanced in the world. "I can thank you hundreds of times – but hundreds of "thank you" are not hundreds of tanks," he wrote on Twitter.
Zelenskiy’s rhetoric has intensified recently as his focus on getting more defence weapons such as the US-made surface-to-air Patriot missile system to protect Ukraine against missile and fighter jet attacks has given way to calling for offensive weapons.
During Zelenskiy’s Christmas speech to Congress, the Ukrainian president called on the US to supply Ukraine with more defensive weapons, and air defence in particular. However, in his comments to the Davos forum a day before the Ramstein summit he included tanks in his wish list.
“Tragedies are outpacing life. Tyranny is outpacing democracy,” he said. “The world must not hesitate today, or ever,” adding that the West needs to supply tanks to “outpace the next deployment of Russia’s tanks,” The Guardian reported.
Germany has been the biggest supplier of weapons to Ukraine in monetary terms in Europe; however, it has sent only defensive weapons. For example, after the US announced it was sending a battery of Patriot missiles, German also promised to send one its batteries as well.
President Andrzej Duda announced that Poland is ready to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine during a visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv last week, but it later transpired that not only had he not cleared the decision with Berlin, but that Warsaw had not even put in an official request for permission. Duda, also speaking at Davos, repeated his calls for tanks for Ukraine and said the West should send 100 Leopards, which would change the course of the war.
Poland is among several Nato countries that have been calling on Germany to allow the transfer of 100 Leopards to break a stalemate on the battlefield. If the idea is approved it would amount to major change in policy, shifting from the supply of defensive to offensive weapons, and a significant escalation.
Duda told attendees at the economic forum in Davos two days earlier that he was afraid Russia was preparing a new offensive in Ukraine “within months” and that it was crucial to provide additional support to Kyiv in the form of modern tanks and missiles.
Berlin has been reluctant to allow its tanks to be sent for fear of provoking Russia into a direct confrontation with Nato and sparking WWIII, a point that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly made.
Other Nato members have been less cautious. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chided Berlin’s hesitancy a day earlier, saying: “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is never going to use nuclear weapons,” and called on Berlin to allow the tank transfer.
German is one of Europe’s biggest military arms producers and has sold Leopards to numerous other EU members. However, part of these arms sales were riders that forbid the re-export of the tanks without Berlin’s express permission.
Scholz’s resolve appears to be slowly crumbling and he attempted to pass the buck earlier this week, saying that Germany would send Ukraine Leopards if the US also decided to send Kyiv its Abrams main battle tank.
Scholz met with US officials at Ramstein, the main Nato airbase in Europe, but no decision on sending Abrams to Ukraine was announced.
US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said President Joe Biden's administration is expected next to approve Stryker armoured vehicles for Ukraine but is not poised to send its own tanks, including the Abrams.
The Pentagon has been equally reticent to supply Ukraine with tanks, claiming that it couldn’t send the Abrams because “the territory is unsuitable” for the tank. Currently much of the fighting is happening on eastern Ukraine's flat arable land, which is ideal for tanks.
France has already promised to deliver “light” battle tanks to Ukraine, President Emmanuel Macron’s office announced in the first week of January, the first country to send such Western-designed armoured fighting vehicles to the war, but these are not on a par with the much heavier German main battle tanks.
Britain has been the first to commit to sending actual main battle tanks, promising 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks, which will arrive shortly. However, military experts point out that a single squadron of tanks is more of a gesture and will not have a material impact on the war.
Several Central European countries have already sent Soviet-era main battle tanks from the stock they inherited following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 – mainly the vintage T60 – and Ukraine has also been using tanks captured from retreating Russian forces – mainly the Soviet vintage T74, the workhorse of the Russian army. However, these legacy tanks are some 20 tonnes lighter than the German-made tanks and more vulnerable to Russian anti-tank weapons.
A group of nine pro-Ukraine European states – Estonia, Britain, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Czechia, the Netherlands and Slovakia – gathered before the Ramstein forum and promised to deliver more arms to Ukraine to try to break the deadlock.
The countries that issued the statement from Estonia, calling it the Tallinn Pledge, saying they would urge other allies at a meeting in Ramstein to contribute to the arms package.
Denmark will continue to train Ukrainian forces, while Czechia said it was working with its defence industry to increase production capacities to provide more support, especially in producing large-calibre ammunition, howitzers and armoured personnel carriers (APCs).
The Estonian package includes of tens of 155mm FH-70 and 122mm D-30 howitzers, and thousands of rounds of the crucial 155mm artillery ammunition, the workhorse of the ground battle along the line of conflict in the Donbas.
The new Polish package consists of S-60 anti-aircraft guns with 70,000 pieces of ammunition. Poland has already donated 42 infantry fighting vehicles along with a training package for two mechanised battalions. Poland continues to deliver 155mm KRAB howitzers and is supplying Ukraine with various types of ammunition. In addition, Poland is ready to donate a company of 14 Leopard 2 tanks with 1,000 pieces of ammunition.
The Tallinn group remains upbeat in its resolve to persuade the more reluctant partners to commit heavier weaponry to Ukraine, but must be disappointed by Germany’s refusal to give the go-ahead for tank transfers.
Speaking to Reuters the day before the Ramstein meeting, Lithuania’s defence minister, Arvydas Anusauskas, said several countries will announce sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine during the meeting.
“Some of the countries will definitely send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, that is for sure,” Anusauskas told Reuters. The total number of armoured vehicles pledged at Ramstein meeting would “go into hundreds,” Anusauskas said.
In addition, there were several more new commitments to send more arms announced at the Ramstein meeting.
The Biden administration announced a new $2.5bn security assistance package for Ukraine – one of its largest packages yet.
The Pentagon also confirmed that it was increasing supplies to Ukraine from stockpiles in Israel and South Korea. As bne IntelliNews reported, the US is in danger of running out of ammunition, as its own stocks of materiel are rapidly being depleted, so the US is increasing purchases of arms from abroad.
“We have been working with the Republic of Korea and Israel when it comes to withdrawing from our stocks and communicating that with them,” Sabrina Singh, principal deputy spokesperson for the US Department of Defence, said during a daily press briefing at Ramstein.
According to the 28,500-strong US Forces Korea (USFK), the request is a part of US efforts to supply Ukraine, but it didn't specify what equipment and how much has been requested or already delivered.
Sweden also announced $419mn military aid package for Ukraine, including Archer artillery system. Under the three-part package, Sweden will also deliver about 50 of its Stridsfordon 90 infantry fighting vehicles, NLAW anti-tank weapons, mine-clearing equipment and assault rifles, according to Reuters.
Hungary has retained its pro-Russia stance and blocked a €500mn EU military aid package for Ukraine, the seventh such package allocated to Ukraine as part of the European Peace Facility, a high-ranking EU diplomatic source told the Polish RMF FM.
On the same day as the Ramstein meeting, European Council President Charles Michel flew to Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, and members of the Ukrainian parliament.
CIA Director William J. Burns also made an unannounced visit to Kyiv the same day to brief Zelenskiy on his forecast of Russia’s widely anticipated spring offensive, the Washington Post reported, citing a US official. According to the newspaper, they also discussed how long Ukraine could count on continued aid from the US and Western allies.