Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced Wednesday Germany would send an initial shipment of 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow other nations to send their own, relenting after weeks of domestic and international pressure to deliver armored vehicles aimed at helping Kyiv regain territory seized by Russia.
The move came hours before President Biden announced that the United States will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, appearing to assuage Scholz’s reluctance to send tanks without Washington also doing so.
Berlin’s decision to send the German-made Leopard 2s follows Britain’s announcement this month that it would send 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. It is a significant step in Western allies’ supply of ever heavier weapons to Kyiv.
While the pledges so far fall short of the 300 tanks that Ukraine has said it needs to make a difference against Russian forces on the battlefield, Germany’s announcement immediately prompted officials in Finland, the Netherlands, and Spain to say they would seek to send tanks to Ukraine, or were open to doing so.
Ukraine’s pleas for more advanced weapons have taken on added urgency in recent weeks as Russia prepares for a possible new offensive, and as Ukrainian forces are locked in a withering battle of attrition against Russian troops in the east.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s military acknowledged that it had retreated from Soledar, a small salt-mining town near Bakhmut, a strategic eastern city that Russian forces have been fighting to capture in months of brutal trench warfare and artillery battles.
The first tanks could take several months to arrive on the battlefield, but Germany’s decision to authorize other nations to transfer their own Leopards — which are widely distributed in more than a dozen other European countries — could eventually help Ukrainian forces dent Russia’s advantage in troop numbers and equipment. Poland said Tuesday it had sought Germany’s permission to send Leopard tanks from its own stocks.
“We’re talking about very effective weapons systems here, and it’s proper that we never provide those weapons systems alone, but always in close cooperation,” Scholz told lawmakers in Germany’s parliament.
Ukraine’s allies have sought to strengthen its military without prompting Russia to further escalate the war, and some leaders had worried that battle tanks might cross that line.
In his announcement, Biden said European allies have agreed to send enough tanks to equip two Ukrainian tank battalions, or a total of 62 tanks.
“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.
Speaking in a video address late Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the creation of what he described as a “tank coalition.”
“We must form a tank fist, a fist of freedom whose hits will not let tyranny stand up again,” Zelensky said.
He said Ukraine will push for more weapons, including long-range missiles and aircraft.
“The terrorist state must lose. The right to life must be protected. And it will be so,” he said.
Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines said the decision comes at a critical point.
“Tanks will help reduce casualties among our soldiers … then gain new results and win this war quicker,” said Oleksander Syrotiuk, commander of a company in the 17th Tank Brigade deployed in Bakhmut.
Scholz defended the time he took making the decision. “We always have to make it very clear in everything we do that we are doing what is necessary and what is possible to support Ukraine,” he said. “But at the same time we are preventing the war from escalating into a war between Russia and NATO.”
The German government said that it would send 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks directly from its army stock. It said it would send another similarly sized group in a second step, but did not say when, or specify where they would come from.
The Leopard 2, first introduced in 1979, is used by 13 European armies, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, and together these militaries have an estimated 2,000 vehicles.
It is one of the world’s leading battle tanks and would offer a big step forward in capability for Ukraine, which has been using Soviet-era tanks.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.