Germany pressed on tanks for Ukraine; Kyiv airs frustration

Germany faced mounting pressure to supply battle tanks and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky aired frustration about not obtaining enough weaponry as Western allies conferred Thursday on how best to support Kyiv nearly 11 months into Russia’s invasion.

Just hours into his tenure as Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius welcomed US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to Berlin. He declared that German weapons systems delivered so far have proven their worth and that “we will continue in the future, together with our partners, to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom, territorial independence and sovereignty.”

He didn’t, however, immediately mention the Leopard 2 tanks that Ukraine has long sought. Since Britain announced last week that it would send Challenger 2 tanks, Berlin has faced increasing pressure to supply battle tanks or at least clear the way for others, such as Poland, to deliver German-made Leopards from their own stock.

Austin is to host a regular coordination meeting of top defense officials from Ukraine’s Western allies at the US’ Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday. He said that “we’ll renew our united commitment to support Ukraine’s self-defense for the long haul,” but didn’t mention any specific new equipment.

Speaking by video link to a breakfast meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Zelensky offered a veiled criticism of major supporters such as Germany and the US that have hesitated over sending tanks.

He bemoaned a “lack of specific weaponry” and said that, to win the war, “we cannot just do it with motivation and morale.”

Speaking at the Victor Pinchuk Foundation breakfast through an interpreter, he said: “There are times where we shouldn’t hesitate or we shouldn’t compare when someone says, ‘I will give tanks if someone else will also share his tanks.’”

For months, Ukraine has sought to be supplied with heavier vehicles such as the German-made Leopard 2 and US Abrams tanks, but Western leaders have been treading carefully.

Germany has been particularly in focus in recent days. Critics, some inside Germany’s governing coalition, have long complained of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s perceived hesitancy to take the next step when it comes to weapons deliveries.

Scholz has been wary of such pressure, insisting that Germany won’t go it alone and that NATO ensures it doesn’t become a party to the war with Russia; every time, however, Berlin has eventually taken a step forward. Scholz has portrayed his cautious weighing of each step as a virtue.

In Davos on Wednesday, the chancellor avoided directly answering a question about Leopard tanks, saying that Germany would remain one of Ukraine’s top weapons suppliers and that “we are never doing something just by ourselves, but together with others — especially the United States.”

German officials have conveyed their reluctance to allow allies to give their German-made Leopards to Ukraine unless the US also sends Abrams tanks, according to a US official who was not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of anonymity. An upcoming new package of US military aid is expected to include nearly 100 Stryker combat vehicles and at least 50 Bradley armored vehicles — but not the Abrams, which US officials says has complex maintenance needs and may not be the best fit.

Austin said on Twitter that he also plans to meet Scholz’s chief of staff, Wolfgang Schmidt, while in Berlin.

“I think this isn’t about avoiding going it alone any more, but about avoiding being alone,” Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the US, said on Deutschlandfunk radio of the calls for German tank deliveries.

Some eastern NATO allies have provided Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukrainian forces, but officials acknowledge that supplies of Soviet-era equipment with which Ukrainian forces are already familiar are limited.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Ukraine’s Western backers this week would discuss ways to supply heavier and more advanced weapons.

“The main message there will be: more support, more advanced support, heavier weapons and more modern weapons,” Stoltenberg said of Friday’s meeting.

Defense ministers from Britain, Poland and the Baltic nations were to meet Thursday afternoon in Estonia ahead of that gathering.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said Thursday that his country has decided to send up to 50 Swedish-made combat vehicles plus an antitank robot and the Archer artillery system to Ukraine.

Estonia announced what it said it was its largest military aid package to date, including howitzers, ammunition, artillery support equipment and grenade launchers.

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