WASHINGTON — Defense leaders gathered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday to rally fresh support for Ukraine could not resolve an impasse over providing new Western tanks for Ukraine in its war to repel Russia, but Germany’s new defense minister said he is approaching a decision.
Despite pleas from Kyiv, Germany has so far resisted international pressure to provide its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, or permit other countries with the tanks, like Poland and Finland, to send them. Ukrainian leaders have said they need modern Western tanks to help repel an expected spring offensive from Moscow’s forces in Russian-occupied territories in the east.
After the meeting of representatives from the 50-plus donor nations, new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius defended his government’s decision to withhold the weapons for now, but said he has ordered a review of the country’s stocks in case of a change of heart.
“We’re not really hesitating, but we are just being very careful in balancing the pros and cons,” he added. “This is a new kind of measure we would choose.”
Pistorius said there was no unity among representatives about sending Leopard tanks, suggesting even their military utility for the conflict is in dispute. “There is no common opinion” on tank deliveries, said Pistorius. “The impression that there is a firm coalition, with Germany standing in the way, is false.”
The struggle over main battle tanks comes as the U.S. and other allies of Ukraine are ramping up support for Ukraine to include armored vehicles, advanced air defenses like Patriot and other weapons they previously denied to Kyiv. The aid reflects a fear the conflict could turn into a grinding war of attrition unless Ukrainian forces have the tools they need to turn the tide.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who had pressed Berlin for a decision, told reporters after Friday’s meeting that Germany is still a leader in the effort and a reliable ally. He pointed to Berlin’s provision of armored vehicles, air defenses and training for Ukrainian forces — and downplayed the tank issue, saying the effort “isn’t really about one single platform.”
“They are a reliable ally, and they’ve been that way for a very, very long time, and I truly believe that they’ll continue to be a reliable ally going forward,” Austin said. “Not to mention Germany is host to 39,000 of my troops and their families, and also 10,000 civilians here.”
America’s latest package of aid totals $2.5 billion and includes Stryker armored vehicles for the first time. The eight-wheeled, 20-ton Stryker has been in U.S. arsenals for more than 20 years and carries nine infantrymen and two crew.
The U.S. package includes 90 Strykers, another 53 Bradley fighting vehicles, 350 Humvees, 53 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, more than 100,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and rockets, and missiles for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. It also provides eight Avenger air defense systems and more NASAMS munitions, aimed at countering a range of short- and medium-range threats.
Pistorius said his country’s new aid package would amount to more than €1 billion, or $1.1 billion, bringing Berlin’s Ukraine contributions to a total of €3.3 billion so far. Germany this spring plans to send roughly 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles, a Patriot air-defense fire unit, additional IRIS-T air-defense units, Gepard air-defense tanks and fresh ammunition for those weapons.
Other pledges announced ahead of the Ramstein meeting included S-60 anti-aircraft guns with 70,000 rounds of ammunition from Poland, additional Stinger air-defense systems and two M-17 helicopters from Latvia, and two Russian-made Mi-8 helicopters and dozens of L-70 anti-aircraft guns with ammunition from Lithuania.
All eyes were on Germany ahead of the meeting, whose Leopards exist in most European countries’ armed forces, with tank-support advocates hoping for an announcement to “#FreeTheLeopards,” as a hashtag created by a raucous military Twitter crowd fueling the debate proposes.
Pistorius said the German defense ministry is evaluating how many Leopards Berlin could deliver, with an eye on different configurations and compatibility with allies in an eventual deployment, Pistorius said.
He left open the question of when officials would make a decision.
Pistorius said countries that had offered to send their own Leopards were free to undertake similar prep work for a potential deployment.
Berlin must approve the export of German-made weapons. The prospect of nations bypassing Germany’s approval, as reports from Poland suggested, did not come up at the meeting, Pistorius added.
The United Kingdom announced last week it would send Challenger 2 tanks, describing it as a natural progression of military aid to Ukraine.
The U.S. has so far declined to provide M1 Abrams tanks. Pentagon officials view the Leopards as the most immediately accessible and usable capability for Ukraine, and the Abrams, which guzzles jet fuel and carries a heavy sustainment burden, as unsuitable.
At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said the Leopard and Challenger aren’t comparable to the Abrams tanks.
The Leopard and Challenger are “a little bit easier to maintain,” Singh said. “They can maneuver across large portions of territory before they need to refuel. The maintenance and the high cost that it would take to maintain an Abrams — it just doesn’t make sense to provide that to the Ukrainians at this moment.”
A Kremlin spokesman said the deployment of Western tanks would trigger “unambiguously negative” consequences.
“All these tanks will require both maintenance and repairs, and so on, so [sending them] will add to Ukraine’s problems, but will not change anything with regard to the Russian side achieving its goals,” Dmitry Peskov said during a media briefing Friday.
As Friday’s meeting in Ramstein opened, Austin set an urgent tone, warning the conflict is at a “crucial moment” and aid to Ukraine should intensify.
“We need to dig even deeper. This is a decisive moment for Ukraine and a decisive decade for the world. Make no mistake, we will support Ukraine’s self-defense for as long as it takes,” he said.
With reporting by the Associated Press
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.