US and Germany remain deadlocked over supplying Ukraine with battle tanks

Berlin fears Russia will use Western deliveries of German-built tanks as an unacceptable escalation by Nato

Ukraine’s allies remain deadlocked on supplying Kyiv with battle tanks amid an ongoing stand-off between the US and Germany.

After 54 members of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group met on Friday, US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin played down the disagreement but said he had “no announcement” on supplying US-built Abrams tanks sought by Ukraine.

Amid reports of tense talks with German officials, Mr Austin insisted there was “no linkage” between the US position and Berlin’s current opposition to supplying German-built Leopard 2 battle tanks.

“Germany has contributed a lot to this campaign... and it is a reliable ally,” said Mr Austin. However, after talks at the US airbase in Ramstein, southwestern Germany, he warned: “We have a window of opportunity here between now and the spring whenever they commence their counter-offensive and that is not a long time.”


For months Berlin has come under pressure from Kyiv and its Nato partners to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2s – or grant other Leopard owners to do so, in line with the tanks’ export licenses.

Amid renewed pleas for tanks from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the meeting via video link, all eyes at Friday’s Ramstein meeting were on Germany and its new defence minister, Boris Pistorius.

He agreed with Mr Lloyd that there was no linkage between US and German decisions, but added there was no consensus in the contact group on the battle tank question.

“There are good reasons for delivery and good reasons against,” Mr Pistorius said, adding that it was incorrect to say only Berlin was blocking agreement.

Despite political attempts to play down the standoff, officials on both sides confirm ongoing disagreement between Berlin and Washington. Unless the Biden administration supplies its own M1 Abrams battle tanks, Scholz officials are refusing to budge on Leopard tanks.

Ukraine has asked for both but the US has refused, saying its battle tanks are inefficient fuel-guzzlers that Ukraine will struggle to repair.

Without the US tanks, meanwhile, Berlin fears that the Kremlin will use Western deliveries of German-built tanks as an unacceptable escalation – and interference – by Nato, dragging the alliance into the conflict.

Despite Friday’s ongoing stand-off, Mr Pistorius said he had ordered an audit of Germany’s available Leopard tanks to expedite any transfer in the case of agreement.

“Then we would be able to act immediately and deliver within a very short period of time,” he said. Pressed as to how short a period, Mr Pistorius said this could be anywhere from one day to several weeks.

At Friday’s talks, Ukrainian officials appealed to countries with Leopard 2 tanks in their inventory to transfer some to Ukraine. In exchange it promised to use the tanks responsibly and exclusively for the purposes of protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine within internationally recognised borders.

Ukraine says it needs about 300 modern battle tanks to push back Russia from its territory and points to studies showing around 2,000 Leopard tanks currently deployed around Europe.

Should Germany refuse to budge, Poland is leading efforts to co-ordinate the transfer of 100 battle tanks, of which Warsaw will provide 14. Polish politicians say they are ready to export the tanks without a German permit, if necessary.

“Consent is a secondary issue, either we will get this consent or we ourselves will do what must be done,” said Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister. “Germany is the least proactive country out of the group, to put it mildly. We will continue pressuring the chancellor.”

Introduced in 1979, its maker Rheinmetall says it has 22 used Leopard 2s in its inventory but that, even if it received an order now it would be mid-2024 before it can overhaul and deliver them.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin