Defense chiefs struggle in dispute over tanks for Ukraine

By LOLITA C. BALDOR and TARA COPP

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany (AP) — Defense leaders meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany struggled Friday to resolve divisions over providing advanced battle tanks to Ukraine as they discussed sending more military aid to the embattled country in its war with Russia.

The defense minister of Poland, which has pledged a company of 14 Leopard tanks on condition that other countries also supply them, said 15 countries that have the German-made Leopards discussed the issue but no decisions were made.

Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak called the meeting a “good discussion among allies” and said the matter would be discussed again at future talks.

Though the tank debate appeared unresolved, Germany’s new defense minister suggested the issue was moving forward.

Germany would need to consent for the tanks to be given to Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO. Despite pleas from Ukrainian officials, Germany has so far resisted mounting pressure to quickly supply Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv, or at least clear the way for other countries, such as Poland, to deliver them from their own stocks.

Speaking to reporters outside the conference hall at midday, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that while there was no resolution yet, “we will make our decisions as soon as possible.”

He said he had ordered the ministry to look into the tank stocks Germany has so he can be prepared for a possible green light and be able to “act immediately.” Pistorius added that Germany will “balance all the pros and contras before we decide things like that. … I am very sure that there will be a decision in the short term but … I don’t know how the decision will look.”

The defense leaders opened their day hearing an impassioned plea for more military aid from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Speaking live via video link, he told the gathering that “terror does not allow for discussion.” He said “the war started by Russia does not allow delays.”

And as the conference began, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that, “this is a crucial moment. Russia is regrouping, recruiting and trying to reequip.”

Austin said that the defense leaders’ presence in Germany signaled their unity and commitment to continue supporting Ukraine. “We need to keep up our momentum and our resolve. We need to dig even deeper,” Austin told nearly 50 leaders who were attending in person or by video.

Meanwhile, 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,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a media briefing Friday.

Austin and U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were expected to discuss the latest massive package of aid the U.S. is sending, which totals $2.5 billion and includes Stryker armored vehicles for the first time.

The U.S. has declined, at least so far, to provide M1 Abrams tanks, citing extensive and complex maintenance and logistical challenges with the high-tech vehicle. The U.S. believes it would be more productive to send German Leopards since many allies have them and Ukrainian troops would need less training than on the more difficult Abrams.

The United Kingdom announced last week that it would send Challenger 2 tanks, describing that move as a natural progression of military aid to Ukraine.

At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said the the difficulty and high cost of maintaining the Abrams would make it a less viable option than the Leopard or Challenge.

The latest package of U.S. aid includes eight Avenger air defense systems, 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 was announced Thursday by the Pentagon.

Other pledges announced ahead of the Ramstein meeting included S-60 anti-aircraft guns from Poland with 70,000 rounds of ammunition, 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.

Nearly 11 months into the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy has expressed frustration about not obtaining enough weaponry from the Western allies. Speaking by video link on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he bemoaned a “lack of specific weaponry,”

“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 tank,’” Zelenskyy said through an interpreter.

German officials have conveyed their hesitancy to allow allies to give Leopards unless the U.S. also sends Ukraine the Abrams, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to comment and spoke on condition of anonymity. But there have been no signs the U.S. is shifting its decision to not send Abrams.

Pistorius, who took office Thursday just an hour before he met with Austin, said that opinions among allies were mixed on the tank issue, and added that “the impression that has occasionally arisen that there is a united coalition and Germany is standing in the way is wrong.”

Milley told reporters traveling with him this week that new U.S. training of Ukrainian troops, combined with an array of new weapons and armored vehicles heading to Ukraine, will be key to helping the country’s forces take back territory that has been captured by Russia in the nearly 11-month-old war.

The goal, he said, is to deliver needed weapons and equipment to Ukraine so the newly trained forces will be able to use it “sometime before the spring rains show up. That would be ideal.”

The influx of new weapons, tanks and armored carriers comes as Ukraine faces intense combat in the country’s east around the city of Bakhmut and the nearby salt mining town of Soledar. The battles are expected to intensify in the spring.

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Associated Press writer Joanna Kozlowska in London contributed to this report. Copp reported from Washington.

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