By Gareth Evans
The US will send 31 powerful battle tanks to Ukraine, joining Germany in sending the vehicles to support the fight against Russia’s invasion.
The decision to deliver the M1 Abrams tanks was announced just hours after Germany said it would send 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks to the battlefield.
Berlin also cleared the way for other European countries to send German-made tanks from their own stocks.
Ukraine has lobbied Western allies to send the military equipment for months.
It hailed the twin announcements as a turning point that would allow its military to regain momentum and take back occupied territory almost a year after Moscow invaded. It also said the tanks could help deter a potential Russian offensive in the spring.
“An important step on the path to victory,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said. “Today the free world is united as never before for a common goal – liberation of Ukraine.”
Russia, meanwhile, condemned the moves as a “blatant provocation” and said any supplied tanks would be destroyed. “These tanks burn like all the rest. They are just very expensive,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said.
“Putin expected Europe and the United States to weaken our resolve,” President Joe Biden said while announcing the decision at the White House on Wednesday. “He was wrong from the beginning and he continues to be wrong.”
“We’re also giving Ukraine the parts and equipment necessary to effectively sustain these tanks in battle,” he said. “This is about helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land. It is not an offensive threat to Russia.”
A Ukrainian tank battalion typically consists of 31 tanks, which is why that number has been agreed upon, Mr Biden said.
The US decision, however, marks a reversal in their position as the Biden administration has insisted for some time that the heavy M1 Abrams tanks would be difficult to deliver, expensive to maintain and challenging for Ukrainian troops to operate.
The US-made military vehicle is one of the most modern battle tanks in the world and requires extensive training to operate. The $400m (£323m) American package also includes eight recovery vehicles that can tow the tanks if they become stuck.
However, because they will be purchased from private contractors rather than being sent from an existing stockpile, it is likely to be many months before the tanks arrive on the battlefield, according to experts.
However, the German-built Leopard 2 tanks will be taken from existing stock and should show up in two to three months. They are frequently regarded as one of the most potent battle tanks on the market.
After weeks of diplomatic back and forth, the decision was made to send the powerful weapons. Germany was under increasing pressure from other countries to send the tanks, and there are rumors that the US’s participation in the move was a requirement for Germany’s final decision.
On condition of anonymity, a senior US official said earlier on Wednesday that both sides took part in “good diplomatic conversations” that made the difference and contributed to the “extraordinary shift in Germany’s security policy.”
John Kirby, the national security spokesman, responded when asked if the US decision was intended to give Germany cover to send tanks: “I wouldn’t say “cover,” though. This choice demonstrates how allied we are with our allies.”
Without going into more detail, he attributed the shift in Washington’s position to both the actual situation and Russia’s strategy.
Mr Kirby also said the decision was based on the “kinds of fighting… that we believe the Ukrainians are going to need to be capable of in the weeks and months ahead”.
Ukrainian crews would soon be trained to use the Leopard tanks in Germany, officials in Berlin said. Mr Biden said troops would be trained to use the American-made tanks “as soon as possible” but added that delivering them would take time.
While the acquisition of tanks from the West will be considered a diplomatic coup for President Volodymyr Zelensky, he said on Tuesday that his country required at least 300 of them to defeat Russia.
Several European countries have Leopard 2 tanks in their stocks, and the German decision means some of these can also be sent to Ukraine. Germany hopes around 90 will ultimately be delivered to the battlefield.
Norway announced later on Wednesday that it would send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, but did not specify how many it would deliver.