Ukraine is asking urgently for modern tanks to help their forces seize on rapid gains in the northeast and take additional territory, but the West is dragging its feet, according to seven people with knowledge of the matter.
The tanks have shot to the top of Kyiv’s wish list as Ukraine presses its gains in the eastern Donbas region amid the shocking Russian collapse this month. The request took on new urgency this week after Vladimir Putin announced that he would mobilize 300,000 additional troops for the fight in Ukraine, a major escalation of the campaign.
The more modern American-made M-1 Abrams and German-made Leopard tanks would add a powerful punch that could help Kyiv’s forces capture and hold more ground, compared to the old Soviet-era tanks they currently operate, say experts and Ukrainian advisers. But top national security officials in both countries have hesitated to provide the tanks, in part due to the training and logistics challenges involved, according to U.S. officials, Ukrainian advisers and congressional aides.
The M-1s, for example, are a completely different system than the Soviet-era tanks Ukraine currently operates, and require significant maintenance and logistics support.
“It’s a pretty high hurdle to get Ukraine not only U.S.-made tanks but the parts to maintain them,” said one U.S. official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing conversations. “You don’t want to give them something that’s going to break down and run out of gas and they can’t refuel them.”
For the immediate fight, the Leopards might be a better fit because they are similar to the tanks Ukraine already operates and require less fuel than the Abrams, the official said. But Germany has repeatedly rejected Ukraine’s request for the tanks, with Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht recently saying Berlin has agreed with NATO partners not to take such action “unilaterally.”
This debate over tanks is the latest skirmish in the back-and-forth over weapons between the West and Ukraine. At each step, the U.S. hesitated for months before providing a certain weapon – first the Stinger anti-air missiles, then later the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System – concerned they would be a “red line” that would risk provoking Russia into a new escalation, only to change their mind and transfer the weapons as the war evolved and battlefield needs changed.
In this case, Western-style tanks would provide a major upgrade to Kyiv’s armored force in terms of range, speed and fire control, allowing Ukrainian forces to hit a Russian target up to a mile and a half away and move before the enemy can shoot back, said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe.
But the training required and the logistical tail — an M-1 division can consume up to 600,000 gallons of fuel a day — could hinder Ukraine’s movement, he cautioned.
“These are not rental cars, there’s a lot that goes with it,” Hodges said. “You are basically adding hundreds of additional things that would have to be carried along. … You look at a U.S. Army tank company today, there are thousands of gallons of fuel following behind them every day.”
Kyiv’s request for Western-style tanks predates the most recent counteroffensive and Russia’s withdrawal from much of eastern Ukraine. But in the last two weeks, senior U.S. officials have discussed with European allies, including Germany, the possibility of sending tanks to the fight, according to a senior U.S. official and an individual familiar with the matter.
“It’s top of their list now, it didn’t used to be,” said one congressional staffer familiar with the request. “They are trying to retake territory and tanks are helpful for doing that.”
One adviser to the Ukrainian government said “the Ukrainians definitely want the Leopards” and have been frustrated that Germany has denied the permits to Spain and other countries that were willing to donate them. The Leopard tank is one of the most in-demand main battle tanks in Europe, in use in over a dozen countries.
NATO countries have been providing Ukraine with Soviet-era tanks and fighting vehicles over the course of the conflict, led by Poland, which donated about 250 T-72 tanks this spring. Warsaw inked a $1.1 billion deal in July to buy 250 of the most modern Abrams tanks to replace them.
The Germans have been backfilling smaller countries that are sending their own armored vehicles to Ukraine, and in May pledged to transfer 15 Leopards from their own stocks to the Czech Republic after they sent their own Russian-made armor to Kyiv. In August, Berlin agreed to send another 15 Leopards to Slovakia to replace the 30 armored infantry fighting vehicles they donated. Several countries, including Spain, requested German permission to hand their tanks over to Ukraine, but were denied the permits as Berlin continues to struggle with its longstanding policy of refusing to export arms to conflict zones.
German defense company Rheinmetall also requested government approval to export 88 Leopard tanks to Ukraine, but Berlin refused to grant permission.
Modern tanks could make a significant difference on the battlefield heading into the winter, as Putin readies the additional 300,000 troops for deployment. Experts said it’s not clear yet how long it will take Moscow to train and equip the troops for the fight, particularly as they have a mix of combat experience.
Speaking at a defense industry conference in Texas on Wednesday, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Volodymyr Havrylov said “winter also is a window of opportunity for [our] military,” and equipped with the “right armament and equipment, we can also succeed more during the wintertime.”
Before heading to Texas, Havrylov spent several days in Washington meeting with Pentagon and defense industry officials about what Ukraine is looking for in the coming months. He warned that while “some people here and in Europe still think that Russia is a sleeping bear, but in fact it is a frightened jackal in a bear's skin.”
The call-up of former Russian soldiers back into the military won’t likely have any effect on the battlefield for months, but it has roiled Russian society. One-way flights out of Russia are selling out following the announcement, as ordinary Russians head for the exits, and videos show mass protests against the mobilization across the country.
The former Russian soldiers are poorly trained to begin with, as Russian mandatory military service is only one year, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War. The skills they do learn degrade over time as they get no “refresher training.”
“The partial mobilization announcement lacks clarity and will lack meaningful impact,” Hodges said. “It will be many months before they can be properly equipped and trained and organized/deployed to Ukraine. And without massive artillery support, these new soldiers will be pure cannon fodder, sitting in cold, wet trenches this winter as Ukrainian forces continue to press.”
Russia’s mobilization “is a debacle” for the Kremlin, said Dara Massicot, a Russian military expert at the RAND Corporation, and former Pentagon official.
Putting involuntary call-ups “piecemeal into units that are already significantly degraded, and putting them into a situation where the morale is already poor,” will likely only add to the moral and unit cohesion problems plaguing the Russian army, Massicot said.
“It's not fixing their problems, it's accelerating it.”
In the long-term, the U.S. recognizes there may come a day when Ukraine will need to transition to tanks compatible with NATO allies, said a senior Defense Department official. But for now, Soviet-era tanks are the best fit.
“Tanks are absolutely on the table along with other areas,” the official said. “In terms of the immediate fight, the tanks that are available that could be provided very quickly with little to no training are Soviet-type tanks, but we're certainly open to other options provided that the training, maintenance and sustainment can be taken care of.”
Bryan Bender contributed to this report.