President Biden announced Wednesday that the US will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, reversing the Pentagon’s stated opposition late last week — though Kyiv won’t be able to fully utilise the vehicles for months.
“The Abrams tanks are the most capable tanks in the world,” Biden said in remarks from the White House. “These tanks are further evidence of our enduring and unflagging commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the skill of Ukrainian forces.”
The decision comes after months of deliberations as Ukraine pleaded for tanks ahead of a renewed Russian offensive expected this spring. The highly maneuverable tanks are expected to help Kyiv fight across the flat plains that make up its Donbas region, where Moscow has captured territory.
“With spring approaching, Ukrainian forces are working to defend the territory they hold and prepared for additional counter offenses to liberate their land,” Biden said. “They need to be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term.”
But it will likely be another year before Ukraine receives the M1s, as they will not come from Pentagon stocks, White House officials said. Instead, the US will buy them with congressionally approved Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds – meaning it will take time to procure, package and send the weapons to Europe.
“Delivering these tanks to the field is going to take time – time that we’ll use to make sure the Ukrainians are fully prepared to integrate the Abrams tanks into their defenses,” Biden said.
Biden said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – who expressed hesitation to reporters about sending American tanks just five days ago – suggested dispatching the M1s because it will “enhance Ukraine’s capacity to defend his territory and achieve its strategic objectives.”
“Armored capability, as [Secretary] Austin will tell you, has been critical,” he said. “They need to improve their ability to maneuver on open terrain, and they need an enduring capability to deter and defend against Russian aggression over the long term.”
However, Biden clarified that sending the tanks is “not an offensive threat to Russia.”
“If Russian troops return to Russia, they’ll be where they belong,” the president said. “This war would be over today. That’s what we all want – an end to this war.”
The announcement came six days after Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said “it just doesn’t make sense to provide [M1s] to the Ukrainians at this moment” because it uses a gas-turbine engine that runs on jet fuel.
However, Biden administration officials said the US will also send 8 AM-88 recovery vehicles with the tanks, which could help tow M1s that run out of gas.
“These are the vehicles that go with the Abrams to be able to provide coverage after operations to make sure that the Ukrainians will be able to keep these Abrams up and running over,” the official said.
Because it’s a foreign system, Ukrainian troops will have to leave the battlefield to learn how to use and maintain the tanks, Biden said. The US is still coordinating its training plan, but it will not take place inside Ukraine.
“We will begin to train the Ukrainian troops on these issues of sustainment, logistics and maintenance as soon as possible,” Biden said.
The US announcement comes the same day German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced his government would send Ukraine 14 Leopard 2 battle tanks — enough to outfit one company — and approve other nations’ requests to do the same after weeks of hesitation.
It’s unclear when Germany’s tanks will be delivered to Ukraine, but the Pentagon has said Leopard tanks are a better fit for Ukraine’s battle because, unlike the M1s, they use engines that run on diesel, which is easier to send downfield.
Ultimately, Germany and its allies aim to provide Ukraine with 88 of the German-made Leopards, which will outfit two battalions. Once delivered, the 31 US tanks will make up an additional battalion, the officials said.
In his Wednesday speech, Biden thanked Germany for the donation, saying Scholz “will lead an effort to organize a European contribution to tank battalions for Ukraine.”
“Germany has really stepped up,” he said. “The chancellor has been a strong, strong voice for unity – a close friend.”
The synchronized timing is conspicuous, as German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius denied multiple reports last week that Berlin was holding out for the US to send M1s before contributing its Leopard tanks.
The same day, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin doubled down on Pistorius’ remarks, saying the Pentagon only considers sending weapons as a way to “provide capability” –not as diplomatic ploys.
“We don’t do things or employ capabilities as a notion, you know, for anything other than providing credible combat capability,” he said. “And that’s where our focus will be in the future.”
But the White House officials said Wednesday’s announcement “follows continued diplomatic conversations that we’ve been having over the last few weeks,” including talks held by Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley “with their German and European counterparts.”
“President Biden will be or had spoken with Chancellor Scholz several times this month to coordinate on security assistance to Ukraine,” the official said.
Another official said Scholz’s decision “really was a product of good diplomatic conversations.”
“We are certainly very appreciative of Chancellor Scholz’s announcement today,” the official said. “It really is remarkable if you look back over the last year to see the extraordinary shift in Germany’s security policy.”
Feb. 24 will mark one year since Moscow invaded the country, with both sides suffering more than 100,000 estimated casualties each. Biden called Russia’s war “truly brutal aggression,” the likes of which he hasn’t seen “in a long time.”
The White House announced that Biden had spoken with Scholz, French President Emanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni ahead of a noon address at the White House.