(Bloomberg) -- As recently as last week, US officials insisted the M1 Abrams tank was a bad fit for Ukraine. Yet on Wednesday, President Joe Biden reversed course and offered 31 of them, saying the 70-ton vehicle would “enhance Ukraine’s capacity to defend its territory.”
The switch shows how, nearly a year into Russia’s war, keeping NATO unified remains paramount among the alliance’s leaders. Facing pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Germany refused to send its battle tank, the Leopard, without other allies doing the same.
Biden had to relent.
The US and German decisions, both announced Wednesday “are driven as much by politics as military strategy,” George Beebe, a former CIA analyst and Russia adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, said in a note. “Washington and Berlin’s compromise is aimed at preventing a rift in the NATO alliance.”
So it’s been over the course of the conflict, where debate over weapons has fallen into a familiar pattern: Ukraine asks for a new, more powerful system to strike back at Russia, allied officials balk, a debate gets underway, and then NATO capitals relent.
Scholz Gets US Tank Pact He Wanted and a Bucketload of Criticism
The tanks were so important to Zelenskiy that he mentioned his desire for them in a speech to Congress just before Christmas.
This time, the debate was especially acute and led to a level of frustration at Germany from US officials that surpassed previous discussions, according to people familiar with the American stance. Biden administration officials argued that the Abrams requires special fuel and depends on a massive chain of logistical and maintenance support. Germany’s Leopard 2 was in plentiful supply and readily available, stockpiled in several European nations.
At the same time, the US was unwilling to share its own stocks, meaning that the tanks will have to be bought and built. General Dynamics Corp., which produces the tank at a plant in Lima, Ohio, can construct them partly from old models, but US officials acknowledge it will be many months before they’re ready to get to Ukraine.
During a meeting in the Oval Office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed sending Abrams tanks as a long-term proposition to unlock commitments from Germany.
With winter grinding on, Russia has also been massing troops in Ukraine — as many as 300,000 now from 150,000 several weeks ago. Analysts believe the buildup is part of a potential spring offensive. In the end, the US made the calculation that getting the Abrams tanks to Ukraine on time didn’t matter so long as promising them for some future date would persuade German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to send Leopards now.
Biden laughed off a question about whether Germany forced his hand, saying “Germany didn’t force me to change my mind. We wanted to make sure we were all together. And that’s what we were going to do all along, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Agonizing Over Ukraine, Europe Risks Stumbling Into Another War
Western discussions over the Abrams also reflected deeper divides among North Atlantic Treaty Organization members about Ukrainian strategy. One official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity Wednesday, said the consensus in many European capitals was to help Ukraine make gains on the battlefield and compel Russia to negotiate.
But others, like the UK, have argued that sending battle tanks to Ukraine could help it overrun Russian lines and possibly end the war as early as this year. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly suggested as much during a visit to the US last week, when he indicated that the UK decision to provide Challenger 2 tanks was part of a push to end the war faster.
“This war’s been dragging on for a long time already, and now is the time to bring it to a conclusion,” he told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
With tanks now out of the way, one US official said the debate would now turn to other items on Ukraine’s wish list, such as fighter jets and the Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS. That in turn will add fuel to an already raging debate over the dangers of giving Ukraine weapons capable of striking within Russia. Such a move could lead the Russians to target weapons depots and other support infrastructure inside NATO nations such as Poland.
A French official downplayed the possibility of fighter jets, citing the complexity of the aircraft. Still, the person acknowledged that the terms of security assistance to Zelenskiy’s forces have shifted several times already.
“Having now pocketed modern tanks, Zelenskiy will no doubt return to his successful playbook to pressure allies for more, including longer-range fires and fighter jets,” Christopher Skaluba, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, said in a note. “I suspect this dynamic contributed to the brake-pumping we saw from Berlin, which is wary of a slippery slope to meeting any and all of Ukraine’s materiel requests.”
--With assistance from Roxana Tiron and Tony Capaccio.
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