By Dan Lamothe
January 20, 2023
The Washington Post
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged dozens of defense ministers on Friday to look for new ways to help Ukraine fend off the nearly year-old Russian invasion threatening its existence, amid a seemingly unresolved rift over who will supply the government in Kyiv with battle tanks ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. “We need to keep our momentum and resolve,” Austin said in opening remarks at the meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group of countries supporting Kyiv. “We need to dig even deeper.”
The remarks came as Germany has declined to provide its powerful Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and indicated it would stop other nations owning the German-made weapons from doing so as well. Its permission is required, according to export agreements with those countries, but Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wednesday that he will send 14 of the Leopard tanks to Ukraine regardless of whether Germany approves.
The situation has marked a rare open dispute in a coalition that has held together for months as Russia pursues its invasion and Ukraine makes regular pleas for more weapons. Many countries have in turn provided increasingly sophisticated and powerful arms, as the Ukrainian military demonstrates ferocity and professionalism.
The United States announced another sprawling $2.5 billion package of military aid on Thursday night, including 59 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and 90 Stryker fighting vehicles.
It is the first time the United States has included Strykers in the nearly $27 billion in military assistance that the Biden administration has approved since Russia’s February 2022 invasion.
But the new package of U.S. weapons does not include the main American battle tank, the M1 Abrams — something that Ukraine has requested and Germany has said is required for it to provide its Leopards so that it would not be the sole provider of heavy armor.
Senior U.S. defense officials have said that it makes no sense to send the Abrams, a logistical burden that is difficult to maintain and runs on hard-to-supply JP-8 jet fuel. Leopards run on easier-to-source diesel.
Austin did not address the issue directly in his opening remarks, but said that this is a decisive moment for Ukraine and that countries rallying to Kyiv’s aid “will support Ukraine’s self-defense for as long as it takes.”
Austin cast Russia’s invasion as increasingly hapless, saying that Moscow is running out of ammunition, suffering “significant battlefield losses” and turning to just a few partners that it has left for help. “Even Iran and North Korea won’t admit that they are supplying Russia.” The Pentagon chief warned that Russia is trying to recruit, regroup and re-equip. “This is not a moment to slow down,” Austin said. “The Ukrainian people are watching us. The Kremlin is watching us. And history is watching us.”
Austin was followed at the meeting by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who spoke remotely from Kyiv. He thanked the ministers for their support and urged them to move with alacrity, saying they face a “common enemy.” “Terror does not allow for discussion,” he said. “Time remains a Russian weapon.”
Zelensky added that the defense ministers are “strong people from strong countries,” and asked them to find a way to send F-16s, long-range weapons and a “principled supply” of tanks. “The Kremlin,” he said, “must lose.”
The provision of heavy weapons by the West comes as Ukraine openly broadcasts that it will launch a new, muscular counteroffensive in coming months against Russian units, many of which are deeply dug into fighting positions that include a network of trenches and antitank obstacles.
For the first time, the United States last weekend began training a battalion of more than 600 Ukrainian forces at the U.S. Army’s Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, advising them on how to best integrate tanks, artillery and other advanced weapons to go on the offensive in what the U.S. military terms combined-arms warfare.
White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week in a conference call that the training goes “hand-in-hand” with the provision of tanks to Ukraine. Zelensky, he said, is “no doubt” seeking to add tanks because they are a “big part” of mechanized maneuver operations. “We believe that the provision of modern tanks will significantly help and improve the Ukrainians’ ability to fight where they’re fighting now and fight more effectively going forward,” Kirby said. Ukraine has kept some of its old, Soviet-era T-72 tanks in the war, he added, but there is a “finite limit” to how long that can last.
As Ukraine builds up its armor, its military leaders have shown professionalism and discipline by not overcommitting resources too soon, said Ben Hodges, a retired general and former commander of U.S. Army Europe. The main effort for Ukraine, he said, is likely to be an effort to cut off and then take back Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia seized and annexed in 2014.
Hodges said that Ukraine wants to build the equivalent of a full armored division, a formation that typically includes 10,000 to 15,000 troops. It must be trained and prepared to serve as the “breakthrough formation” in the next major counteroffensive, he added.
Ukraine in the next few months will probably attempt to set the conditions for the liberation of Crimea, first through long-range strikes and then with an armored offensive designed to cut ground routes from Crimea back to Russia, Hodges said. That, coupled with additional long-range strikes against vulnerable Russian facilities and units in Crimea, could make it untenable for Russian forces to stay.
Kyiv would still benefit from the United States providing Gray Eagle drones, small-diameter bombs and the long-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), Hodges said, but such weapons have not been approved.
Obtaining more air defense is still Ukraine’s top priority, said Kori Schake, a defense analyst who has visited Kyiv. While Russia has not been able to establish air dominance over Ukraine, the government in Kyiv is running short of air defenses and Western allies are beginning to run short in supplying them, she said.
Ukraine also still has challenges in carrying out long-range strikes, Schake added. The United States has shortages of weapons it can offer, beyond the policy restrictions that the Biden administration has imposed on sending such weapons, she said.
Dan Lamothe joined The Washington Post in 2014 to cover the U.S. military. He has written about the Armed Forces for 15 years, traveling extensively, embedding with each service and covering combat in Afghanistan. His reporting about the 2021 attack on the Capitol was part of a project that earned the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Twitter