Ukraine’s president has pleaded with Germany and western allies to send their battle tanks to Kyiv, amid speculation that Berlin would allow German-made Leopard 2s to be re-exported by other countries but not necessarily send any of its own stock.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, speaking via video link at the opening of a meeting of Ukraine-supporting defence ministers from 50 countries in Ramstein, Germany, said it was “in your power” to at least make a decision in principle to send tanks.
Urgent action was necessary, the Ukrainian leader added in a video link address, because “Russia is concentrating its forces, last forces trying to convince everyone that hatred can be stronger than the world”.
It was necessary as a result to “speed up” weapons supplies, Zelenskiy said, because the war with Russia amounted to a battle between freedom and autocracy. “It is about what kind of world people will live in, people who dream, love and hope,” he added.
Berlin is at the centre of the supply debate because it has yet to allow the re-export any of the 2,000 plus German-made Leopard 2 tanks held by Nato countries, holding out for the US to agree to send some of its own Abrams tanks in addition.
The US argues its Abrams tanks, which run on a jet engine, are fuel-inefficient and so difficult to supply, but earlier this week the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, asked the US president, Joe Biden, to send US tanks in return for sending its own Leopard tanks.
Prior to the Ramstein gathering, Germany’s newly appointed defence minister, Boris Pistorius, said his country’s willingness to deliver tanks to Ukraine would not depend on whether the US was prepared to do the same. Speaking to German media, Pistorius said “such a deal is not something I’m aware of”.
German commentators interpreted the presentation of a differing stance between Pistorius and Scholz as a possible tactic to help the chancellor to withdraw from his position, which has been presented as stubborn and unrealistic by Washington and London, and which has also drawn scorn at home.
Pistorius is expected to come under huge pressure at the Ramstein meeting to bow to demands for the Leopard 2s to be released.
Speaking to German television on Thursday evening, he said: “I am fairly sure that in the next few days we will get a decision on this. How it will look, I cannot tell you right now.” But he stressed that Germany was only going to act in agreement with the US “as it has in the previous months”.
There is growing speculation, reinforced by Pistorius’s remarks, that Germany may well allow export licences to be issued to European owners of the Leopard 2. But, in a compromise, Berlin would withhold Leopard tanks from its own army.
Earlier this week, Poland, one of the countries keen to give Kyiv some of its Leopard 2s, said it may go ahead without seeking Germany’s approval. Finland has also said it wants to hand some of its Leopards to Ukraine. Germany has 321 active Leopard tanks in active service, plus another 255 in storage, out of a Nato total of more than 2,300.
Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, made a veiled reference on Friday to the tanks standoff at the beginning of the Ramstein meeting, urging Germany and other western allies to go further to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion.
“Russia is regrouping, recruiting and trying to re equip. This is not a moment to slow down. It’s a time to dig deeper,” Austin said. “But Ukrainian people are watching us. The Kremlin is watching us and history is watching us. So we won’t let up.”
Austin also announced a fresh $2.5bn military aid package to Ukraine, including 59 more Bradley fighting vehicles, on top of 50 already announced earlier this month, and 90 Stryker eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers and 350 Humvees.
But he made no direct reference to battle tanks, implying the subject would be a matter for discussion during the day-long meeting at the US airbase in Germany. It is expected to break up at about 4.30pm local time.