US Abrams tanks heading to Germany, where Ukrainian troops will train to use them
Stars and Stripes April 21, 2023
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The United States is delivering Abrams tanks next month to the Army’s sprawling base in Grafenwoehr, where it will train Ukrainian soldiers to use them in their fight against Russia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday.
The announcement came at a meeting of the Ukraine Contact Defense Group, where NATO leaders also said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will attend a pivotal heads of state summit in Lithuania this summer, a move that indicates more advanced alliance support may be on the way.
A total of 31 training tanks will arrive at Grafenwoehr Training Area in Bavaria at the end of May, and the troops will start training a couple of weeks later, U.S. officials said. Training will last about 10 weeks.
“Our common efforts have made a huge difference to Ukraine's defenders on the battlefield,” Austin said Friday. “And they underscore just how badly the Kremlin miscalculated.”
Ukraine’s requests for Western battle tanks were rebuffed at a Ramstein contact group meeting in January, but allies came to an agreement soon afterward that included a package of M1 Abrams and European-made tanks.
“I do think the M1 tank, when it’s delivered, will make a difference,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Friday.
However, Milley cautioned that “there’s no silver bullet in war,” which is full of variables and requires the right mix of combined forces on the battlefield.
Also on Friday, Germany and Poland signed an agreement to create a maintenance hub for tanks used in Ukraine.
The delivery of up to 80 Leopard 1A5 battle tanks by midyear is progressing rapidly, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said.
Germany will begin training 100 Ukrainian troops on the Leopard this weekend, Pistorius added. The training is a joint project between Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Besides tanks, Zelenskyy has asked repeatedly for Western fighter jets, which until now have been ruled out by President Joe Biden and other leaders concerned about the war’s escalation beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Milley and other U.S. officials have continued to advocate that Ukraine rely on artillery and more cost-effective air defense tactics against Russian planes.
“Russians are cautious to come into Ukraine because of the effective use of the Ukrainian air defense system,” said Milley, who said the system must be effective at multiple altitudes and ranges.
“That was the theme of this entire day – air defense, air defense, air defense,” Milley said.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, meanwhile, said he remains optimistic that fighter jets such as U.S. F-16s will be part of “the next stage” of aid to Ukraine. It’s last on his wish list, he added, but “I think it will be done.”
Esa Pulkkinen, permanent secretary for the defense ministry of Finland, NATO’s newest member, said Friday that he expected Western fighter jets to be a part of Ukraine’s forces eventually.
“Whether that time is now or later, that’s kind of the speculative question,” Pulkkinen said.
The subject is likely to come up at this summer’s NATO summit in Vilnius. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with Zelenskyy on Thursday during what was the alliance leader’s first visit to Kyiv, he told reporters Friday at Ramstein.
Zelenskyy accepted the invitation to the summit, though Stoltenberg didn’t say whether Zelenskyy would attend virtually or in person, given the unknowns about the war.
“No one can tell today when this war ends,” Stoltenberg said. “We need to be prepared for the long haul. That’s why NATO allies have said we will stand by Ukraine as long as it takes.”
Ukrainian officials have previously said in different ways that Zelenskyy’s interest in attending the summit was tied to requests for more advanced weaponry — or to concrete steps toward NATO membership.
Allies agree that Ukraine should be a NATO member, Stoltenberg said, not only for its future security but for that of Europe. However, Ukraine first must win its fight, he said.
“If Ukraine doesn’t prevail, there’s no meaning in discussing membership,” Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg joined leaders of more than 50 countries at Ramstein for the round of discussions on how best to support Ukraine.
Besides discussions on high-impact weaponry, the leaders also stressed the importance of ensuring that Ukraine has the logistical capabilities it needs, including the means to move battle tanks, spare parts, fuel and ammunition.
“This is now a battle of attrition,” Stoltenberg said. “And a battle of attrition becomes a war of logistics.”
The contact group has met 11 times since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The first meeting was at Ramstein a year ago.
In his opening remarks, Austin reiterated Wednesday’s Pentagon announcement of an additional $325 million in military equipment and weapons for Ukraine.
Austin said the latest round of security aid, which includes more ammunition for U.S.-provided HIMARS and anti-armor capabilities, brings the U.S. contribution to Ukraine’s defense to $35 billion since last year.
Overall, members of the contact group have provided $55 billion to Ukraine, a tenfold increase since the first meeting at Ramstein, Austin said.
Recent contributions include the equipment and training to support nine more armored brigades, advanced battle tanks such as the Leopard 2 from Germany and Patriot missile systems.
Austin briefly addressed the recent leak of Pentagon classified documents, a number of which were related to the Russia-Ukraine war.
Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guard member, was arrested last week and charged under the Espionage Act in connection with the breach.
“I take this issue very seriously,” he said. Speaking to allies and partners about the matter, Austin said, “I’ve been struck by your solidarity, and your commitment to reject efforts to divide us.
“We will not let anything fracture our unity,” Austin said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Alexander Riedel contributed to this report.