Ukraine’s allies are speeding up delivery of heavy weaponry to Kyiv and increasing pressure on Germany so the latter will approve the export of the long-awaited German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks, which some European countries have shown a willingness to deliver.
On Thursday, nine members of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) – Estonia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Slovakia – pledged to make an “unprecedented set of donations” to help Ukrainian forces push back Russian troops, rather than just resisting the invasion. The Tallinn Pledge, signed after a meeting of defense officials from those countries at the Tapa army base in Estonia, promised to deliver main battle tanks, heavy artillery, air defense systems, ammunition and infantry fighting vehicles.
The statement also said that these representatives will “urge other Allies and partners to follow suit and contribute their own planned packages of support as soon as possible” when they meet with their colleagues on Friday at a key gathering of 50 officials of the Ukraine Defense Group at the Ramstein military base in Germany, where they are expected to coordinate future military support measures. “The West must remain united and continue to support Ukraine with military aid,” Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said at a news conference on Thursday with his British counterpart, Ben Wallace, and other senior Western defense officials.
Ukraine is confident that the Ramstein meeting on Friday will mark the start of a new phase of military support from the West with first-rate combat weapons, including heavy tanks and high-precision missiles. “We recognize that equipping Ukraine to push Russia out of its territory is as important as equipping them to defend what they already have. Together we will continue supporting Ukraine to move from resisting to expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil,” said the Tallinn statement on Thursday.
A sense of urgency is setting in ahead of Russia’s expected springtime offensive, and the messages of support for greater military aid have been multiplying among European leaders. On Thursday, European Council President Charles Michel made an unannounced trip to Ukraine where he addressed parliament, the Rada, and met with President Zelenskiy to discuss EU-Ukraine cooperation.
“The coming weeks and months will be decisive. You need more. More air defense systems, more long-range missiles and ammunition and, most of all, you need tanks. Right now,” said Michel in his speech to parliament, summarizing an increasingly popular position that puts added pressure on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has so far been reluctant to release the Leopard 2 tanks that countries like Poland and Finland want to send.
Military aid from the United States, the United Kingdom and EU members of NATO has been essential for Ukraine to withstand the Russian onslaught. Artillery, armored infantry vehicles, anti-tank rocket launchers and anti-aircraft batteries provided by the West have allowed the country to hold its own. But the war is going on a year now and taking its toll on the Ukrainian Armed Forces, who are struggling with an alarming lack of ammunition and largely working with Soviet-era weapons that are no longer being manufactured. In addition, the Soviet armored vehicles with which Ukraine has fought to date are showing enormous wear, as they have been in operation since 2014, when the conflict in the eastern Donbas region began.
After several days of intense internal and external pressure for Chancellor Scholz to either supply or allow the export of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Berlin has noted that it will only do so if the United States also gets involved and sends its own Abrams tanks. So far, Washington is not keen on this option. “The Abrams tank is very complicated; it’s expensive; it’s hard to train on,” said the US Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy, Colin Kahl, on Wednesday. The Abrams are also on the other side of the Atlantic: the Leopard 2 tanks, on the other hand, are sitting in the warehouses of a dozen European countries close to Ukraine.
On the question of military support for Kyiv, Scholz is sticking to the same defensive and risk-averse position that has defined German security policy in recent decades. The chancellor fears an escalation of the conflict if German tanks are used on the battlefield. On Wednesday, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he said that Germany will not act alone. “We are never doing something just by ourselves, but together with others, especially the US, which is very important in this common task to defend the Ukrainian independence and sovereignty,” he said.
Among some European partners, patience is wearing thin. Poland, which stated a few days ago that it wanted to send 14 Leopard 2 units to Ukraine, is now saying that it might not wait any longer. Its prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has hinted that Warsaw could deliver the German tanks without waiting for German approval, even though it is contractually required to do so. “We will either get this agreement quickly, or we will do the right thing ourselves,” he told Polsat News television on his way back from Davos.
Aware of the importance of the Ramstein gathering, Ukraine’s Zelenskiy appealed directly to the German people in an interview on ARD public television on Thursday night. “It is not good to look to other countries for possible deliveries of arms instead of one’s own possibilities,” he said. Western countries, he added, could discuss the supply of tanks to Ukraine for another six months, “but we die every day.”
“If you have Leopards, then give them to us!” he pleaded.
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