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The US and Germany are sending M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in a major show of support for Kiev

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CNN

The leaders of the United States and Germany announced each Wednesday that they will send contingents of tanks to Ukraine, reversing their long-standing apprehension about supplying Kiev with armored offensive vehicles and unleashing powerful new tools in Ukraine’s efforts to retake territory seized from Russia.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement that he will send Leopard 2 tanks was combined with an announcement by US President Joe Biden that he was delivering 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, reversing the administration’s longstanding resistance to requests from Kiev for the very sophisticated but maintenance. – heavy vehicles.

The twin announcements were a watershed moment that followed weeks of intense pressure on Berlin from some of its NATO allies. The decisions were the result of protracted diplomacy between Germany, the United States and other European allies, and come as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky prepares for a new Russian offensive this spring.

From the White House, Biden said the tanks would “enhance Ukraine’s capacity to defend its territory and achieve its strategic objectives” in both the short and long term.

And while touting the tanks’ ability to help Ukraine “receive Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield,” Biden insisted they should not be seen by Moscow as an “offensive threat.”

“This is not an offensive threat to Russia. There is no offensive threat to Russia if Russian troops return to Russia where they belong,” he said.

Earlier, Scholz told lawmakers in the German parliament that the decision to send Leopard 2 tanks had come after consultations with Western allies.

“It is true that we moved forward little by little. It is the only principle that can work in such dangerous conditions,” he said.

The dispute over whether the Germans would send Leopards to support Ukraine threatened to show some of the first cracks in the united Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the announcement from Scholz and Biden shows that the US and its allies are still working in lockstep when it comes to supporting President Volodymyr Zelensky and his nation’s fight against the Russians.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN’s Kate Bolduan on “At This Hour” that the German and U.S. decisions were “important announcements” and that he “welcomed U.S. leadership” to make them happen.

“It will significantly strengthen their combat capability,” Stoltenberg said of the effect the tanks will have on Ukraine’s military.

The US decision to supply Abrams tanks to Ukraine represents an abrupt reversal from its previously stated position. While the Biden administration had never taken the possibility of sending U.S. tanks completely off the table, U.S. officials said publicly last week that it was not the right time to send the 70-ton M-1 Abrams tanks because they are expensive and requires a significant amount of training to operate.

Instead, the idea was repeatedly floated as a long-term option — even as critics said the timing was right as Ukraine prepares for the possibility that Russia will mobilize more troops and launch a new offensive. Zelensky has consistently asked Western allies for modern tanks as his country braces for an expected major Russian counter-offensive this spring.

But after intensive diplomacy with Germany, which had made it clear that it would only send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine if the US offered the Abrams, Biden has announced the delivery of the vehicles. The 31 Abrams will form a complete Ukrainian tank battalion.

“Abrams tanks are the best in the world. This is a huge new capability that Ukraine will get to strengthen its long-term defense,” said a senior administration official, noting that the tanks will be procured through Ukraine’s Security Assistance Initiative funding.

Biden spoke by phone Wednesday with Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to discuss continued military support for Ukraine. U.S. officials said maintaining unity among the Western alliance was a critical consideration as Biden and his team approached sending the Abrams tanks.

The Abrams tanks will take months to arrive, senior administration officials said, and will require extensive training of Ukrainian troops on how to operate and service them. The United States must navigate complicated supply chains for the components required for tanks.

The procurement process will take months, the officials said, although Germany’s leopards will arrive in the shorter term. Meanwhile, the US will begin a “comprehensive training program” for the Ukrainians on the Abrams, which will require significant maintenance once deployed. The training will take place outside of Ukraine.

The U.S. is also acquiring eight M88 recovery vehicles, the second official said, which will help “keep the Abrams tanks going.”

Ahead of the president’s announcement, senior U.S. officials framed the decision as an investment in Ukraine’s “long-term capabilities,” an indication that the administration sees the now 11-month-old war stretching far into the future. Ukraine hopes the new tanks can help it recapture territory seized by Russia, including in Donbas. It could also include Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.

“We’ve been talking about tanks internally, and we’ve certainly been talking about tanks externally, with allies and partners, for quite some time, given what we expect will be the kind of battles that will take place in the weeks and months ahead.” an official said.

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Still, officials acknowledged that the challenges of providing Ukraine with the Abrams tanks were still steep.

“There are technical aspects of the Abrams that make it a little more challenging than some systems that we’ve provided to Ukraine in the past,” a senior official said. “It’s the most capable tank in the world, but it’s also sophisticated.”

The months required to procure, build and ship the tanks will give Ukrainian fighters time to learn how to use and maintain them, the official said.

The Germans’ aim is to assemble two tank battalions with Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine, the government’s statement said. In a first step, Berlin will provide a company of 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks from Bundeswehr stocks with training of the Ukrainian crews to quickly begin in Germany. In addition to training, the package will also contain logistics, ammunition and maintenance of the systems.

The German defense minister said the Leopard tanks could be operational in Ukraine in about three months. Boris Pistorius, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said training would come first and then the tanks would be sent east.

The German army has 320 Leopard 2 tanks in its possession, but would not disclose how many would be combat-ready, a defense ministry spokeswoman previously told CNN.

Germany will also allow other countries to export the tank, it said. Poland on Tuesday formally asked for approval from Germany to transfer some of its German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

Several European countries also own some leopards, and Poland had led an effort to re-export them to Ukraine, although Germany was not on board.

Addressing the German parliament after the announcement, Scholz said he had spoken to Zelensky before coming to parliament.

During his speech, the German leader said that Germany, along with the United States and Britain, had sent the most weapons systems to Ukraine and insisted that his country would be at the forefront of aid to Ukraine.

Sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine will give Kyiv’s forces a modern and powerful military vehicle ahead of a potential Russian spring offensive. It will also come as a blow to the Kremlin, which has seen a growing campaign to equip Ukrainian troops with high-tech combat systems as Russia’s ground war approaches the one-year mark.

Germany had initially resisted a growing drumbeat of Western pressure to send some of the tanks to Ukraine, with new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius repeatedly calling for more time and insisting the move would come with pros and cons for Berlin.

The United Kingdom had set a precedent for supplying Ukraine with main battle tanks last week after it pledged to send Kyiv 14 of its British Army Challenger 2 tanks. The deal crossed what had previously appeared to be a red line for the US and its European allies.

Ukrainian officials have consistently pleaded with their Western allies to provide modern tanks – to be used not only to defend their current positions, but also to take on the enemy in the coming months. The Ukrainians fear that another Russian offensive could begin within two months.

Although Ukraine has stocks of Soviet-era tanks, modern Western tanks provide a greater level of speed and agility. In particular, the Leopard’s relatively low maintenance requirements compared to other models lead experts to believe that the tanks could help Ukraine quickly on the battlefield.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hailed Germany’s move as the “right decision” in the wake of Wednesday’s announcement.

“The right decision by NATO allies and friends to send main battle tanks to Ukraine. Together with the Challenger 2s, they will strengthen Ukraine’s defensive firepower. Together we are accelerating our efforts to ensure that Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace,” wrote Sunak on Twitter.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff welcomed the news and reiterated that the country needed “a lot” of Leopard tanks. Writing on Telegram, Andriy Yermak said: “The first tank step has been taken. Next is the ‘tank coalition’. We need a lot of leopards.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki praised German Chancellor Scholz for his decision. “Thank you Olaf Scholz. The decision to send leopards to Ukraine is a big step towards stopping Russia. Together we are stronger,” Morawiecki wrote on Twitter.

This story has been updated with further developments.