The U.S. and Germany have agreed on a plan to send dozens of tanks to Ukraine as the country prepares for an expected increase in Russian attacks this spring and to launch a counteroffensive of its own.
Canada is considering contributing four or five of its German-made Leopard 2 tanks, according to a senior government official, but has not yet made a decision. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Under the plan, announced Wednesday, the U.S. will buy 31 M1 Abrams tanks for Ukraine, and Germany will organize the shipment of 62 Leopard 2s, some of which will be provided by Berlin directly and some from other European countries.
The commitments follow pledges by Morocco and Britain earlier this month to send 20 T-72B and 14 Challenger 2 tanks, respectively.
“With spring approaching, Ukrainian forces are working to defend the territory they hold and preparing for additional counteroffences,” U.S. President Joe Biden said at the White House. “To liberate their land, they need to be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term.”
The move is an about-face for the U.S. and Germany, which had for months deflected Ukrainian requests for the equipment. Germany was reluctant to send tanks without a similar move from the U.S., for fear of attracting all of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wrath. The U.S., meanwhile, maintained that the Abrams tank was too complicated to operate and maintain to be of practical use in Ukraine.
The two countries appeared to change their minds after Poland warned it would send Leopard 2s without Germany’s agreement. When Western countries sell weapons to other countries, the receiving country normally cannot transfer the weapons to anyone else without the original country agreeing, meaning that countries with German-made Leopard 2s need Berlin to sign off.
Spain, Finland and the Netherlands have also expressed interest in donating Leopards to the war effort.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not commit to anything Wednesday but suggested he would unveil something in the near future.
“I won’t be making an announcement today, but I can tell you we are looking very, very closely at what more we can do to support Ukraine,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters on the sidelines of a cabinet retreat in Hamilton. “We hope we will have more to share in the next few days.”
The German embassy in Ottawa noted that Berlin on Wednesday said it would issue the necessary transfer licences to partner countries that want to quickly deliver Leopard 2 tanks from their stocks to Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced his plans early Wednesday, with Mr. Biden following a few hours later, after a flurry of calls between the two leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
“This is the result of intensive consultations, once again, with our allies and international partners,” Mr. Scholz said.
At least some of the Leopard 2s will be in Ukraine within three months, Germany said. The Abrams will take longer to arrive: John Kirby, the White House national-security spokesperson, said the U.S. has none to spare in its existing arsenal and has to get them made new, which could take “many months.”
Mr. Kirby added that Ukrainian soldiers will require extensive training to use the tanks and will also have to build new infrastructure including special fuel pipelines to gas up the jet-engine-powered war machines.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has relentlessly pushed NATO countries to step up their aid to Ukraine, said on Twitter that he had spoken with Mr. Scholz, Mr. Macron and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the tank commitments.
Mr. Zelensky commended the U.S. on the move. “Thank you [Mr. Biden] for another powerful decision,” he tweeted. “It’s an important step on the path to victory. Today the free world is united as never before for a common goal – liberation of Ukraine. We’re moving forward.”
Russia’s ambassador to Germany warned that the tank plan “shifts the conflict to a new level of confrontation.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, however, said the tanks were no big deal. “This is a rather disastrous plan … these tanks will burn down, just like all the other ones.”
On paper at least, Canada has 112 Leopard tanks, of which 82 are fighting tanks. The remaining 30 are armoured battlefield engineering vehicles with treads that are intended to erect or demolish obstacles, and other tasks. Doubts remain about how many Canada could actually spare for Ukraine.
Retired general Andrew Leslie, a former commander of the Canadian Army, has said he’s heard that only about 20 Canadian tanks are functioning, with the remainder in storage or waiting for spare parts to be fixed. He said the Canadian Army needs a minimum of 30 to 35 tanks for training.
This scarcity means Canada has no tanks to spare, Mr. Leslie said, unless Ottawa spends the money promised in past budgets to get them all in working order – a process that “could take many months of hard work.”
Defence analyst David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said it’s unclear whether Canada has committed part of its tank inventory to its mission in Latvia, where Canadians are leading a NATO battlegroup, and needs to keep some in reserve. Mr. Perry said Canada can afford to send tanks “if we want to bad enough.” He said the risk of not having enough operable tanks left in Canada is “probably not all that high at the moment.”
The steady flow of military aid to Ukraine from NATO and its allies has been key to turning Mr. Putin’s expected quick victory into a protracted war in which Ukraine has repeatedly recaptured territory.
Canada has steadily escalated its military aid to Ukraine, starting with rocket launchers and rifles and, as recently as earlier this month, committing 200 armoured vehicles and a sophisticated air-defence system.