US vows ‘long term commitment’ to Ukraine as it sends in fleet of Abrams tanks and tow vehicles to Kyiv

President Joe Biden says the M1 Abrams tanks the US will provide to Ukraine ‘are evidence of our commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the skill of the Ukrainian forces’

Andrew Feinberg
Wednesday 25 January 2023 20:26 GMT
Fighting intensifies in Ukraine's Kherson

The United States will provide 31 new M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine as part of America’s efforts to help bolster Ukraine’s defence against the nearly year-old war being waged by Russia, multiple Biden administration officials have said.

The 31 tanks will be accompanied by eight M88 recovery vehicles — heavily armoured tow trucks used to rescue tanks that have been disabled or damaged in battle — and will be enough to equip an entire Ukrainian tank battalion with the American-made beasts, which first gained worldwide recognition for their firepower and armour capability during engagements with Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Speaking from the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Wednesday, Mr Biden said he was taking the step of providing Ukraine with tanks at the recommendation of Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin.

“With spring approaching, Ukrainian forces are working to defend the territory they hold and preparing for counteroffensives to liberate their land. They need to counter Russia’s tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term. They need to prove their ability to maneuver in open terrain. They need an enduring capability to deter and defend against Russian aggression over the long-term,” he said.

Mr Biden said delivering the tanks would “take time” but stressed that the US would use that time to “make sure the Ukrainians are fully prepared to integrate them into their defences”.

“Today’s announcement builds on the hard work and commitment from countries around the world, led by the United States of America, to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. That’s what this is about — helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land,” he said. “The United States, standing shoulder to shoulder with allies and partners, is going to do all we can to support Ukraine ... these tanks are evidence of our commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the skill of the Ukrainian forces”.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the plan said the announcement that the US will provide tanks to Ukraine is “very much a continuation of our efforts to provide Ukraine with the capabilities that they need to continue to better defend themselves”.

The official added that the move is “representative of the long term commitment that we have to Ukraine's defence needs.”

The Biden administration’s decision to provide Ukraine with the US-made tanks comes after the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Berlin will provide Kyiv with a supply of its famed Leopard 2 tank and allow countries that have purchased the export version of the weapon to transfer their own stocks to the Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have been pressing their American and European counterparts to provide tanks and other heavy armoured vehicles which can counter Russian armour and enable Ukrainian troops to more easily retake territory controlled by Moscow’s forces.

The German government had been unwilling to allow the provision of the German-made weapons to Kyiv unless the US was willing to send Abrams tanks as well, but Berlin relented after US officials expressed a willingness to provide Ukraine with Abrams tanks and the training needed to successfully operate and maintain them.

Writing on Twitter, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said he was informed of Berlin’s decision during a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and called the move “important and timely”.

“German main battle tanks, further broadening of defense support & training missions, green light for partners to supply similar weapons ... sincerely grateful to the Chancellor and all our friends in Germany,” he wrote.

He tweeted once more following Mr Biden’s remarks, writing: “Thank you ... for another powerful decision to provide Abrams to [Ukraine”.

He added that he is “grateful” to “the American people” for their “leadership support,” and called the move “an important step on the path to victory”.

“Today the free world is united as never before for a common goal — liberation of [Ukraine],” he said.

A second Biden administration official said the announcement is the product of “continued diplomatic conversations that we've been having over the last few weeks with our European allies and partners,” and pointed out that Mr Biden has spoken with Mr Scholz “several times” over the last 30 days to “coordinate security assistance” to Kyiv, including the provision of Patriot air defence missile systems announced last month.

Mr Biden also said he spoke by phone with Mr Scholz ahead of the White House announcement on Wednesday morning, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The official said the purpose of the call was to “continue our close coordination in our efforts to support Ukraine”.

Separately, a senior Defence Department official said the provision of enough tanks to equip a full Ukrainian battalion, combined with the previously-announced supply of Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and eight-wheeled Stryker armoured vehicles, is part of “ensuring that we deliver a full capability to the Ukrainians”.

“Together with the collective training we've been providing armored capabilities will improve the Ukrainians ability to maneuver, which is a critical, a critical asset for Ukraine as they continue to defend and reclaim their territory,” the official said, adding that the Abrams tanks are “the best in the world” and will represent “a tremendous new capability that Ukraine will be getting to boost its long term defences”.

Because the Abrams tanks bound for Ukraine will be procured through the US Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and not provided by drawing down existing stocks, the official said it will take “some time” to deliver the new tanks, but stressed that in the intervening period the US is working to establish a “comprehensive training programme” for the Ukrainian troops who will operate and maintain the complex weapons and propulsion systems found on the Abrams.

The official also said the Pentagon is currently “working through the mechanisms” needed to provide Ukraine with support infrastructure for the Abrams, including spare parts and the aircraft-type fuel required by the tank’s Honeywell gas turbine engine.

Combined with the previous drawdowns of American stocks of Bradley and Stryker vehicles, the official said the US contribution to Ukraine’s armoured capability will reach more than 500 separate vehicles.

“Eleven months since Russia launched its brutal and barbaric war against Ukraine, the United States has been the leading provider of weapons and equipment to support Ukraine. But we have rallied the world and stood strong with our allies to help Ukraine defend themselves against Russian aggression,” the official said.

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