Weeks of political wrangling among Western allies over whether to arm Ukraine with advanced battle tanks appear to be nearing a resolution, with the Biden administration and Germany expected to announce that they will each send tanks that Kyiv has sought for months.
The moves by Germany to deploy its Leopard 2 tanks and the United States to send M1 Abrams tanks are likely to prompt several European countries to seek German permission to send Leopard 2s from their own stocks, considerably raising the potential number of modern tanks for Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany is expected to announce his government’s decision on Wednesday.
But once the diplomatic wrangling ends, the hard part will begin: getting the heavy armored vehicles and other combat trucks to the battlefield as Russia gears up for a new offensive expected in the spring or earlier.
U.S. officials say that it could take years for Abrams tanks to reach any Ukrainian battlefields. But Moscow has already ramped up its threats, with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov calling the move to send Abrams a “blatant provocation” and warning that “American tanks without any doubt will be destroyed.”
The process of delivering Western weapons and other military equipment to Ukraine has been one of the most heavily guarded secrets of the war. Concerns that Russia will target roads, railways or staging grounds for the matériel as it is shipped to the front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine has required what officials and experts described as stealth convoys, usually cloaked in darkness or disguised, to evade attack.
Russia is not known to have successfully struck a large convoy of Western weapons being shipped into Ukraine, and experts described the process of transporting the huge munitions and vehicles into the conflict zone as a game of cat-and-mouse that Ukraine has been winning.
“Nobody knows, in public, how this is happening,” said Heinrich Brauss, a former NATO assistant secretary general who is now at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “I’m not even sure the capitals know in detail. But they manage it.”
The risks — and worries over provoking Russia — are so great that Ukrainian troops must retrieve the weapons from depots in NATO territory instead of having Western forces or contractors deliver them to the conflict zone.
Nikolai Sokov, an expert at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation and a former Russian diplomat, said that an attack by Russia on a convoy of weapons would “not only delay future deliveries, but also take care of at least a sizable part of modern armor before it reaches the front line.”
A Pentagon spokesman declined last week to discuss the efforts to deliver the more than $27 billion in weapons and security assistance that the Biden administration has already committed to Ukraine, most of it since the start of the war last February. But former Western military officials and experts described a patchwork of delivery routes, largely originating from hubs in Poland, Slovakia and Germany that will be crucial to getting tanks, armored fighting vehicles and huge guns to the front lines.
Most of the weapons will be shipped either on rail cars or flatbed trucks that are strong enough to carry their huge weight. Rail is generally the fastest and safest way to move armor, experts said, given that long convoys of flatbed trucks would likely attract Russia’s attention. It would take too much time, fuel and spare parts to drive the tanks and other armored vehicles to the battlefield, experts said. They would also become, in essence, a moving target for Russian warplanes.
Gen. Robert B. Abrams, a former U.S. Army four-star general who retired in 2021 with decades of experience with the tank that is named for his father, echoed the concerns of some Pentagon leaders who think that it would be difficult for Ukrainian troops to repair and maintain a fleet of the gas-guzzling tanks. And that’s after getting them there.
“The time it would take to get there — to be able to build up the supply stockage, to deliver the vehicles, to train the crews, to train the mechanics, to gather everything you’d need — how long would that take?” General Abrams said in an interview. “I don’t know, but it ain’t like 30 days, I can tell you that.”
The impact the Abrams and its 120-millimeter gun would have on inferior Russian tanks, however, was not in question, he said.
“It will shred them,” General Abrams said. “It’ll put a hole in anything.”
John Ismay contributed reporting.