President Joe Biden said Wednesday his administration will send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, although the heavy armored weaponry Kyiv has sought for months won’t arrive anytime soon.
As recently as last week, the Biden administration said it would not send the M1 Abrams tanks, citing logistical and maintenance challenges with the complex machines. Instead, U.S. officials urged Germany to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks and allow other countries to do so.
Ukraine needs “to be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term,” Biden said as he announced the decision from the White House on Wednesday. “They need to improve their ability to maneuver on open terrain. And they need an enduring capability to deter and defend against Russian aggression over the long term.”
Senior administration officials told reporters that the White House had decided to send the Abrams tanks following “intensified” conversations with Germany and other allies over the past few weeks. Germany confirmed Wednesday it would greenlight the Leopard 2 tanks, which can be provided quickly and are well-suited to the battlefield.
“Today’s announcement really was a product of the diplomatic conversations and part of our regular and ongoing closed consultations with allies and partners,” one official said.
Because the tanks will be procured under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, they won’t arrive in Ukraine for months. But officials said they plan to immediately work on establishing a “very careful training program” to bring Ukrainians up to speed on the equipment.
The U.S. also plans to provide eight M88 recovery vehicles alongside the Abrams tanks to assist with their operation. The government is specifically providing 31 tanks because that’s the number of tanks in a Ukrainian battalion.
The decision to finally provide the tanks also stems from the changing nature of the battlefield, officials said.
“This is about helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land,” Biden said, flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III. “It is not an offensive threat to Russia.”
A $2.5 billion security assistance package announced last week includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker Armored Personnel Carriers as well as air defense systems, artillery rounds and anti-armor rockets.
The announcement comes after weeks of pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. During a news conference on Tuesday, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said even a few Abrams tanks would “open the floodgates” for U.S. allies to send tanks of their own.
“Ukrainians can win if they have the tools that are necessary,” Blumenthal said. “Just very frankly, if it takes sending three, five, 10 Abrams tanks there, let’s do it.”