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Why Ukraine's allies are reluctant to send U.S. or German battle tanks


Leaders from Ukraine and its allies gathered around a table in Germany today.


They're discussing how to help Ukraine as Russia's invasion nears its first anniversary. Many nations are sending aid. And one nation faces extra pressure to send more. Germany has yet to allow Ukraine to receive German-made battle tanks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz has been covering the war in Ukraine. And he joins us now from Germany. Hey there, Rob.


INSKEEP: What are defense officials putting on that table?

SCHMITZ: Well, the U.S. is presenting its latest package of military assistance for Ukraine. This one is worth $2.5 billion. And it includes hundreds of armored fighting vehicles and more support for Ukraine's air defense against Russian attacks. Yesterday, a group of European countries, including the U.K., Poland, Denmark and the Baltic states, announced what it called unprecedented military aid to Ukraine, including artillery, air defense systems, as well as infantry vehicles. In fact, Finland is increasing its commitment to more than half a billion dollars, a lot for that country. So it seems we've got several countries, Steve, willing to spend lots of money to help Ukraine fight what many see as a renewed Russian offensive that may come soon.

INSKEEP: That all sounds impressive. So what's the pressure on Germany specifically?

SCHMITZ: Well, the Leopard 2 battle tank is a tank that's made in Germany. And it's seen as one of the world's most state-of-the-art tanks. And Ukraine has been asking for them since the war began. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been under increasing pressure by Germany's closest allies to give the OK for these tanks to be exported to Ukraine. Poland has already offered to send more than a dozen Leopards to Ukraine. But legally, they would need Germany's permission to do that. Scholz has repeatedly refused to do this. I spoke with Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook of the Bertelsmann Foundation, a Berlin think tank, about this. And here's what she said.

CATHRYN CLUVER ASHBROOK: Clearly, it seems to be that the world is coalescing around the idea that Germany not only needs to make way for its Leopards to be sent to Ukraine, but also those countries that want to furnish German-built Leopards, that it needs to make the legal grounds clear that that can be done. That has to be an executive decision. Otherwise, Germany will continue to isolate itself in the allied efforts to support Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Yeah. But I'm just thinking, Germany has sent other kinds of aid, however reluctantly. What's the hold-up on the tanks?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. And Germany continues to say that. You know, German media reports that Scholz would be willing to give his approval to deliver these Leopard tanks if the U.S. also sends Abrams tanks.

INSKEEP: Oh, the strongest and biggest American tank.

SCHMITZ: That's right.

INSKEEP: He wants those to go as well. What does the U.S. say?

SCHMITZ: Well, the Pentagon's undersecretary for defense policy, Colin Kahl, told reporters on Wednesday the U.S. will not send Abrams tanks to Ukraine because they are too difficult for Ukrainian troops to maintain. But many observers are not buying that. Retired U.S. General Ben Hodges responded on Twitter that this is condescending to Ukrainian troops, who have been sort of MacGyver-ing solutions to all sorts of problems throughout this war. It should be mentioned here that Germany's Leopard tanks are also difficult to maintain. I think Chancellor Scholz wants to make sure that Germany does not stand out as one of the only countries to send battle tanks to Ukraine and would prefer that the U.S. join him in that effort. And that's likely going to be priority No. 1 today when they discuss this in Ramstein.

INSKEEP: I guess we should underline this. Every ally, including Germany, is thinking about how much can they do for Ukraine without crossing some red line with Russia. Is that right?

SCHMITZ: That's exactly right. Scholz has repeatedly said that. And he has said also that he just doesn't want to cross that line so that Russia could retaliate in a more deadly way.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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