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Why tanks could be a game-changer for Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For months, Ukraine has been demanding state-of-the-art, western tanks, and for months, they have been denied. Today, that changed. The U.S. and Germany promised to send these tanks. Well, these two countries are considered to have the best tanks in the world. So let's hear from both capitals.

We are joined from Berlin by NPR's Rob Schmitz. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: ...And from Washington, by NPR's Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hi. Greg, you start. The U.S. had been adamant that it would not be sending these Abrams tanks. Today, it changed tack. Do we know why?

MYRE: Well, I think there's both a military reason and a political reason. On the military front, the U.S. has acknowledged that Ukraine needs tanks, but it kept saying the Abrams, which is the main U.S. tank, just wasn't a good fit. It's considered the world's best but also the most sophisticated. It needs lots of training and maintenance. It also uses jet fuel, not the usual diesel fuel that other tanks use. So it wasn't seen as a great, short-term option, which leads us to the political reason.

Germany also has these excellent tanks that could get to Ukraine more quickly. But Germany had been reluctant to get out in front on sending tanks. So President Biden's announcement gave Germany some political cover, and Biden went out of his way to praise the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz.

KELLY: Do we know how long it's going to take to get these tanks over there?

MYRE: No, we don't. But a senior administration official said it would be months, not weeks. We're talking about 31 of the Abrams tanks. That's one Ukrainian tank battalion. The U.S. will have to train the Ukrainians, who've proven to be very fast learners on other weapons systems. But these are tanks that are not already in service. The U.S. is going to go through the procurement process, which can be a military synonym for do everything in slow motion.

Now, one senior U.S. official tried to put the best face on this. He said the German tanks represent a near-term commitment. The U.S. tanks represent a long-term commitment.

KELLY: Rob Schmitz, jump in here because Germany had also been reluctant. Did Chancellor Scholz explain today why they appeared to have changed their minds?

SCHMITZ: He didn't go into specifics, but he spoke today at the Bundestag, which is Germany's Parliament, as part of his regular question-and-answer session. And he said that he decided to do this after what he called intensive consultations with Germany's allies and partners, including the United States. And he hinted that waiting to take this action until the U.S. was ready to also send tanks was an important necessity. Germany did not want to be alone in sending tanks to Ukraine. Many Germans are scared that doing that would have risked pulling Germany into a broader conflict. And here's some tape of Schultz addressing those fears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR OLAF SCHOLZ: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And Mary Louise, he's saying here that many German citizens are worried about sending Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine given the power of these weapons and that he would like to say to his citizens, trust me and trust the federal government. He said, because Germany acted in cooperation with its international partners, it has made sure this support is possible without risking that Germany would be pulled directly into this conflict. He also made it clear that Germany would not enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine and that it wouldn't send ground troops in any situation. So these tanks appear to be as far as Olaf Scholz is willing to go.

KELLY: I want to step back for a minute, and I'll throw this one to you, Greg. Why are tanks so critical for Ukraine right now?

MYRE: Well, Ukraine has been outgunned by Russia on almost every front in this war, and tanks are a powerful example of that. Russia has more tanks. The Ukrainians have had to rely on these aging, Soviet-era tanks. Now, Ukraine is widely expected to carry out offensives pretty soon. And that's where tanks do become quite critical, when an army is trying to move forward on the ground.

We should stress that a lot of military analysts say that tanks are just one component, though a key one, in what the U.S. calls combined arms. And they say the Ukrainians need many things - effective ground troops, light armored vehicles, artillery, air power, and they very much need tanks.

KELLY: One more question, from the European perspective, because, Rob, I am wondering if this might open the floodgates for others. It's not just Germany among European countries that has tanks, not just Germany that has Leopard tanks.

SCHMITZ: That's right. German weapons manufacturers export different models of Leopard tanks all throughout Europe. And so we've got dozens upon dozens of these in countries all over Europe. And today, also, Germany announced that their partner countries who have these tanks can also send those tanks to Ukraine if they want to. So Poland, obviously, has been asking to do this for a while, as have many other European countries. So in the following weeks, we'll likely see the first deliveries of what could be dozens of some of the most state-of-the-art tanks being handed over to Ukraine's military.

MYRE: And, Mary Louise, let me just pick up on what Rob was saying. We've seen this very intense focus on tanks recently. In some ways, it's overshadowed some other key developments. Ukraine has received more pledges, more heavy weapons in the past month than at any time since the war began. The U.S. and others have promised patriots and other air defense systems to guard against Russian missiles. We've seen hundreds of armored vehicles that have been pledged, and now the tanks.

Now, all of this sends a clear signal that the U.S. and NATO remain united, which many had questioned that that would happen, and that they're stepping up support for Ukraine. In contrast, we've been hearing that Russia is turning to Iran and North Korea for weapons that are far less than cutting edge.

KELLY: Rob, just one more to you before I let you go. I keep thinking about this headline - German tanks set to roll across Europe towards a war. I mean, it's...

SCHMITZ: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Enough for any student of the wars of the past century to send just the tiniest chill down your spine. How is the conversation unfolding where you are in Berlin?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's right. And I think it's worth remembering that Germany's history as a military aggressor in two world wars makes a decision like this to send war machines back into battle a really difficult and sensitive one for Germans. And I think Germany's more recent history of decades' worth of Soviet rule and being in the middle of the Cold War also plays into this specific conflict. There's a residual, pacifist sentiment from the Cold War here in Germany, and there's also a shared history between Germany and Russia from that era. And the complexities of that have slowly percolated for many Germans as this war has dragged on. And, you know, we've seen a shift in recent weeks of German public opinion towards Ukraine and against Russia. And I think it's a slowly evolving transition that we're witnessing here in Germany.

KELLY: Fascinating. NPR's Rob Schmitz and Greg Myre reporting today from Berlin and Washington. Thanks to you both.

MYRE: Thank you.

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

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.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.