President Biden announced in an about-face Wednesday that the U.S. is sending 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine in an effort to help shift the battlefield against Russian invaders.
Speaking from the White House, Mr. Biden said the tanks are “not an offensive threat” to Russia, but rather about helping Ukraine “defend its sovereignty.”
“That’s what this is about — helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land. It’s not an offensive threat to Russia. There is no offensive threat,” the president said.
Mr. Biden urged Russian troops to return to their home country “where they belong.”
“This war would be over today. That’s what we all want, an end to this war,” he said.
The announcement marks a significant reversal of the Biden administration’s refusal to send U.S. tanks to the Ukrainian battlefield.
As recently as Friday, U.S. officials said they would not send the 70-ton Abrams tanks to Ukraine because their high-tech nature requires complex maintenance and logistical challenges.
Last week, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters that the U.S. shouldn’t provide Ukraine with systems “they can’t repair, they can’t sustain and that, they, over the long term, can’t afford.”
Mr. Biden said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recommended the policy shift because it will strengthen Ukraine’s capacity to “defend its territory and achieve its strategic objectives.” During the announcement, the president garbled Mr. Austin’s title as “secretary of the military.”
“The Abrams tanks are the most capable tanks in the world,” Mr. Biden said.
The tanks will be purchased with funds from the congressionally-approved Ukraine
Security Assistance Initiative, rather than being pulled out of the U.S. arsenal, White House officials told reporters earlier Wednesday. The security assistance package provides long-range funding for weapons and equipment to be purchased to help Ukraine defend itself.
White House officials said they settled on 31 Abrams tanks because it is the equivalent of one Ukrainian tank battalion. They declined to comment on when the first Abrams might be delivered, but some U.S. officials have stressed it could take as long as 12 months.
A White House official who spoke with the press said the U.S. would provide training to Ukrainian soldiers to operate and maintain the tanks.
“We will have the ability to put in place a very careful training program to be able to maintain and sustain these tanks, which do require a good deal of maintenance,” the official said.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday how soon the U.S. would start training Ukrainian officials on the Abrams or when that training would be complete.
Mr. Biden said Wednesday that the U.S. will set up training for Ukrainian troops as soon as possible.
The move is part of a broader effort in conjunction with Germany and other U.S. allies to bolster support for Ukraine at a pivotal moment of the war.
Germany on Wednesday announced it would agree to send a small number of its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and would approve the delivery of more German-made tanks by Poland and 11 other countries.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the decision Wednesday during a meeting of his Cabinet.
Government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said the decision was a result of “intensive consultations” between Germany’s European and international partners.
“This decision follows our well-known line of supporting Ukraine to the best of our ability. We are acting in a closely-coordinated manner internationally,” Mr. Scholz said during the meeting, according to a government statement.
Mr. Biden thanked Mr. Scholz for being “a strong voice for unity” on Ukraine, adding that Berlin “really stepped up.” But he also disputed reports that Germany pressured him into sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
“Germany didn’t force me to change my mind. We wanted to make sure we’re all together,” the president said.
Germany had previously signaled that it wouldn’t send tanks to Ukraine or approve of other countries sending German-made tanks unless the U.S. also agreed to send Abrams tanks. Ultimately, Berlin and Washington were able to break the diplomatic logjam.
Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelesnkyy has been begging the U.S. and other allies for months, insisting that the country’s current level of tanks is not enough to take back its territory from Russia.
Ukrainian forces have conducted an organized retreat from a town in the eastern region of the Donbas, an official said Wednesday, in what is a rare but modest battlefield triumph for the Kremlin after a series of setbacks in its invasion that began almost 11 months ago.
The Ukrainian army retreated from the salt-mining town of Soledar to “preserve the lives of the personnel,” Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s forces in the east, told The Associated Press.
Moscow has portrayed the battle for Soledar, which lies near the city of Bakhmut, as key to capturing the entire Donbas. The accomplishment takes the Russian forces a step closer to Bakhmut, but military analysts say capturing Soledar is more symbolic than strategic.
Ukraine’s military, which has held out in Soledar against a monthslong onslaught of superior Russian forces, has said its fierce defense of the eastern stronghold helped tie up Russian forces.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has prioritized taking full control of the Donbas — a region made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where it has backed a separatist insurgency since 2014. Russia has seized most of Luhansk, but about half of Donetsk remains under Ukraine’s control.
Taking control of the town would potentially allow Russian forces to cut supply lines to Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, though the strength of Ukraine’s new defensive positions was not known.
Last week, when Great Britain announced it was sending 14 tanks to Ukraine, the country’s leaders thanked the British government, but said they were “not sufficient to achieve operational goals.”
Republicans in the House and Senate have also been pressing Mr. Biden to send Abrams to Ukraine.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, on Wednesday called the move “overdue.”
Rep. Michale McCaul, Texas Republican and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Sunday that the U.S. should send tanks to Ukraine and press for Germany to allow its tanks to help the war-torn country.
“There’s gonna be a winter offensive by the Russians. They need these tanks on the eastern flank in the Donbas,” Mr. McCaul said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, just returned from another trip to Ukraine. During a news conference Tuesday, he also urged Mr. Biden to send tanks to Ukraine.
“Seldom in the history of modern warfare has so much depended on so few tanks. Three hundred tanks given to the Ukrainians, who have an ability to take any weapons system and maximize its benefits, I think will determine and will change the outcome of this war,” Mr. Graham said.
— This article is based in part on wire-service reports.