U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged allies on Friday to dig deeper to support Ukraine at the start of a meeting of dozens of defense ministers at an air base in Germany, as pressure piled up on Berlin to provide tanks to Kyiv.
NATO and defense leaders from roughly 50 countries are meeting at Ramstein Air Base, the latest in a series of arms-pledging conferences since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
“Russia is regrouping, recruiting, and trying to re-equip,” Austin said at the start of the meeting.
“This is not a moment to slow down. It’s a time to dig deeper. The Ukrainian people are watching us,” he said without making specific reference to tanks.
The United States announced an additional $2.5 billion in military aid for Ukraine on Thursday, a package which will include more armored vehicles and ammunition.
But the major focus is on whether Germany will send Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine or at least approve their transfer from third countries.
Germany has become one of Ukraine’s top military supporters in response to Russia’s invasion, overcoming a taboo rooted in its bloody 20th century history, but it has not yet agreed to send tanks or allow other countries to send their own German-made tanks.
Leopard tanks are seen as especially suitable for Ukraine as they are widely in use, meaning several countries could each chip in some of their tanks to support Ukraine.
This would also make it easier for Ukraine to manage maintenance and crew training.
Critics say German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ruling SPD are too slow, waiting for allies to act first instead of assuming Germany’s responsibility as the Western power closest to Ukraine.
Government sources in Germany have said it would move on the Leopard tanks issue if the United States agreed to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
The United States has made clear that it will not be sending Abrams anytime soon, arguing it would be a logistical nightmare for Ukrainian troops to use the American tanks because of the fuel that would be required and maintenance needed.
In one of his first interviews as Germany’s new defence minister, Boris Pistorius did not explicitly describe Abrams deliveries as a condition for Leopard supplies late on Thursday.
“We are well aware that it (the Leopard) can play an important role,” he told German public TV station ZDF, while stressing the importance of joint trans-atlantic decisions.
“Nobody rules out that the Leopard tank can be delivered – or approval can be given for deliveries of other European partners,” he added.
Public pressure has been building on Berlin.
“Ukrainians will fight! With tanks or without. But every tank from Ramstein means saved Ukrainian lives,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Telegram.
Several countries will announce sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine on Friday at a meeting at the German Ramstein Air Base, the Lithuanian defence minister said on Thursday.
Poland could send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine even without Germany’s re-export approval, a deputy foreign minister said on Friday, ahead of a crunch meeting on weapons for Kyiv.
Britain has said that it would send 14 of its main battle tanks along with additional artillery support to Ukraine, a step officials hope will open the door for Germany to make similar moves.
The Kremlin’s spokesman said on Friday that Western countries supplying additional tanks to Ukraine would not change the course of the conflict and that they would add to the problems of the Ukrainian people.