WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is moving closer to sending M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, in what would be a major step in arming Kyiv in its efforts to seize back its territory from Russia.
President Biden has yet to make a final decision, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. But if he does agree to send the advanced Abrams tanks the move would likely spur Germany to follow with its own coveted Leopard 2 tanks, the officials said.
The movement toward sending the Abrams tanks, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, comes after a testy confrontation last week during a NATO defense chiefs meeting over the refusal by Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to send the Leopards, which many military experts believe could be a decisive weapon in Ukrainian hands.
German officials privately insisted that they would only send the tanks, among the most advanced in the world, if the United States agreed to send its own M1 Abrams tanks. Publicly, American and German officials have denied that the two issues were linked.
Anticipation for a German announcement was high, as various German news outlets reported that Mr. Scholz had already decided to send the tanks. Attention was focused on the chancellor’s expected address to Parliament on Wednesday.
Many European countries use German-built Leopards. On Monday, Poland’s defense minister said his country had formally requested Germany’s permission to send Ukraine Leopard tanks from its own stocks, and other countries have indicated they would do the same if Germany agreed.
In Kyiv on Tuesday, Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, told reporters at a news conference that he had discussed the supply of Western tanks to Ukraine with President Zelensky, saying the country was considering various options for its participation.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the Biden administration’s shift toward sending the tanks. As recently as Monday, a Pentagon official told reporters that the Abrams would be difficult for Ukrainian forces to maintain, in part because they run on jet fuel.
Defense officials have repeatedly used the fuel issue to explain in part why the administration was not rushing to send the Abrams tanks to Kyiv. But while it is true the tanks have gas turbine engines that burn jet fuel, it is not the whole story, tank experts say. Abrams tanks, they say, can run on any type of fuel, including ordinary gasoline and diesel.
The Pentagon press secretary, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, would not confirm on Tuesday news reports that the administration is on the verge of providing Ukraine with the M1 Abrams tanks. “When and if we have something to announce, we will,” he said.
He called the Abrams tank “a very capable battlefield platform.”
“It’s also very complex capability,” General Ryder said. “And so, like anything that we’re providing to Ukraine, we want to ensure that they have the ability to maintain it, sustain it, to train on it.”
He did not refer to the jet fuel issue.
A defense official, speaking on grounds of anonymity, said that if Mr. Biden approves the delivery of Abrams tanks, it could take months for them to arrive on the battlefield. The official said that the tanks would be paid for through the Ukraine Security Assistance package, which provides funding for weapons to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Western allies have provided increasingly sophisticated arms to help Kyiv defend against Russia’s invasion, but they have been reticent to send heavy offensive weapons for fear of provoking Moscow.
Ukraine has been begging for heavily armored Western tanks for months, with officials maintaining that the Soviet style tanks which Ukraine has now are not enough to help Kyiv take back its territory.
Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Lauren McCarthy contributed reporting.