As Ukraine redoubles its pleas for more advanced weapons during what could be a pivotal week of diplomacy, pressure is mounting on Germany to authorize the export to Ukraine of its main battle tank to help Kyiv’s forces take the initiative on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine and better defend against Russian aerial attacks.
A senior NATO official suggested on Tuesday that Britain’s announcement that it would send 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine is making the reluctance of the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to allow other countries to export German-made Leopards untenable. The British have been explicit about hoping to encourage other Western countries to follow suit by supplying modern tanks to Ukraine.
At this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and his wife, Olena Zelenska, along with Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko, are adding further pressure, pushing for more and better Western heavy arms, including tanks and air defenses. Mr. Zelensky is exercising his influence remotely.
“Ukraine appreciates the important new defense decisions taken by the German leadership at the beginning of this year,” Mr. Zelensky said Tuesday in a post on the messaging app Telegram, in an apparent reference to Berlin’s decision earlier this month to supply Ukraine with Marder infantry fighting vehicles and a Patriot air defense system.
In the post, Mr. Zelensky said he had held a virtual meeting with the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and discussed “the necessity of increasing defense support” yet again.
Ukraine and its allies are growing more worried that there is a short window to prepare for a possible Russian offensive in the spring. Russia has suffered a series of losses since September, when Ukraine recaptured significant parts of its territory in the north and east. Russia responded by targeting civilians and infrastructure as fighting on the eastern front ground to a stalemate.
The argument over German tanks is likely to be resolved at the end of the week, as a meeting of NATO defense ministers is followed by one of defense ministers from countries supporting Ukraine at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Led by the American defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, both NATO and the gathering at Ramstein are expected to discuss the provision of Western tanks to Ukraine.
Mr. Scholz is likely to want vocal American support and participation in any decision he makes to provide German-made tanks or to allow other countries, including Poland, to do so, analysts say. Polls indicate that Germans support Ukraine but are not enthusiastic about committing German tanks to fighting Moscow.
Mr. Scholz has been reluctant to “go it alone,” as he has said, or to break completely with Moscow. His caution has been echoed to some degree in Washington, where President Biden shows no sign of agreeing to send the main American battle tank, the Abrams, to Ukraine. But the Biden administration has said that it has not dissuaded any ally from sending tanks, and analysts say the White House is being careful not to be seen as putting pressure on Berlin.
Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, said on Tuesday that Helsinki was ready to supply Leopards but was still awaiting a German green light.
“Finland has some of these tanks,” he told Reuters in an interview in Davos, adding: “Ukraine needs it, but Germany has a key role in this.”
In an address late Monday, Mr. Zelensky urged allies to “speed up decision-making” and said that Britain’s new aid, including the Challenger tanks and a package of other sophisticated military equipment, “was exactly what we need.” He cited the attack on civilians in an apartment building on Saturday in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, which killed at least 44 people, as a sign that Russia is “preparing a new attempt to seize the initiative in the war.
“All this only emphasizes how important it is to coordinate our efforts,” he said.
A small number of Western tanks will not alter the shape of the conflict — Britain has so far committed to sending 14 — but several hundred could help Ukrainian troops push back the Russians from a larger swath of eastern Ukraine.
Lara Jakes contributed reporting.