Denmark's military officers stand next to a Leopard 2A7 tank at the Tapa Military Camp, in Estonia, Jan. 19, 2023.

Tanks for Ukraine are ‘ready to go’ when Germany and US strike a deal, retired Navy Adm. says

As Germany faces mounting pressure to supply tanks to Kyiv for the ongoing war in Ukraine, retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis talks with The World’s host Marco Werman about what the delivery of heavy weapons could mean for the war.

The World

Germany has faced mounting pressure to supply Leopard 2 battle tanks to Kyiv as the war in Ukraine rages on — or to clear the way for other countries, such as Poland, to deliver German-made Leopards from their own stocks.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin plans to host a regular coordination meeting of Ukraine’s Western allies at the United States’ Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday.

Western leaders have been cautious in their approach to Ukraine’s repeated requests over the past few months for heavier vehicles, including Leopard, as well as American Abrams tanks.

Meanwhile, Berlin has said that it will send its vehicles only after the US sends its tanks.

The World’s host Marco Werman speaks with retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who is the former NATO supreme allied commander, about how a delivery of tanks would make a difference.

Marco Werman: Admiral James Stavridis, what kind of impact will this decision make?
Adm. James Stavridis: A huge impact for several reasons. First of all, the Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers, many, many thousands probably, were destroyed. So, Russia is tank- and armored-personnel-carrier poor at the moment. Number two, if Russia mounts a spring offensive using these newly mobilized foot soldiers, infantry, those are very juicy targets for tanks and armored personnel carriers.
So, Germany is facing a lot of pressure this week to send tanks to Ukraine. Why is the German-made Leopard tank especially wanted in Ukraine?
First, because it’s a pretty heavy tank. It’s not quite as big as the Abrams tank. The Leopard is a big, strong, tough tank, but it’s relatively simple to operate, compared to, for example, an Abrams. And, most importantly, it’s widely distributed across the native nations. Germany has exported many of these to the Baltic states, to many former Warsaw Pact countries. So, there’s a lot of expertise, training, a lot of inventory, and therefore, they are highly desired by the Ukrainians. They’re in theater, they’re ready to go, not a lot of training required.
Well, yesterday, German officials said they won’t send Leopard tanks unless the US sends Abrams. What do you make of that?
I think it’s part of an ongoing conversation. And at the end of the day, I would guess that our German colleagues will say, “You know, we would like to put the Leopards out there.” And part of this, by the way, is for the Germans to give permission to the other European nations who hold these Leopard tanks to give them, as well as some German Leopards, I think that the Germans ultimately will acquiesce in a deal where we, the US and the Canadians, put a large number of armored personnel carriers. They provide the tanks. That’s a pretty good deal.
Well, the US is providing Ukraine with other heavy-duty weapons of war. Why is the US hesitant to provide tanks?
What has held us back, not only not an obvious military need, which is emerging now, but secondly, we have always in this conflict, tried to use the minimal amount of weapons systems so that we could avoid escalating the war and leading to a direct conflict between NATO and Russia. But I think we hit the point now where the tanks are a necessity, given where we are in the battle.
Yes so, why would a tank specifically imply a greater involvement in the war than, say, the Patriot missile system?
Marco, I don’t think it does. And this has been, I think, kind of a false assumption out of the West. It was taken out of an abundance of caution. I understand that. I think it made a higher degree of sense, say, 10, 11 months ago, when you could have envisioned an outcome where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin got knocked back, then we had a negotiation, we could avoid an escalation. I think we’re past that point now, unfortunately. And therefore, yeah Patriots, yeah tanks, I would say, yeah fighter aircraft. That’s the next conversation that’s going to happen.
Can you talk more about that? I mean, that seems a really deep commitment in this war.
We are at the point where the Western side needs to say to itself, “Are we going to give the Ukrainians control over their skies?” And to do that, we’ve already provided surface-to-air missiles. We provided the Patriot batteries, we provided drones. The one big thing we haven’t given them is combat aircraft. And by providing them, say MiG-29s, which the Poles own and operate and are willing to give to the Ukrainians, who’ve been trained in flying those specific airframes, we should do that, in my view, because that will further shut down Vladimir Putin’s options. Right now, he’s using air control in order to strike Ukrainian targets, and all over Ukraine. And there are war crimes against the electric grid, the water supplies, against civilians in apartment buildings, aircraft could help stop that. We ought to provide them those aircraft.
But, I mean, any of these options, starting with a tank deal, would you see that as another step closer to direct war between Russia and NATO?
No, I don’t think it significantly elevates the chances, because you still don’t have NATO soldiers, sailors, airmen actually conducting the combat. These are still Ukrainians conducting the combat. And, as you postulated a moment ago, in the end, giving a Ukrainian a rifle is merely a matter of degree in how you’re attacking Russian forces, than giving them a Patriot missile or a tank. So, I think the earlier ideas of doing this in a very measured, incremental way, I think that’s fading as we look at Russian intransigence, Russian war crimes, very clear intent of Vladimir Putin to continue to prosecute this unjust war. And don’t forget that Putin could stop this tomorrow. It’s this idea that somehow we’re provoking Russia, which is kind of magical thinking. It’s Putin that’s invaded here. We need to give the Ukrainians what they need to stop it.
So, Admiral, as he said, that the German Leopard tank doesn’t require a lot of training. It’s already in-theater. If a deal is struck, some kind of agreement between Germany, the US and Ukraine, how soon could you see delivery of these tanks’ deployment into the battlefield?
Days, and certainly within weeks. This is primed, ready to go. And by the way, my contacts in European militaries, there is a great deal of enthusiasm for getting these weapons in the hands of the Ukrainians. It’s a political decision that needs to be made.
I mean, in a modern war where we’ve seen drones play such a key role, remotely operated, does it surprise you, that this historical piece of equipment, like a tank, is so important right now?
It doesn’t surprise me. And the logical question would be, well, what happened to all of those Russian tanks a year ago? Because a lot of them were destroyed by drones. That’s why this marriage of an old weapon, the tank, with these new weapons, the drones, I think is going to be very powerful against the Russians.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

Related: How well is the grain deal working for Ukraine?

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