By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When dozens of defense ministers meet at an airbase in Germany on Friday, all eyes will be on what Berlin is and is not willing to offer to Ukraine.
Defense leaders from about 50 countries and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will confer at Ramstein Air Base, the latest in a series of meetings since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
The focus is not expected to be on what the United States will supply, but on whether Germany will send its Leopard main battle tanks to Ukraine or at least approve their transfer from third countries.
“The US expects Europeans to lead the way,” said Rachel Rizzo, an Atlantic Council staff member. “I would expect the US to rightly pressure Europeans to commit more of its resources.”
Ukraine relied primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tank variants, and the Leopard 2 tank is considered one of the best in the West, operated by armies in about 20 countries. The tank weighs more than 60 tons, carries a 120 mm smoothbore gun and can hit targets at a distance of up to five kilometers.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was due to meet German Defense Secretary Christine Lambrecht in Berlin before the Ramstein conference, but she resigned on Monday.
Instead, new German defense minister Boris Pistorius will host Austin on Thursday.
The United States has pledged about $24 billion to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian forces.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said President Joe Biden’s administration is expected to approve Stryker armored vehicles for Kiev next, but is not ready to send its own tanks, including the M1 Abrams.
With Republicans taking control of the US House of Representatives in early January, Democrat Biden could come under domestic pressure to ask European allies to do more.
OVERCOME A TABOO
Germany has become one of Ukraine’s main military supporters in response to the Russian invasion, overcoming a taboo rooted in the bloody history of the 20th century, but has not yet agreed to send tanks or allow other countries to send their own German-made tanks.
Some German officials have softened their opinions ahead of the Ramstein meeting.
Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, whose economy ministry is responsible for approving defense exports, has said Berlin should not stand in the way of countries wanting to send leopards to Ukraine.
Still, critics say German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ruling SPD are too slow, waiting for allies to act first rather than shoulder Germany’s responsibility as the closest Western power to Ukraine.
“The ball is in Germany’s court,” said a US official.
Eastern and Central European NATO allies rely primarily on the German-built Leopards, military experts say are the Western tanks best suited to form the core of a new Ukrainian armored force.
Some Eastern European officials have publicly called on Germany to allow the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Monday urged Germany to send Ukraine the weapons it needed to fight invading Russian soldiers.
Britain has said it would send 14 of its main battle tanks to Ukraine along with additional artillery support, a move officials hope will open the door for Germany to take similar steps.
“I know there have been concerns in the German political body that they don’t want to go alone. Well, they’re not alone,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold and Andrew Gray in Brussels.; Edited by Don Durfee)