February 8, 2023

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Poland and Britain are considering sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine

Poland and Britain are considering sending main battle tanks to Ukraine, a move that would end the West’s nearly year-long refusal to use some of its most advanced weapons against Russia and increase pressure on other Kiev allies to follow suit.

Warsaw and London have yet to complete such a move, but it would meet a demand Kyiv has made almost since the war began and support potential offensives against Russian forces in the coming months. Poland would need approval from Berlin to send its German-made tanks.

Defense officials in the United States and Europe have long had concerns that the handing over of tanks to Ukraine could signal more direct Western involvement in the war, prompting Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to escalate.

On Wednesday, the Polish President said his country is ready to send German-made Leopard II tanks to Ukraine if an “international coalition” agrees. No such western-made main battle tanks have been sent to Ukraine since the invasion.

Poland has already decided to include the leopards in a coalition package, President Andrzej Duda said at a joint press conference in Lviv with Presidents Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and President Gitanas Nausėda of Lithuania. Mr Duda added he hoped the tanks “would soon be pouring into Ukraine through various routes”.

Mr Duda did not indicate which countries could be involved in such a coalition. But Polish officials have urged Western nations several times this week to join forces and jointly send more modern tanks to supplement Ukraine’s dwindling supply of Soviet-era tanks.

Germany has long resisted sending offensive weapons to Ukraine over fears of an escalation of the war, saying it is not the first NATO ally to send tanks. And because of ethical concerns, Germany puts limits on its huge, lucrative arms exports and re-exports, so Poland or any other country needs its approval to ship the German-made Leopards to Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky said on Wednesday that Ukraine was awaiting a “joint decision” on moving the tanks and that it would need donations from several countries to meet the needs of Ukraine’s armed forces. “One state cannot help us with Leopards because we are fighting thousands of Russian Federation tanks,” he said.

The growing pressure on Berlin comes a day after Britain announced it would send Challenger II tanks. No decision has yet been made on whether the Challenger II tanks – reportedly only 10 – will be donated to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba expressed hope that the floodgates were open for the West to send main battle tanks after France, the United States and Germany agreed in quick succession last week to send lighter armored fighting vehicles: AMX-10 RC reconnaissance vehicles from France, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the USA and Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles from Germany.

Germany’s decision to send the Marders marked a significant shift in Berlin’s approach, and the armored vehicles pledged by the three countries are among the most advanced Ukraine has received since the beginning of the war. Still, they fall short of the capabilities of main battle tanks like the Leopard, which analysts say could hold the key for Ukraine to overcome the grueling attrition that has characterized this winter’s war.

Monika Pronczuk contributed to the reporting.