By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States, in a reversal, is poised to start a process that would eventually send dozens of M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Tuesday.
Such a decision by the United States would come just days after Washington argued against sending the Abrams, despite demands from Kyiv and public pressure from Berlin as it faced calls to send German-made Leopard battle tanks.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an announcement could come as early as Wednesday. A third source familiar with the matter said the U.S. commitment could total about 30 Abrams tanks to be delivered over the coming months.
The two officials said the Abrams would likely be procured through a fund known as the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), which allows President Joe Biden’s administration to get weapons from industry rather than from existing U.S. weapons stocks.
One of the officials said it was possible the Biden administration could use the USAI process to buy the Abrams from allies who have them, refurbish them, then send them to Ukraine.
The process can take months and even years.
The United States and its allies failed during talks in Germany last week to convince Berlin to provide its Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine, a key demand from Kyiv as it tries to breath new momentum into its fight against Russian forces.
Ukraine says heavily armored Western battle tanks would give its troops more mobility and protection ahead of a new Russian offensive that Kyiv expects in the near future. They could also help Ukraine retake some of the territory that has fallen to Russia.
U.S. officials had said that the Abrams was tough to maintain, hard to train Ukrainians to operate, and ran on jet fuel — making it a poor choice for this phase of the war.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon declined to say whether Washington would provide tanks to Ukraine but reiterated the challenges the Abrams posed.
“The M1 (Abrams) is a complex weapons system that is challenging to maintain … that was true yesterday, that is true today and will be true in the future,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters.
“We continue to have discussions with Ukrainians and our allies and partners about what are the medium- and long-term defense requirements for Ukraine,” Ryder said.
While eventually backtracking, Berlin had said it would only send the Leopard tanks to Ukraine if the United States agreed to send its own tanks.
“The only reason the United States would send M1 tanks to Ukraine is to give Germany the political cover it requires to unlocking the Leopard tanks,” said Mark Cancian, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The disclosure about the softening U.S. position came the same day sources said that Germany would send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine to help fight Russia’s invasion and allow other countries such as Poland to do the same.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrat party had been holding back, wary of moves that could cause Moscow to escalate further.
A source familiar with the matter said the coming U.S. decision was part of conversations with the Germans about their reluctance to provide tanks and to demonstrate that the U.S. commitment was significant.
“The United States was willing to make a significant commitment to assist them in making theirs,” the source said. “The tanks are an important capability and if it took U.S. leadership then that’s what we were willing to do.”
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Mike Stone; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker)