When announcing his decision to provide Abrams tanks to Ukraine, President Joe Biden noted that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had recommended the move. But Austin, along with other military leaders, had argued for weeks that he didn’t make sense for the US to send the tanks to Ukraine, making his recommendation on providing them only after it became clear Biden wanted to send them. some 48 hours before his announcement, three US officials said.

Initially, Biden was not convinced to send the tanks, despite pressure to do so to give Germany cover to send some Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, the officials said. He liked the idea after Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented him with possible solutions to an issue that publicly exposed divisions within the US-Europe alliance, the officials said.

The plan that Biden finally approved in a Monday morning meeting with members of his national security team was, according to officials, tailor-made to provide cover for Germany: the US for many months, if not a year. But because Germany had said it would send leopards to Ukraine if the US also agreed to send tanks, the US promise of a future delivery opened the door for Germany to send tanks to Ukraine now.

President Joe Biden announces additional military support for Ukraine as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listen in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Wednesday.Alex Wong/Getty Images

The president’s reversal on tanks caught some military officials by surprise, and marked the second time in a month that such a dynamic has played out between the White House and Defense Department over aid to Ukraine, three people familiar with said. with the matter.

Last month, some military leaders were similarly surprised when news surfaced that the US would provide Ukraine with a Patriot missile defense system, these people said. They believed the discussion about whether to do so was still going on even after Biden made the decision to provide the missile system, the sources said.

Military leaders base their recommendations on assessments of the battlefield and the state of US arms stockpiles, while the White House and State Department appear increasingly willing to factor in political and diplomatic considerations. in decisions about military aid, the officials said. That tension between wanting to give Ukraine what it is asking for, which often has bipartisan support in Congress, and what makes sense on the battlefield is likely to grow as the war drags on, the officials said.

A senior administration official said Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks “just make more sense” than the US Abrams tanks because they can get to Ukraine faster and aren’t as complicated to maintain.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council declined to comment. The State Department declined to comment.

On Friday morning, a US official told reporters that Biden would not provide Ukraine with expensive, high-maintenance tanks that his national security team leaders did not believe Ukraine needed just to give Germany cover for its own domestic decision. .

The official cited Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, specifically as advisers who did not believe the Abrams tanks were a net benefit to the Ukrainians given how difficult they are to operate and maintain. The official also expressed his frustration with the Germans over the public back and forth over tank supplies.

Austin appeared to give a public indication Friday that he did not believe the Abrams tanks were suitable for the current fight in the Ukraine. “What we are really focused on is making sure Ukraine has the capability it needs to be successful right now,” Austin said when asked at a news conference in Germany about sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

The Abrams tanks, like the Patriot missile system last month, were on a list of military assistance options for Ukraine that was presented to the president. But neither was recommended by the Pentagon as the best course of action. In the case of tanks, US military leaders argued that the UK’s Leopards and Challengers were much better options. Hundreds of the more than 2,000 Leopards from 13 countries in Europe could arrive on the battlefield in Ukraine in time for the upcoming spring counteroffensive.

On January 17, after Biden spoke with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Blinken, who has supported tank supplies for a while, suggested a way forward, a senior administration official said. Biden began to warm to the idea and tasked national security adviser Jake Sullivan with figuring out how to make it happen, given the positions of the Pentagon and Germany.

In this file photo taken on February 14, 2017, a US soldier helps maneuver an Abrams tank from a train carriage as US Army personnel unload military equipment at the Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase near Constanta in Romania.  - US President Joe Biden will address Americans on January 25, 2023 about US support for Ukraine, the White House has announced, amid expectations that the US will. announce the future delivery of Abrams tanks.  The White House did not provide details of the comments scheduled for 12:00 p.m. (1700 GMT), other than to say that Biden "will deliver comments on continued support for Ukraine."
A US soldier helps maneuver an Abrams tank from a train carriage at the Mihail Kogălniceanu airbase near Constanța, Romania, on February 14, 2017.Daniel Mihailescu / AFP – File Getty Images

On Monday, Sullivan, Austin and Milley met with Biden and presented him with specific recommendations on how best to provide the Abrams tanks, the official said. The president then made the final decision that he announced on Wednesday.

One of the US officials said that for Biden the most important aspect of his Ukraine strategy has been unity within the US-Europe alliance and, seeing how the tank debate was unfolding across Europe, he believed that there was an action by the United States. that could maintain unity.

Ultimately, Austin and Milley believed that Abrams tanks were not the right choice for Ukraine at this time, but they felt strongly that Ukraine needed tanks as soon as possible, the officials said. Once Germany made it clear that it would not send Leopard tanks unless the US provided Abrams, the US had to act.

Officials on Capitol Hill and in the administration discussed sending a very small number as a symbolic gesture to cover other countries, but Austin and Milley ultimately agreed they should send enough to really make a difference on the battlefield.

Pentagon leaders finally approved the tanks as part of a medium- and long-term capability for Ukraine and to create a path for Ukraine to get the European tanks it needs now.

But those nuances were missing from Biden’s comments on Wednesday.

“Today I am announcing that the United States will send 31 Abram tanks to Ukraine, the equivalent of one Ukrainian battalion,” Biden said. «Secretary Austin has recommended this step because it will enhance Ukraine’s ability to defend its territory and achieve its strategic objectives.»

Concerns about the US military’s arms stockpiles could worsen differences within the administration over some of Ukraine’s future requests.

The Pentagon was reluctant to send Patriots to Ukraine, for example, in part because the system is needed to protect US troops and there were concerns that the military would not have them to hand.

“With the Patriots and then the tanks, the military is approaching issues from the point of view of political considerations, and they are cautious,” said a person familiar with the discussions. “Their stocks are running low and that is creating real problems for them.”

Now, US officials say that one of the reasons for the increased urgency of getting Ukraine the military equipment it needs for an upcoming offensive is that some US officials are hoping Ukraine can build momentum and then begin to explore a diplomatic path forward.

Military leaders, namely Milley, have also spoken more publicly about the importance of potential talks to end the war.