Battle tanks from German industrial reserves wanted by Ukraine will not be ready to be delivered until 2024, the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall has warned, increasing pressure on Nato allies to support Ukraine with armoured vehicles in active service instead, ahead of a key meeting this week.
“Even if the decision to send our Leopard tanks to Kyiv came tomorrow, the delivery would take until the start of next year,” Rheinmetall’s chief executive, Armin Papperger, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Rheinmetall, which manufactures the battle vehicle’s gun, has 22 Leopard 2 and 88 older Leopard 1 tanks in its stocks. Getting the Leopard tanks ready for battle, however, would take several months and cost hundreds of millions of euros the company could not put up until the order was confirmed, Papperger said.
“The vehicles must be completely dismantled and rebuilt,” he added.
While Rheinmetall’s admission limits the options of Ukraine’s western allies, it does not entirely quash Kyiv’s hopes that the UK’s promise to deliver Challenger 2 tanks would encourage other European nations to swiftly follow suit.
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Sunday Ukraine could expect more heavy weapons following Kyiv’s requests for the vehicles, artillery and missiles it says are key to defending itself. “The recent pledges for heavy warfare equipment are important – and I expect more in the near future,” Stoltenberg told Germany’s Handelsblatt daily.
The question of whether countries such as Poland, Finland or Germany can spare Leopard tanks from their own reserves is likely to dominate the agenda at a meeting at the Ramstein airbase in south-western Germany on Friday.
The warning came as Russian rocket attacks across Ukraine ended a two-week lull in Moscow’s targeting of the country’s power infrastructure and urban centres, and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, hailed a “positive dynamic” on the frontline.
Rescue workers in the city of Dnipro continued to search through the rubble of a nine-storey apartment block destroyed by a Russian missile strike on Saturday, killing at least 25 people and leaving about 400 homeless. City officials said on Sunday afternoon that at least 72 people were wounded, including 13 children, and 43 people were reported missing.
Other Ukrainian cities hit on Saturday included Odesa in the south, Kharkiv in the east, Lviv in the west and the capital, Kyiv. Civilian infrastructure, including electricity sites, were again damaged and power outages reported.
Putin’s upbeat assessment of the war came on Sunday after Moscow claimed victory in the bitter fighting over in the Donbas town of Soledar, which Kyiv has denied.
“There is a positive dynamic, everything is developing according to plans,” Putin said, answering a question from a journalist on Soledar, adding “I hope that our fighters will please us more than once again.”
Ukraine’s western partners have in recent weeks edged slowly towards delivering the heavier vehicles Kyiv could use to reclaim territories seized by Russia since the start of the invasion in February 2022.
Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, on Saturday night crossed a previously held red line when he said his country would become the first to send western-type main battle tanks to Ukraine, in the form of 14 Challenger 2 tanks.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, expressed hope on Twitter that these deliveries “will not only strengthen us on the battlefield, but also send the right signal to other partners”.
Poland, which reportedly has 249 Leopard 2 tanks in active service in its army, declared on Wednesday it was also willing to send a company of Leopard tanks to Ukraine “as part of international coalition building”.
How many battle tanks Poland would be able to spare and how state-of-the-art these would be is not entirely clear. Polish media last week said Warsaw was looking at 14 tanks, which is the standard size of a Nato company.
Over the long term, Poland is planning to upgrade its arsenal with Abrams tanks from the US and K2 tanks from South Korea, orders for which were signed last year.
Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, also signalled a readiness to contribute battle tanks of the same model if a European joint defence package was established, while adding that any delivery would be limited in number.
“The number of tanks [to be sent to Ukraine] cannot be large, since Finland borders on Russia and is not part of Nato.” Finland has about 200 Leopard 2 main battle tanks — about a tenth of the total number of Leopards in Europe.
Germany would play a key role in such deliveries since it is the country where the Leopard tanks are made and it has to approve their re-export from other states. The German deputy chancellor, Robert Habeck, said last week Berlin should not stand in the way if Warsaw decided to supply Kyiv with Leopards from its stocks.
It was not right that Germany should hinder “countries that had made decisions to support Ukraine”, said Habeck, whose economic ministry authorises the export of German arms.
Other politicians from the German Greens and the liberal Free Democratic party (FDP), the two junior partners in the governing coalition, also urged the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to strike a deal with Germany’s allies on delivering Leopard tanks.
“Leopard 2 is the most commonly used battle tank in Europe”, Anton Hofreiter of the Green party told the news outlet t-online. “It is obvious we should approach our European partners and jointly put Leopard 2 at Ukraine’s disposal.”
The German government’s attempt to seek a consensus on delivering battle tanks from its own stocks is complicated by the imminent resignation of its defence minister Christine Lambrecht, reported by several news outlets on Friday and expected to be confirmed at the start of the week.
The Social Democrat politician, a party ally of chancellor Scholz, had often looked gaffe-prone and out of her element since taking over the defence post in December 2021, just months before her government announced an era-defining shift on military affairs.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Oleksiy Makeev, meanwhile, reiterated his country’s appeal for more heavy weapons deliveries in an interview with the news agency dpa.
“German weapons save lives”, he said. “German anti-aircraft systems help us to deter rockets and German tanks will help us liberate territories. And the abominations committed by Russian occupying forces will become fewer.”