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U.S. to send tanks to Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's official. American tanks are headed to Ukraine. The U.S. is sending 31 Abrams tanks, a move designed to help Ukraine defend its territory and also designed to send a message to Russia the U.S. and its allies are committed to the fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The expectation on the part of Russia is we're going to break up. We're not going to stay united. But we are fully, thoroughly, totally united.

KELLY: President Biden announcing the move today at the White House, which is where we now find John Kirby, the president's spokesman on the National Security Council. He joins us live.

John Kirby, welcome back.

JOHN KIRBY: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. Good to be with you.

KELLY: Good to have you with us. Ukraine, as you know, has been calling for tanks all through this war. The U.S. resisted and resisted and resisted. Why send them now?

KIRBY: Well, we never took tanks off the table. And tanks, frankly, have been in discussion, you know, for months. But this was a discussion that we had not only with the Ukrainians, but with our allies and partners. And we want to make sure with every system we send that we're sending systems appropriate to the fight that the Ukrainians are in and the fight that we think they're going to be in in coming weeks and months.

And this decision today is really - you got to take a couple of steps back and look at it in the context of the combined arms training that we're doing with Ukrainian battalions right now outside the country. They believe - and we believe they're right to believe - that in the spring and the summer months, that they are going to face Russia coming back in an offensive way and that they want to be able to conduct offensive operations of their own. And they want to do it in a combined arms fashion, which means you need to maneuver in open terrain and on vast parts of ground. And that means you need armored capabilities like the Bradleys and the Strykers we've sent. And that, of course, includes tanks. So this decision was really the culmination of weeks of diplomatic conversations about how do we help Ukraine in the fight that we expect them to be in when the winter fades and spring and summer months come.

KELLY: But on the Abrams specifically, the Pentagon's top policy guy - this is Colin Kahl - told reporters just last week that the U.S. was not going to send Abrams to Ukraine because they're too hard to maintain. He said, and I quote, "the Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It's expensive. It's hard to train on." John Kirby, are these things no longer true?

KIRBY: All those things are still true, Mary Louise. And we have been nothing but open and transparent - certainly the Pentagon has been - about certain challenges with having, you know, a foreign military operate and train and maintain the Abrams tanks. But there are other countries that have purchased Abrams tanks and are able to operate them. And so we're confident that the Ukrainians can get there.

But the difference is Ukraine is at war. And they are in the midst of an invasion by a hostile neighboring power, and they are losing civilians and troops every day. So we need to make sure that we tailor the delivery of Ukraines in a way - I'm sorry, Abrams, pardon me - that we deliver the - that we tailor the delivery of Abrams tanks in a way that the Ukrainians can absorb it effectively. So that's why we're going to start with this battalion. That's why it's going to take many months for them to get there.

KELLY: Now...

KIRBY: But we're not going to waste time, Mary Louise. We're going to train those troops. We're going to help them put in a supply chain process so that they have the parts and supplies and the technical ability...

KELLY: And the training...

KIRBY: ...To repair...

KELLY: ...To run them.

KIRBY: ...These tanks.

KELLY: Right.

KIRBY: Yeah.

KELLY: Now, it's not just Abrams that are headed to Ukraine. This announcement was made in tandem with Germany announcing they're going to send Leopard tanks.

KIRBY: That's right.

KELLY: Was the U.S. announcement timed to give Germany cover?

KIRBY: This was a very coordinated announcement by both the United States and Germany. I mean, we've been talking to our German counterparts now for many weeks. Tanks have been certainly on the agenda. They were on Friday, when Secretary Austin was in Ramstein on the Ukraine Contact Group. And today's announcement was very much coordinated with the Germans, as it should be. As the president said, we are united. We want to certainly appear as though we are united because, again, that's really important too.

KELLY: Yeah. President Biden went out of his way not to threaten Russia today. He stressed this is about helping Ukraine defend its own territory. He said it's not an offensive threat to Russia. There is no offensive threat to Russia. Can you elaborate on the messaging going on there?

KIRBY: We have been, from the very beginning, not interested in having this war in Ukraine escalate to make it what Putin claims it is - a war of U.S. versus Russia. It's not. And we don't want to see the war escalate to that level. That wouldn't be good for us, Russia. It certainly wouldn't be good for Ukraine. So the president's comments today were entirely consistent with how he has talked about this war from the very beginning. And the Russian propaganda today, you know, they're out there saying that these tanks are an escalation and that they're an offensive threat. And the president wanted to get ahead of that and make it clear that they're not.

Now look, Mary Louise, they are absolutely a threat to Russian forces inside Ukraine. They need to know that. They need to understand that. These are very capable tanks. But they...

KELLY: That's my...

KIRBY: ...Don't pose a threat to...

KELLY: That's my last question. In the few seconds we have left, how big a game changer does the White House expect these U.S. tanks to be?

KIRBY: What we do think will be a significant enhanced capability for Ukraine is all the armored capability. You've got to keep it in context of everything that's being given to Ukraine here for their combined arms operations.

KELLY: Right.

KIRBY: And the tanks are a part of that. They are significant. They will have a significant impact. And that's why, quite frankly...

KELLY: OK.

KIRBY: ...We gave them the equivalent of one Ukrainian battalion, so that it wasn't...

KELLY: OK.

KIRBY: ...Some symbolic gesture. It was actually - have operational impact.

KELLY: That is NSC spokesman John Kirby at the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.