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Ukrainians train on Leopard tanks in Germany, West still short on pledges

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MUNSTER, Germany — Inside unassuming green containers on an army base in northwestern Germany, battles are being waged. Ukrainian tank gunners lock on to enemy targets that pop up on their monitors, quickly destroying them.

Those fights are just simulations, but the Ukrainians will soon train on real Leopard 2A6 tanks. And at the end of March, they will be back on the front line, facing off against Russian forces and trained on new equipment.

“Everyone’s highly motivated,” said Vitalii, 33, who gave only his first name, in line with protocol for a visit arranged by the German Defense Ministry. He wore orange-tinted sunglasses and a green tube scarf pulled over his nose to protect his identity when speaking with journalists. “Hopefully the materiel can help us win the war,” he said.

The training at a German military base near Munster is part of an effort across Europe to get Ukrainian forces acquainted with the tanks and infantry fighting vehicles they have been promised. But while Berlin had hoped to pull together two Leopard 2 battalions — totaling about 70 tanks — for Ukraine ahead of an anticipated Russian offensive this spring, the West is still short on contributions.

Ukrainian soldiers trained on new German tanks on Feb. 20 as part of an intensive five-week training program. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

For Ukraine, what’s so special about Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks?

One delivery of 14 state-of-the-art Leopard 2A6 tanks pledged by Germany and three from Portugal is set to go on time — equivalent to about half of a battalion.

A second battalion’s worth of Leopard 2A4 tanks — including 14 from Poland, eight from Norway, six from Spain and four from Canada and three demining tanks from Finland — also is intended to go at the end of March. But German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius indicated that repairs and checks still needed to be carried out on those vehicles, which were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The package will be supplemented with 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles, which have large tracks that make them look and operate like light tanks. Although more than 50 years old, they have proved more reliable than some newer additions to the arsenal, German defense officials say.

“If other countries deliver [Leopard 2 tanks] … I would very much welcome that, especially the A6 model, but I can’t conjure it up either,” Pistorius said while visiting the troops in training on Monday.

Germany approves Leopard tanks for Ukraine

More than 2,000 German-made Leopard 2 tanks are in military arsenals across Europe. Berlin was heavily criticized for holding up deliveries, by hesitating to grant countries permission to reexport German-made tanks to Ukraine. But since the German government gave the green light on Jan. 25, other countries have been slow to follow through, German officials say.

Greece, which, after Germany, has the largest number of Leopard tanks, has declined to participate, with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis saying “they are absolutely necessary for our defense posture.”

Sweden hasn’t yet come forward to offer any of its 120 Leopard tanks. Defense Minister Pal Jonson was quoted Thursday by local news agency TT as saying, “We are open to that and we are in close dialogue with above all Germany about it.”

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last month that his government was considering buying and sending to Ukraine the 18 Leopard 2A6 tanks the Netherlands leases as part of a German-Dutch brigade. But the Dutch and German militaries nixed that plan. Passing those on to Ukraine would mean “further weakening the readiness” of the German armed forces, Pistorius said on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels last week.

Denmark has likewise backed off on donating any of its 44 Leopard 2A7 tanks — the newest model.

Instead, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands collectively announced that they would refurbish for Ukraine 100 older Leopard 1 tanks — which, while more than 40 years old, still would be useful on the battlefield. The first of those would not arrive before summer, Pistorius said.

The United States’ promised M1 Abrams tanks were always expected to involve an even longer timeline.

The upshot: Ukraine’s military may not get all the equipment promised to support a counteroffensive in the coming months.

The soldiers training on Leopard 2 tanks and Marders in Germany were enthusiastic that the new equipment could make a difference on the front lines. Anatolii, who would describe himself only as being over 50, said that comparing the Western systems to the Soviet-era tanks to which he is accustomed is “like comparing a Mercedes with a Soviet Zhiguli car” — better known in the West as a Lada.

“The delivery will be a huge morale boost for our comrades, too,” he said, adjusting the khaki scarf concealing his face while speaking with reporters.

Given the urgency to return to the fight, the tank training has been streamlined to cover the most basic technical and combat skills, along with troubleshooting and maintenance.

The days are intensive: at least 12 hours a day, six days a week.

The German military would not give details on how many Ukrainian troops are being trained here this month. But each of the 40 Marders has a crew of three and can carry six infantry soldiers, while each Leopard 2 tank has a crew of four and transports no infantry troops.

Since the beginning of the war, 600 Ukrainian soldiers have received basic training in Germany, and 1,200 others have been given more specialized instruction.

As with weapons contributions, participation in training for Ukrainian troops has differed across European countries. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that more than 10,000 Ukrainian troops had come through Britain for training in the past six months, with the aim of an additional 20,000 this year.

In U.K. and France visits, Zelensky asks for fighter planes to counter Russia

Many of those serving in Ukraine’s armed forces had not picked up a gun before Russia’s invasion, and the level of experience of soldiers arriving for training ranges widely, said Peter, 52, a German lieutenant at the base near Munster.

About 20 percent of them are deemed “professional” and the rest “less experienced,” he said, adding that: “Everyone is soaking up all the new knowledge like a dry sponge.”

Of course, unlike when German troops are trained on Leopard tanks and Marders, the Ukrainians know that in a matter of weeks they’ll be on the front lines, he said.

“The entire situation is emotional for the German troops, too,” he said. “They know the responsibility they have right now.”

Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: President Biden made a dramatic, unannounced visit to Kyiv on Monday, in a display of robust American support for Ukraine just four days before the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The high-risk visit to the historic Ukrainian capital signaled continued commitment from the United States, Ukraine’s largest financial and military backer. Biden is set to visit Poland next, to discuss Western efforts to help Ukraine resist Russia’s invasion. Read the latest here.

The fight: Russia has been targeting