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Allied nations — including the U.S. — met today to talk military support for Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Germany, top Pentagon leaders met with allied nations at a U.S. air base to discuss military support for Ukraine. The U.S. is providing dozens of armored vehicles, more air defenses and artillery rounds to fight off Russia. But the big question is about tanks. Here's Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: We're also pushing hard to meet Ukraine's requirements for tanks and other armored vehicles. The U.K. has announced a significant donation of Challenger 2 tanks for Ukraine. This is the first introduction of Western main battle tanks into Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: So as Secretary Austin said, the U.K. is providing the first tanks to Ukraine to help in an expected offensive in the coming months. He did not say whether Germany would supply its own tanks. That sticking point has consumed allies for weeks. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here in the studio. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So there was hope that Germany would provide its Leopard tanks or allow other countries in Europe to re-export their own German-made tanks to Ukraine. What happened?

BOWMAN: Well, Germany says they're still considering it. The defense minister said, curiously, he would need agreement from all allies first. That kind of came out of the blue, Ari. There are also concerns in the German government that providing tanks could antagonize Russia. Now, Austin tried to put the best face on all of this, talking about all the other military gear heading to Ukraine from Germany and others, including American Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Stryker armored vehicles. I've ridden in these armored vehicles on combat operations. They're good and effective. They don't have the punching power of a tank. You know, if the U.S. and its allies want Ukraine to push through Russian defenses in the coming months as they say, they will need tanks and a lot of them.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about what the bigger picture is here. As these armored vehicles, artillery, air defenses enter Ukraine, possibly to be followed by tanks, what's Ukraine going to do with it?

BOWMAN: Well, the expectation is Ukraine will mount an offensive sometime before the spring thaw. Talking with Pentagon officials and defense analysts, they say likely in the eastern Donbas area around Luhansk where Russia is dug in. Another option, Ari, is pushing south and blocking off the land bridge that connects Russia with Crimea. That would cut off Crimea by preventing supplies from coming in. The only other avenue for supplies is a bridge from Russia farther to the south that Ukraine already has hit and partially destroyed. Cutting off Crimea would be devastating, really get the attention of Putin, whose forces grabbed Crimea, of course, back in 2014.

SHAPIRO: That sounds ambitious. What are the chances of it succeeding?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know. Now, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, appearing with Austin, once again said Ukraine can't achieve its stated goal of pushing all the Russians out of Ukraine. But he did say Ukraine can, quote, "liberate some territory." Now, how much remains to be seen. You know, can they push back Russia to that February 23 pre-invasion borders? The sense and the hope is Ukraine will gain enough territory to have a better negotiating hand should talks begin. At this point, of course, neither side is interested in talking, only fighting.

SHAPIRO: So Ukraine may be planning this big offensive. Is Russia planning an offensive as well?

BOWMAN: They are planning an offensive, and Russia has had some success in the Donbas area taking some towns and villages - nothing really significant. And it's been spearheaded by the Russian paramilitary group, the Wagner Group. Russia is also sending in thousands more troops and will likely send thousands more. It seems Russia is taking a page from Stalin, who said quantity has a quality all its own. Of course, that was before precision weaponry, armed drones, satellites that have helped Ukraine pinpoint and destroy massive amounts of Russian troops, tanks and armor. So a question ahead for Russia - even it can mount an offensive, what can it really achieve at this point?

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tom Bowman, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANK AND THE BANGAS SONG, "TSA FT. PJ MORTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.