January 31, 2023

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Allies support Ukraine with more arms pledges; But there is no sign of an American and German tank agreement

  • German Leopard tanks are the most suitable for Ukraine
  • All eyes will be on Germany when the defense chiefs meet on Friday
  • Austin in Germany, to meet the new Minister of Defense
  • Wagner’s Russian mercenaries claim to have captured a village

Kyiv/BERLIN (Reuters) – Western allies pledged billions of dollars in new weapons to Ukraine on Thursday, but the question of whether they would send German-made tanks remained unanswered, and Berlin has not yet announced whether it will lift its veto.

Fearing that winter will give Russian forces time to regroup and launch a major offensive, Ukraine is pressing for Leopard battle tanks, which are held by a group of NATO countries, but transferring them to Ukraine would require German approval.

A German government source said Berlin would lift its objections if Washington sent its own Abrams tanks.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, was reluctant to send weapons that could be seen as a provocation to Moscow. Many of Berlin’s western allies say the concern is misplaced, as Russia is already committed to war.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Germany’s new defense minister Boris Pistorius met in Berlin, but there was no word of any progress before dozens of allies gathered on Friday at Ramstein, Washington’s main European air base.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said later Thursday of the possibility of German approval, “I am somewhat skeptical, somewhat pessimistic because Germans are defending themselves against this like the devil shields itself from holy water.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized Germany for its position.

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“I am strong in Europe, I will help if someone else from outside Europe will help me too.” “It seems to me that this is not an entirely correct strategy,” he said.

The Rammstein meeting has been described as an opportunity for the West to give Ukraine what it needs to defeat Russia in 2023, and a group of 11 NATO countries has already announced armored vehicles and air defenses.

But Kyiv says it needs heavy tanks to repel Russian attacks and take back occupied lands.

“We don’t have time, the world doesn’t have this time,” Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, wrote on Telegram on Thursday.

“We are paying the price for slowness with the lives of our Ukrainian people. This should not be the case.”

Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Olungren said she was confident a solution could be found to supply Ukraine with modern battle tanks, but the Netherlands, which leases Leopard 2 tanks from Germany, would need a green light from Berlin before deciding whether to contribute.

A German government source said that Berlin had not yet received a request from any country to allow the tanks to be re-exported. Leopard II tanks – the backbone of armies across Europe and which Germany built in the thousands during the Cold War – are the only suitable option available in large enough numbers according to some Western Allies.

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US officials say they have no plans yet to send the Abrams, which is seen as using too much fuel for the strained logistics system in Kyiv to provide it at the front.

Annihilation war

Both Pistorius and Austin spoke about the importance of supporting Ukraine before their meeting, but neither addressed the tank issue directly.

“These are not normal times,” Pistorius said in a ceremony after being sworn in as minister. “We have a war raging in Europe. Russia is waging a brutal war of annihilation on a sovereign country, on Ukraine.”

Austin described Germany as one of Washington’s closest allies and thanked it for its support of Ukraine so far.

Poland and Finland have already said they will send the Panthers if Germany lifts its veto. In a sign of growing frustration, Poland indicated that it might do so even if Germany tried to stop it.

Russia responded to the prospect of sending more weapons to Kyiv with threats of escalation. Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of President Vladimir Putin who held the post of president from 2008 to 2012 when Putin stopped serving as prime minister, has been one of the clearest of Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons if it loses in Ukraine.

Medvedev said: “The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war could lead to a nuclear war.” “The nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depended.”

There were signs of friction within the ruling coalition in Germany. Schulz’s deputy, Robert Habeck, of his partners in the Green coalition, said just last week that Germany would not stand in the way of other countries sending Panthers to Ukraine.

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Attaching the Panthers to the US Abrams tanks could shift responsibility to Washington. Colin Kahl, a senior policy adviser at the Pentagon, said on Wednesday that Abrams tanks are unlikely to be included in Washington’s massive upcoming $2 billion military aid package, which will be topped by Stryker and Bradley armored vehicles.

“The Abrams tank is a very complex piece of equipment. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train with. It has a turbojet.”

Ukraine and Russia relied primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks, which were destroyed by the hundreds during 11 months of fighting. Kyiv says that the best-armed and protected Western tanks will give its forces mobile firepower to expel Russian forces in decisive battles.

After significant Ukrainian gains in the second half of 2022, the front lines have been largely frozen over the past two months, with neither side making significant gains despite heavy losses in intense trench warfare.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, commander of the Russian special mercenary force Wagner that took a leading role in the fighting near the eastern city of Bakhmut, claimed on Thursday that his forces had captured the village of Klishchevka on the outskirts of Bakhmut. Kyiv has previously denied the settlement’s fall.

Reuters could not confirm the situation there.

(Reporting from the Reuters offices) Writing by Peter Graff and Alexandra Hudson Editing by Angus McSwan and Frances Kerry

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