By Andreas Rinke and Tom Balmforth
BERLIN/KYIV (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Germany paved the way for Europe to send scores of tanks to Ukraine on Wednesday, and Washington was poised to make a similar announcement – moves Kiev hailed as a potential turning point in the war and condemned from Moscow as an escalation.
Kiev has been calling for months for Western main battle tanks that would give its forces greater firepower, protection and mobility to break through Russian defensive lines and potentially reclaim occupied territory.
Germany, previously the West’s resistance, said it would send an initial company of 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks from its own stocks and would also approve shipments from other European countries.
The ultimate goal would be to supply Ukraine with two battalions of Leopards, typically consisting of three or four companies each, the first to arrive within three to four months.
“Germany will always be at the forefront when it comes to supporting Ukraine,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the German parliament, to applause.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Scholz by telephone and said he was “sincerely grateful to the chancellor and to all our friends in Germany”.
The move removes one of the last taboos of Western support: providing weapons that are primarily offensive rather than defensive in purpose.
“So the coalition of tanks was formed. Everyone who doubted that this could ever happen now sees it: for Ukraine and its partners the impossible is nothing,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter .
“I call on all new partners who have Leopard 2 tanks in service to join the coalition and supply as many of them as possible.”
The Russian embassy in Berlin denounced Germany’s “extremely dangerous decision” which, it said, “destroys the remnants of mutual trust” and could drag Germany into war. Scholz promised that nothing like this would happen.
MORE TO FOLLOW
Berlin’s move paves the way for pledges by other countries fielding Pardi, which Germany has made by the thousands and exported to allies.
Finland has said it will send them, as has Poland, which has already sought Berlin’s approval. Spain and the Netherlands have said they were considering it, and Norway is said to be discussing it. Britain has offered a company of 14 of its comparable Challengers and France is considering sending its own Leclercs.
“At a critical moment in the Russian war, these tanks can help Ukraine defend itself, win and present itself as an independent nation,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Two sources in the United States said Washington will announce later Wednesday that it will supply dozens of its own M1 Abrams tanks.
Moscow says supplies of modern offensive weapons to Ukraine will only delay what it says will be its inevitable victory. Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador in Washington, said the US tank deliveries would be “another blatant provocation”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any US tank sent to Ukraine would “burn like any other”.
Last week, Russia stepped up its threats, including comments by Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, that a nuclear state facing defeat could use nuclear weapons.
Western officials who support sending the tanks have rejected Moscow’s threats, arguing that Russia is already waging a full-scale war and has been discouraged from attacking NATO or using nuclear weapons.
Last week, allies pledged billions of dollars worth of military aid, including hundreds of armored fighting vehicles and troop carriers. Those are seen as more effective for attacking enemy lines when used in conjunction with tanks.
Andriy Yermak, head of Zelenskiy’s administration, described a force of what Ukraine hopes are hundreds of Western tanks as “the real fist of democracy”.
WITHDRAWAL FROM SOLEDAR
Ukraine sees the weapons as a way to restore its momentum in a war that has lately become a bloody slog to a standstill.
Kiev acknowledged Wednesday that its forces had withdrawn from Soledar, a small salt-mining town in the east that Russia said it had captured more than a week ago, its biggest gain in more than six months.
The city is close to Bakhmut, a larger city that has been the focus of an intense Russian assault for weeks.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk region said units of the Russian Wagner contract militia were now advancing inside Bakhmut, with fighting on the outskirts and in recently Ukrainian-held neighborhoods.
RockedBuzz via Reuters could not verify the situation there.
In the 11 months since its invasion, Russia has killed thousands of civilians, driven millions from their homes and reduced entire cities to rubble.
He says his “special military operation” was needed to stem a security threat stemming from Ukraine’s ties to the West, which he now describes as an attempt to destroy it. Kiev and its allies say Ukraine has never threatened Russia and the invasion is a war of aggression to subjugate a neighbor and seize land.
Last year, Ukraine defeated Russian troops on the outskirts of Kiev and later drove them out of the occupied areas.
But Moscow still occupies about one-sixth of Ukraine and has declared this territory part of Russia. Ukraine says it will not stop fighting until it regains all of its territory.
(Reporting by the RockedBuzz via Reuters offices; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Timothy Heritage)