The United States and Germany have announced plans to send dozens of advanced battle tanks to Ukraine following intense debate and pressure from NATO allies to respond positively to Kyiv’s calls for as many as 300 tanks to help it repel Russia’s 11-month-old full-scale invasion.
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Their decisions follow a British decision earlier this month to send 14 of its own Challenger 2 tanks, all of which could take months of training and other preparation to realize.
Kyiv quickly welcomed the German and US tank pledges as crucial to its hopes of victory, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy rushed to emphasize that “speed and volume are key now.”
In his nightly address, Zelenskiy said he had also spoken to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltengerg and urged shipments of long-range missiles and aircraft.
President Joe Biden said the United States will send 31 of its highly advanced Abrams tanks in a move he said was not an offensive threat to Russia.
Moscow has warned that it considers the Western supply of such tanks to its much smaller post-Soviet foe to be a dangerous provocation.
Speaking from the White House, Biden said the NATO tanks for Ukraine would help “improve their ability to maneuver in open terrain.”
He praised Berlin’s announcement hours earlier as evidence that “Germany has really stepped up.”
Biden added that “The expectation on the part of Russia is we’re going to break up, but we are fully, totally and thoroughly united.”
Besides tanks, the Washington assistance will also reportedly include eight tracked recovery-and-towing vehicles known as M88s.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby later said it would be “many months” before the US tanks arrived but that Ukraine had to be ready for improved weather and intensified Russian attacks.
He added that there was no indication Russian President Vladimir Putin had plans to attack NATO territory.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the supply of 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine as well as opening the road for third countries to re-export their own German-made Leopards amid fears of a spring offensive by Russia and a reminder of the intense assault on Ukraine after troops were forced to withdraw from the town of Soledar.
Scholz said the decision, approved on January 25, was “the right principle” in the face of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius added that the first Leopard tanks could be in Ukraine within three months.
Later, Biden and Scholz held a joint call with French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during which they reportedly agreed on the need for ongoing military support for Ukraine and close transatlantic coordination.
Zelenskiy quickly welcomed the White House move as a “powerful decision” and “an important step on the path to victory.”
“Today the free world is united as never before for a common goal — liberation of [Ukraine]. We’re moving forward,” he added.
According to the German government, Berlin’s goal is to quickly establish two battalions with Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine, adding that it would, in the first stage, provide 14 tanks from its military stocks.
Scholz said Western allies would keep supporting Ukraine, but also warned that decisions must be made with an eye on whether they could further inflame the conflict, which is now in its 12th month.
“We must always make it clear in everything we do that we are doing what is necessary and possible to support Ukraine, but that at the same time we are preventing the war from escalating into a war between Russia and NATO,” Scholz told the Bundestag , Germany’s lower house of parliament.
Zelenskiy also thanked Scholz for Germany’s “important and timely decisions,” saying they were a “green light for partners to supply similar weapons.”
Kyiv hopes the move will alter the balance on the battlefield as Russia continues to pile massive pressure on Ukrainian defenders in the eastern part of the country, where Ukraine on January 25 confirmed that it had completely drawn from the strategic town of Soledar.
“The first tank step has been taken,” said Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, adding he hopes this will be the start of a “tank coalition” to address Kyiv’s needs.
Norwegian Defense Minister Bjoern Arild Gram said after the German announcement that Norway would also send tanks to Ukraine but did not specify how many.
Poland, Spain, Finland, the Netherlands, and Norway are some of the other European countries expected to follow suit and supply some of their Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
“Spain is ready…to deal with our allies in any way necessary, whether that means sending Leopards, training in the use of Leopards or help in their maintenance and upkeep,” Defense Minister Margarita Robles said, without providing further details.
Pal Jonson, the defense minister of Sweden, whose NATO entry is being held up by Turkey, told the AFP news agency that his country does not “exclude” sending Leopard 2s to Ukraine.
Germany’s announcement was met swiftly with support from the West, and derision from Moscow.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has already announced plans to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, welcomed Germany’s decision to further “strengthen Ukraine’s defensive firepower.”
“Together, we are accelerating our efforts to ensure Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace,” Sunak said on Twitter.
He later added that the West needed to “intensify” its support for Ukraine.
NATO’s Stoltenberg “strongly” welcomed Germany’s decision, saying it can help Kyiv defeat Russia’s invading forces.
“At a critical moment in Russia’s war, these can help Ukraine to defend itself, win & prevail as an independent nation,” Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.
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Russia, however, was angered by the decision with its ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, calling it “extremely dangerous.” He accused Berlin of being “inclined to permanent escalation” of the conflict.
“This extremely dangerous decision moves the conflict to a new level of the standoff and contradictory German politicians’ statements about Germany’s unwillingness to get involved in it,” he said, adding that “Germany, like its close allies, is not interested in a diplomatic resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, and is inclined to its permanent escalation and limitless pumping-up of the Kyiv regime with more deadly weapons.”
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the West’s policy decisions, including sending the tanks, were creating a “very, very tense” security situation in Europe and for the world as a whole.
The BBC quoted Russian Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Antonov as calling the supply of M1 Abram tanks to Ukraine a “blatant provocation against the Russian Federation.”
He accused the United States of seeking to “inflict a strategic defeat on us.”
In an apparent battlefield setback, Ukrainian forces on January 25 acknowledged that they had completed the withdrawal from the strategic town of Soledar in Donetsk after weeks of intense fighting with Russian forces.
The Reuters and AFP news agencies quoted a Ukrainian military spokesman as saying that the move saw soldiers move back to predesignated positions.
“After months of heavy fighting, including over the past weeks, the armed forces of Ukraine left (Soledar) and retired along the outskirts to preprepared positions,” AFP quoted Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatiy as saying.
Russia earlier this month claimed to have established control over the salt-mining town with a prewar population of around 10,000. Soledar is located some 20 kilometers from the strategic city of Bakhmut, where pitched battles have been under way for months without either side prevailing.
Earlier on January 25, the Ukrainian military said that despite suffering “numerous losses,” Russian troops kept up their offensive in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with attacks directed mainly on Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in Donetsk, where heavy fighting has been under way for months.