January 27, 2023

Ukraine offered arms worth billions but Germany and the US clashed over tanks

  • Germany’s Panther tanks are considered more suitable for Ukraine
  • All eyes are on Germany as defense chiefs meet on Friday
  • Austin in Germany to meet new defense minister
  • Russian Wagner mercenaries claim to capture the village

KYIV/BERLIN, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Western allies pledged billions of dollars in new arms to Ukraine on Thursday, but left unanswered the big question of whether to send heavy tanks, and Berlin has yet to signal whether it will lift the veto.

Fearing that winter could regroup Russian forces and unleash a major offensive, Ukraine is pushing for German-made Panther battle tanks, which are under the control of a string of NATO nations, but transfer to Ukraine requires Germany’s approval.

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

German Chancellor Olaf Schaalz, a social democrat, was reluctant to send weapons that were seen as provoking Moscow. Many of Berlin’s Western allies say the concern is misplaced, with Russia already fully engaged in the war.

The two countries tried to resolve the conflict when US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius met in Berlin. But there was no word on whether they had made progress ahead of Friday’s gathering of dozens of allies at Ramstein, Washington’s main European air base.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky drew thinly veiled criticism of Germany for its stance on tanks.

“I am powerful in Europe, and if someone else outside of Europe helps me, I will help. It seems to me that this is not a very sound strategy,” he said.

The Ramstein meeting is seen as an opportunity for the West to give Ukraine what it needs to defeat Russia in 2023, and countries including Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden have already announced armored vehicles and air defenses.

But Kiev says heavy tanks are needed to repel Russian attacks and recapture occupied ground.

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

“The question of tanks for Ukraine should be closed soon,” he said. “We are paying for the stagnation of the lives of our Ukrainian people, which should not be the case.”

Berlin has so far prevented allies from sending its Leopard 2 tanks to armies across Europe. Washington and many Western allies said the Panthers — which Germany built by the thousands during the Cold War — were the only viable option available in sufficient numbers.

U.S. officials say there are no plans yet to send Abrams, powered by powerful turbine engines considered more fuel-efficient for Kyiv’s strained logistics system, to supply the front.

Not normal times

Both Pistorius and Austin spoke about the importance of supporting Ukraine ahead of their meeting, but did not address the tank issue directly.

At a ceremony after his inauguration, Pistorius said: “These are not normal times, we have a war in Europe. Russia is waging a brutal war of destruction against a sovereign country, 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 desperation, Poland suggested that Germany might try to block it.

Russia has responded to the prospect of more weapons for Kyiv with threats of escalation. Dmitry Medvedev, a Vladimir Putin ally, stood as president from 2008-2012, when Putin took a break to act as prime minister, one of Moscow’s clearest threats to use nuclear weapons if he loses in Ukraine.

“A nuclear defeat in a conventional war could trigger a nuclear war,” Medvedev said. “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

There were signs of friction within Germany’s ruling coalition. Scholz’s deputy, Robert Habeck, of his coalition partners, The Greens, said just last week that Germany would not prevent other countries from sending Leopards to Ukraine.

Tying Leopards to US Abrams tanks would shift Washington’s responsibility. Colin Kall, the Pentagon’s top policy adviser, said Wednesday that Abrams tanks are unlikely to be included in Washington’s next massive $2 billion military aid package.

“The Abrams tank is a very complex piece of equipment. It’s expensive. It’s difficult to train. It has a jet engine.”

Both Ukraine and Russia rely primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks, which were destroyed by the hundreds during the 11-month conflict. Better-armed and protected Western tanks will give its troops the mobile firepower to repel Russian troops in decisive battles, says Cave.

After major Ukrainian gains in the second half of 2022, the frontline has largely frozen over the past two months, with neither side making major gains despite heavy casualties in intense trench warfare.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, the private Russian mercenary force that has played a leading role in fighting near the eastern city of Pakmut, said Thursday that his forces had captured the village of Klishchivka on the outskirts of Pakmut. Kyiv has previously denied that the settlement collapsed. Reuters could not confirm the situation there.

Report by Reuters Bureau; By Peter Graf and Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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