- The German Panther tank was considered the best for Ukraine
- All eyes will be on Germany as defense leaders meet Friday
- Austin meets new defense minister in Germany
- Russia’s Wagnerian mercenaries claim to take over village
Kyiv/BERLIN, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Ukraine on Thursday begged the West to finally send it heavy tanks, as the defense ministers of the United States and Germany prepare for a showdown over weapons that Kyiv believes could decide the fate of wars.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with new Defense Secretary Boris Pistorius in Germany on Thursday, shortly after Pistorius was sworn in.
The next day, the two sides will convene dozens of allies at Ramstein Air Force Base in the United States to pledge arms to Ukraine, a meeting billed as an opportunity to provide weapons to change the momentum of the war in 2023.
Military aid worth billions of dollars is expected, but the meeting is likely to be judged a failure unless it yields a major pledge of heavy tanks, which Kyiv says it needs to fend off Russian attacks and retake its occupied territories.
“We don’t have time, the world doesn’t have time,” Andrey Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Thursday.
“Ukraine’s tank problem must end as soon as possible,” he said. “We are paying the price for the slowness of life for our Ukrainian people. It shouldn’t be like that.”
A major commitment to tanks will require resolving a standoff between Washington and Berlin that has so far prevented the ally from sending its Leopard 2 tanks, the workhorse of European armies.
Washington and many Western allies say the Panther tank, which Germany produced thousands of during the Cold War and exported to its allies, is the only suitable option in sufficient numbers.
A German government source said Berlin would drop its objection if Washington sent its own Abrams tanks. U.S. officials say the Abrams missile is unsuitable for Ukraine because the turbine engines it uses use too much fuel and Kyiv’s strained logistics cannot keep supplies on the front lines.
Poland and Finland have said they will send Leopards if Germany lifts its veto, and other countries have said they are prepared to do the same. Britain broke the taboo on heavy tanks last week by supplying a squadron from its Challenger fleet, although there are far fewer of these tanks than the Leopards, adding to the pressure.
Germany has been reluctant to send offensive weapons that could be seen as escalating the conflict. Many of its Western allies say such concerns are misplaced, as Russia has shown no signs of backing down from its assault on Ukraine.
Colin Carr, 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, which will feature Strykers and Bradley armored vehicles.
“I just don’t think we’re there yet,” Carr said. “The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train. It has a jet engine.”
Germany said the tank decision was the first item on the agenda of Pistorius, who was appointed to succeed Christine Lambrecht, who resigned as defense minister this week. In a post-swearing-in ceremony, Pistorius pledged support for Ukraine, including military equipment, but gave no specifics.
“These are not normal times, we have a war in Europe. Russia is waging a brutal war of annihilation against a sovereign state, against Ukraine,” he said.
Ukraine, which relies mostly on a variant of the Soviet-era T-72 tank, says the new tank will provide its army with mobile firepower to drive out Russian troops in a decisive battle.
Western tanks have more effective armor and better guns than Soviet-era tanks, and hundreds of tanks were destroyed on both sides during the 11-month war in Ukraine.
Fighting has been centered in southern and eastern Ukraine after an initial Russian offensive from the north aimed at taking Kyiv faltered in the first months of Russia’s “special military operation”.
After Ukraine made significant progress in the second half of 2022, the frontline has largely stalled for the past two months, with neither side making significant progress despite heavy casualties in intense trench warfare.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian mercenary Wagner who played a leading role in the fighting near the eastern city of Bakhmut, claimed on Thursday that his forces had captured the Bakhmut suburb village of Klishchiivka. Kyiv has previously denied that the settlement has failed. Reuters could not confirm what happened there.
Prigozhin, who recruits criminals from Russian prisons and has promised amnesty to his private unit outside of regular military commands, complained last week that his fighters do not have enough trust from top brass.
Reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Reuters; Writing by Grant McCool and Himani Sarkar; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Angus MacSwan
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