Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy said his government was expecting “strong decisions” from defence leaders of NATO and other countries meeting on Friday to discuss boosting Ukraine’s ability to confront Russian forces with modern battle tanks.
The meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany is the latest in a series since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago, and where future weapons supplies will be discussed, particularly of Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks used by armies across Europe.
Berlin has veto power over any decision to export the tanks and Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government has appeared reluctant so far to authorise that for fear of provoking Russia.
Some allies say Berlin’s concern is misplaced, with Russia already fully committed to war, while Moscow has repeatedly said Western weapons transfers would prolong the conflict and increase suffering in Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia have both relied primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks, which have been destroyed in their hundreds during the war that Russian President Vladimir Putin started last Feb. 24, calling it a “special military operation” to protect Russia and Russian speakers.
Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to grab territory and to erase the independence of a fellow ex-Soviet republic and neighbour. Western countries have provided a steady supply of weapons to Ukraine.
“We are, in fact, now waiting for a decision from one European capital, which will activate the prepared chains of cooperation regarding tanks,” Zelenskiy said in a video address on Thursday night.
“We are preparing for the Ramstein meeting tomorrow. We are expecting strong decisions. We are expecting a powerful military aid package from the United States,” he said.
The United States on Thursday announced new military assistance for Ukraine valued at up to $2.5 billion, including hundreds of armoured vehicles and support for Ukraine’s air defence.
The aid includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker Armored Personnel Carriers, the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement. In total, the United States has committed more than $27.4 billion in security aid to Ukraine since the invasion began.
German government sources have said Berlin would move on the Leopard tanks issue if Washington agreed to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Abrams tanks were not included in Thursday’s announcement by the United States.
Germany’s new Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said earlier, however, that he did not know of any requirement that Ukraine receive U.S. and German tanks simultaneously.
“I’m not aware of any such stipulation,” Pistorius told German ARD television when asked if that meant Abrams and Leopards had to be delivered at the same time, a position that leaves open the possibility of an agreement on Friday.
Ukraine’s allies in the West have wanted to avoid NATO appearing to confront Russia directly and demurred on sending the Kyiv government their most potent weaponry.
Ukraine needed the tanks to defend itself, recapture occupied land, and did not plan to attack Russia, Zelenskiy told ARD television on Thursday.
“From Washington to London, from Paris to Warsaw, you hear one thing: Ukraine needs tanks. Tanks are the key to ending the war properly. It is time to stop trembling before Putin and take the final step,” tweeted Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.
Meanwhile, CIA Director William Burns travelled in secret to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.
The official declined to say when the visit took place. The Washington Post, which first reported the visit, said it took place at the end of last week. The Post said Burns briefed Zelenskiy on his expectations on Russia’s military plans.
Fighting continued to be most intense in the strategic industrial region known as the Donbas on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, Ukrainian military officials said on Thursday night.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Russian forces shelled the town of Bakhmut, Russia’s main target in Donetsk province, which combined with Luhansk province forms the Donbas. Soledar, about 20 km from Bakhmut, also came under fire – Russian forces say they control Soledar, while Ukrainian sources say their military is still fighting in Soledar.
Nearby towns also were shelled by Russian forces – including Klishchiivka, just south of Bakhmut, the Ukrainian military said. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Russian mercenary army, said his forces have taken control of Klishchiivka, a claim contested by Ukraine.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.