©Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, amid the Russian attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine January 24, 2023. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo
By Nandita Bose, Andreas Rinke and Tom Balmforth
WASHINGTON/BERLIN/Kyiv (Reuters) – The United States and Germany have announced plans to arm Ukraine with dozens of main battle tanks in its fight against Russia, which denounced the decisions as an “extremely dangerous” move.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised the pledges and called on the allies to provide large quantities of tanks quickly.
“The key now is speed and volume. Speed in training our armed forces, speed in delivering tanks to Ukraine. The number of tank support,” he said in a late night video address on Wednesday. “We have to form such a ‘bazooka’, such a ‘fist of freedom’.”
Ukraine has sought hundreds of modern tanks to give its troops the firepower to breach Russian defenses and retake occupied areas in the south and east. Ukraine and Russia rely primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks.
The promise of tanks comes as both Ukraine and Russia are expected to launch fresh offensives in the war and fighting has intensified in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, officials said.
US President Joe Biden announced his decision to deliver 31 M1 Abrams tanks hours after Berlin announced it would deliver Leopard 2 tanks – the workhorse of NATO armies across Europe.
Keeping the drumbeat on Kyiv’s pleas for more aid, Zelenskyy said he had spoken to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg demanding long-range missiles and aircraft.
Ukraine’s allies have already provided billions in military support, including sophisticated US missile systems.
The United States was wary of using the hard-to-maintain Abrams, but had to change course to persuade Germany to send its easier-to-operate Leopards to Ukraine.
Biden said the tanks “pose no offensive threat” to Russia and are needed to help the Ukrainians “improve their maneuverability in open terrain.”
Germany will send a first company of 14 tanks from its reserves and will authorize deliveries by allied European countries.
The Abrams can be tricky, but the Leopard was designed as a system that any NATO member could service and train crews and repair specialists together on a single model, Ukrainian military expert Viktor Kevlyuk told Espreso TV.
“If the provision of these vehicles has brought us to this club, I would say our prospects look good.”
Russia reacted with anger at Germany’s decision to authorize the delivery of the Leopards.
“This extremely dangerous decision raises the conflict to a new level of confrontation,” said Russia’s Ambassador to Germany Sergei Nechayev.
Since invading Ukraine on February 24 last year, Russia has shifted its war rhetoric from an operation to “denazify” and “demilitarize” its neighbor to a confrontation between itself and the US-led NATO alliance.
Senior US officials said it would be months before the Abrams would be delivered, describing the decision to deliver them as a measure of Ukraine’s long-term defense.
Germany’s tanks are expected to be ready in three or four months, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said.
Pledges to Ukraine from other countries fielding leopards have multiplied with announcements from Poland, Finland and Norway. Spain and the Netherlands indicated that they are considering this.
Britain has offered 14 of its comparable Challenger tanks and France is considering sending its Leclercs.
The Kyiv government on Wednesday acknowledged that its forces had pulled out of 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.
Soledar is near Bakhmut, where the “intensity of fighting is increasing,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar told Telegram.
The Bakhmut area, with a pre-war population of 70,000, saw some of the most brutal fighting of the war.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk region said units of Russia’s Wagner treaty militia are advancing inside Bakhmut and fighting on the outskirts and in recently Ukrainian-occupied neighborhoods.
Analyst Kevlyuk said the loss of Bakhmut wouldn’t change much in terms of the tactical scheme of things, but he was more concerned about Russia’s efforts to regroup and focus resources in the Luhansk region.
Donetsk and Luhansk form the Donbass region. Russian forces control almost all of Luhansk, while Russians and their proxies say they control about half of Donetsk.
Reuters could not verify battlefield reports.
The 11-month war has killed thousands of people, displaced millions from their homes and reduced cities to rubble.
Zelenskyy said he had urged a senior UN official to find a way to resolve the issue of deporting thousands of adults and children to Russia.
“There needs to be a mechanism to protect and bring people back and hold accountable all those guilty of deportations,” he said in his nightly video address.
Russia denies any evidence of ill-treatment or criminal intent and calls the mass movements “evacuations”.