BERLIN (AFP): Berlin was expected to announce a decision on Wednesday on the export of powerful German-made Leopard battle tanks long sought by Kyiv, and encouraged allies to start training Ukrainian forces to use them.
Western nations have pledged ever-more sophisticated military hardware in recent weeks to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, with all eyes in Kyiv on the battle tanks.
Berlin stopped short of a green light on Tuesday, but German media — including newspaper Der Spiegel and news channel NTV — reported that Chancellor Olaf Scholz would grant approval.
The announcement was set to come Wednesday and also include permission for other countries, including Poland, to transfer their Leopard tanks to Ukraine, the outlets reported.
Washington is also now leaning toward sending a significant number of Abrams M1 tanks to Ukraine, US officials told the Wall Street Journal.
The Free Democratic Party, a member of Germany’s ruling political coalition, tweeted Tuesday night: “Germany sends Leopard-Panzer tanks to Ukraine!”
Ukraine and several of its allies have been urging Germany for weeks to allow the delivery of the Leopards, but a US-led meeting of Kyiv’s allies in Germany last week failed to yield a decision.
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said he had “expressly encouraged partner countries that have Leopard tanks that are ready for deployment to train Ukrainian forces on these tanks”.
“I expect a decision to be made shortly,” he added, following talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Berlin.
“We must provide heavier and more advanced systems to Ukraine, and we must do it faster.”
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, hit back at reports about Washington mulling supplying tanks, saying that such a move would show “the real aggressor in the current conflict”.
“If the United States decides to supply tanks, it will be impossible to justify such step using arguments about ‘defensive weapons’,” he said, according to a post on the Russian Embassy’s official Facebook page.
“This would be another blatant provocation against the Russian Federation.”
– ‘Lasting mark’ –
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned the delivery of the Leopard tanks would “bring nothing good to the future relationship” between Berlin and Moscow.
“They will leave a lasting mark,” he said.
Under Berlin’s war weapons control rules, countries using German-made armaments are required to seek Berlin’s permission if they wish to transfer them to a third party.
Poland, one of the loudest voices calling for permission to send Leopard tanks, said earlier this month it was ready to deliver 14 of them to Kyiv within the framework of an international coalition of countries.
Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said Tuesday the country had now sent in a formal request, and a German government spokesman said it would be examined “with necessary urgency”.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was counting on a “quick” response, he said, accusing the Germans of “dragging their feet, dithering and behaving in a manner that is difficult to understand”.
In his evening address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said discussions over the tank transfers “must end with decisions”, and that “allies have the required number of tanks” his country has been demanding.
– Food procurement fraud –
As Ukraine marked 11 months since the start of the war, Zelensky urged his troops to keep up the fight against Russia.
But the comments came as he battled a widening corruption scandal — with his defence ministry shaken by allegations of food procurement fraud.
Local media reports last week accused the ministry of having signed a deal at prices “two to three times higher” than current rates for basic foodstuffs.
Several officials resigned on Tuesday over the allegations, including a deputy defence minister, two deputy ministers of development of communities and territories and a deputy minister of social policy.
Ukraine has a history of endemic corruption, including among the political elite, but efforts to stamp out graft have been overshadowed by the war.
Kyiv’s Western allies, who have allocated billions of dollars in financial and military support, have been pushing for anti-corruption reforms for years — sometimes as a precondition for aid.
– ‘Immoral war’ –
Meanwhile in Russia’s border region Belgorod, 25 people have been killed and more than 90 injured since the start of the war, its governor told President Vladimir Putin in a first such announcement of an official death toll.
Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov also said around 6,500 people had to be evacuated from border villages and were essentially “refugees”.
The Belgorod region, including the city of the same name, has been repeatedly hit by shelling since Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24 last year.
On Tuesday, the families of two British aid workers reported missing — Chris Parry, 28, and Andrew Bagshaw, 47 — confirmed they were killed while trying to help people evacuate from fierce fighting in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Concerns about their safety grew in early January when the Russian mercenary group Wagner published photographs of passports that appeared to belong to the duo.
“We urge the civilized countries of the world to stop this immoral war and to help the Ukrainians to rid their homeland of an aggressor,” the family of Bagshaw said in a statement.