European leaders urged Berlin to give the green light on Friday for the delivery of German-made tanks to Ukraine to fend off Moscow’s invasion and both Washington and Kyiv said time was of the essence.
The defence ministers’ talks at Ramstein Air Base in Germany follow Ukrainian warnings that Russia is seeking to reenergise its almost 11-month-old invasion after unilaterally annexing parts of Ukraine’s east and south it does not fully control.
The United States and Finland announced new military aid ahead of the gathering, where the main focus was on whether Germany will allow the re-export to Ukraine of its Leopard 2 tanks used by armies across Europe.
Europe’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told reporters in Madrid that some European countries were ready to send heavy tanks and that he hoped the decision to do so would be taken.
Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelenskiy, speaking at the start of the meeting, thanked allies for their support, but said more was needed and more quickly.
“We have to speed up. Time must become our weapon “The Kremlin must lose,” said Zelenskiy, adding to earlier comments implying the Germany was holding other countries back from sending their tanks.
Russia was regrouping, recruiting, and trying to re-equip, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at the meeting.
“This is not a moment to slow down. It’s a time to dig deeper. The Ukrainian people are watching us,” he said, without making specific reference to tanks.
Berlin has veto power over any decision to export the tanks from countries that use them and Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government has appeared reluctant to authorise that for fear of provoking Russia.
Some allies, along with Ukraine, say Germany’s concern is misplaced with Russia already fully committed to war.
Lithuania, which fears for its own future if Russia overruns Ukraine, said several countries would announce sending the Leopard tanks at the meeting.
“Some of the countries will definitely send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, that is for sure,” Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas told Reuters on Thursday about the Ramstein pledges, after 11 nations met in Estonia and pledged new military aid.
Finland pledged more than 400 million euros ($434 million) worth of extra defence equipment for Ukraine and has indicated it could add Leopard tanks if there is an agreement with allies.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he was “moderately pessimistic” Berlin would give the green light. His government has suggested Poland may go ahead anyway.
The German government said on Friday it had no information on an official request to Germany from any country for permission to re-export German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
The Kremlin said that supplying tanks to Ukraine would not help, saying the West would regret its “delusion” that Kyiv could win on the battlefield.
Kyiv and Moscow have relied mainly on Soviet-era T-72 tanks in warfare long thought outmoded; hundreds have been destroyed in what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls a “special military operation” to protect Russia and Russian speakers.
Ukraine and its allies say Russia faces no threat and is just trying to grab territory.
The United States on Thursday announced new military aid for Ukraine valued at up to $2.5 billion, including hundreds of armoured vehicles and support for air defences.
The aid includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker Armored Personnel Carriers, the U.S. Defense Department said, making a total of more than $27.4 billion in U.S. security aid.
A government source in Germany has said it would move on the Leopard tanks issue if the United States agreed to send Abrams tanks, which were not included in Thursday’s U.S. announcement.
However, Berlin said on Friday the two issues were not linked.
CIA DIRECTOR VISIT
Ukraine’s allies have not sent Kyiv their most potent weaponry to avoid NATO appearing to confront Russia directly. Kyiv has repeatedly said it has no plans to attack Russia, only defend itself.
“Ukrainians will fight! With tanks or without. But every tank from Ramstein means saved Ukrainian lives,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Telegram.
CIA Director William Burns travelled in secret to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday, declining to say when the visit took place.
The Washington Post, which first reported the visit, said it was at the end of last week and that Burns briefed Zelenskiy on his expectations on Russia’s military plans.
Fighting has been most intense in Ukraine’s industrialised eastern Donbas region, which Russia claimed to have annexed in September along with two regions in the south. The Ukrainian military said on Thursday evening that Russian forces shelled the Donbas town of Bakhmut.
On Friday, Russia’s Defence Ministry said its forces had taken control of Klishchiivka, a small settlement around six miles (9 km) south of Bakhmut, a day after Russia’s Wagner mercenary group made the same claim.
Ukrainian military analyst and reserve Colonel Roman Svitun refuted that claim on Thursday evening.
“Russian forces are trying to seize a road going through there but have been stopped in Klishchhivka,” he told Espreso TV.
Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield claims.