The United States and Germany have announced plans to arm Ukraine with dozens of battle tanks in its fight against Russia, which denounced the decisions as an “extremely dangerous” step.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy praised the commitments and urged allies to provide large quantities of tanks quickly.
“The key now is speed and volumes. Speed in training our forces, speed in supplying tanks to Ukraine. The numbers in tank support,” he said in a nightly video address on Wednesday. “We have to form such a ‘tank fist’, such a ‘fist of freedom’.”
Ukraine has been seeking hundreds of modern tanks to give its troops the firepower to break Russian defensive lines and reclaim occupied territory in the south and east. Ukraine and Russia have been relying primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks.
The promise of tanks comes as both Ukraine and Russia are expected to launch new offensives in the war and as fighting has intensified in Bakhmut in Ukraine’s east, officials said.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced his decision to supply 31 M1 Abrams tanks hours after Berlin said it would provide Leopard 2 tanks – the workhorse of NATO armies across Europe.
Maintaining Kyiv’s drumbeat of requests for more aid, Zelenskiy said he spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and called for long-range missiles and aircraft.
Ukraine’s allies have already provided billions in military support including sophisticated U.S. missile systems.
The United States has been wary of deploying the difficult-to-maintain Abrams but had to change tack to persuade Germany to send to Ukraine its more easily operated Leopards.
Biden said the tanks pose “no offensive threat” to Russia and that they were needed to help the Ukrainians “improve their ability to manoeuvre in open terrain”.
Germany will send an initial company of 14 tanks from its stocks and approve shipments by allied European states.
The Abrams can be tricky, but the Leopard was designed as a system that any NATO member could service and crews and repair specialists could be trained together on a single model, Ukrainian military expert Viktor Kevlyuk told Espreso TV.
“If we have been brought into this club by providing us with these vehicles, I would say our prospects look good.”
Russia reacted with fury to Germany’s decision to approve the delivery of the Leopards.
“This extremely dangerous decision takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation,” said Sergei Nechayev, Russia’s ambassador to Germany.
Since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, Russia has shifted its rhetoric on the war from an operation to “denazify” and “demilitarise” its neighbour to casting it as a face-off between it and the U.S.-led NATO alliance.
Senior U.S. officials said it would take months for the Abrams to be delivered and described the decision to supply them as providing for Ukraine’s long-term defence.
Germany’s tanks would probably be ready in three or four months, Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said.
Pledges to Ukraine from other countries that field Leopards have multiplied with announcements from Poland, Finland and Norway. Spain and the Netherlands said they were considering it.
Britain has offered 14 of its comparable Challenger tanks and France is considering sending its Leclercs.
The Kyiv government acknowledged on Wednesday its forces had withdrawn from Soledar, a small salt-mining town in the east that Russia said it captured more than a week ago, its biggest gain for more than six months.
Soledar is close to Bakhmut, where the “intensity of the fighting is increasing”, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said on Telegram.
The area around Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of 70,000, has seen some of the most brutal fighting of the war.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk region said units of Russia’s Wagner contract militia were moving forward inside Bakhmut, with fighting on the outskirts and in neighbourhoods recently held by Ukraine.
Analyst Kevlyuk said losing Bakhmut would not change much in terms of the tactical scheme of things but that he was more concerned by Russian efforts to regroup and concentrate resources in the Luhansk region.
Donetsk and Luhansk make up the Donbas region. Russian forces control nearly 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, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to rubble.
Zelenskiy said he has urged a top U.N. official to help find a way to resolve the issue of deportations to Russia of thousands of adults and children.
“A mechanism is needed to protect and bring back people and to bring to account all those who are guilty of deportations,” he said on his nightly video address.
Russia denies any suggestion of mistreatment or criminal intent, describing the mass movements as “evacuations”.