(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Germany delivers its first Leopard tanks to Slovakia as part of a deal after Slovakia donated fighting vehicles to Ukraine, in Bratislava, Slovakia, December 19, 2022. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa/File Photo
By Andreas Rinke and Tom Balmforth
BERLIN/KYIV (Reuters) -Germany announced plans on Wednesday to deliver heavy tanks to Ukraine, and the United States was poised to do so too, a breakthrough hailed as a decisive military boost by Kyiv and condemned by Moscow as a reckless provocation.
Kyiv has been calling for months for Western main battle tanks that would give its forces the firepower, protection and mobility to break through Russian defensive lines and swoop through territory occupied by the invaders.
“A few hundred tanks for our tank crews …. This is what is going to become a real punching fist of democracy,” Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration, wrote on Telegram.
Germany announced plans to send an initial company of 14 Leopard 2 tanks from its own stocks, and also approve shipments by allies who field them, with the aim of supplying Ukraine with two full battalions. A battalion normally comprises three to four companies.
Two sources in the United States said Washington would also provide dozens of its Abrams M1 tanks.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any U.S. tanks sent to Ukraine would “burn like all the rest”.
Twenty armies worldwide field Leopards, which Germany has made in their thousands. Poland and Finland have already pledged them once Berlin agrees, and several other countries are expected to follow swiftly. Britain has already offered a company of its comparable Challengers and France is considering sending its Leclercs.
Mark Hertling, a former commander of U.S. ground forces in Europe, estimated Leopards could be on the battlefield in Ukraine as soon as March, while the U.S. tanks, which need more logistical support, could be more than eight months away.
Moscow says supplies of modern offensive weaponry to Ukraine will only prolong the war and postpone what it says will be its inevitable victory. Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador in Washington, said deliveries of U.S. battle tanks would be a “another blatant provocation”.
“It is obvious that Washington is purposefully trying to inflict a strategic defeat on us,” Antonov said on the embassy’s Telegram messaging channel.
In the past week, Russia has ramped up its threats, with Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev saying openly that a nuclear power that faced defeat could use nuclear weapons.
Western officials who support sending the tanks have dismissed Moscow’s threats as bluster, arguing that Russia is already waging war at full tilt in Ukraine, and has been deterred from attacking NATO or using nuclear arms.
Apart from its military significance, the decision to send tanks removes one of the last taboos in Western support: against providing weapons that have a mainly offensive rather than defensive purpose.
Just last week, allies pledged billions of dollars’ worth of fresh military aid but stopped short of sending the tanks, with some politicians in Germany notably wary of provoking Moscow.
DOZENS OF TANKS
In the 11 months since it invaded, Russia has killed thousands of civilians, forced millions from their homes and reduced entire cities to rubble.
It says its “special military operation” was necessary to stem a security threat arising from Ukraine’s ties to the West, which it now portrays as seeking to destroy it. Kyiv and its Western allies say Ukraine never threatened Russia, and the invasion is a war of aggression to subdue its neighbour and seize land.
Ukraine defeated Russia’s troops on the outskirts of Kyiv last year and later drove them out of swathes of occupied land.
But Moscow still occupies around a sixth of Ukraine, which it has declared part of Russia forever. Ukraine says it will not stop fighting until it recaptures all its territory, and the only way to secure peace is for allies to help it win.
The front line has been largely frozen in place for two months despite heavy losses on both sides, with both believed to be planning new offensives for the spring.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia was intensifying its push toward Bakhmut, an industrial town in eastern Ukraine where thousands of troops have been killed in months of trench battles that both sides refer to as a meat grinder.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk region said units of Russia’s Wagner contract militia were now moving forward inside Bakhmut.
“Fighting is already taking place in the outskirts and in neighbourhoods that until very recently were held by the enemy,” TASS news agency quoted Denis Pushilin as saying.
Reuters could not verify the situation there.
Western military experts say Russia’s focus on Bakhmut has made its forces vulnerable by squandering manpower on a costly battle for a target with limited strategic significance. But analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the slow pace of Western arms supplies so far had hindered Ukraine’s ability to take advantage.
The question of whether to send heavy tanks dominated debate for weeks among allies over how best to support Ukraine, and became an intense domestic political issue in Germany, which replaced its defence minister last week.
Germany’s Leopards are available in much larger numbers than other European heavy tanks and easier to deploy and maintain than the fuel-hungry turbine-powered Abrams.
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