- Poland says it plans to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine
- Germany hints at approval as the Allies apply pressure
- President Zelensky grapples with a corruption scandal
- Russia says the tank debate shows NATO’s division
WARSAW/Kyiv, Jan 23 (Reuters) – Poland said on Monday it will ask Germany for permission to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine and will send them whether or not Berlin agrees as long as other countries agree.
The Kyiv government wants the German-made Leopard 2, one of the most widely used Western tanks, to help it break through Russian lines and retake territory this year.
Germany, which must agree to re-export the Leopard, has so far held back, fearing moves that could escalate Moscow, and says other NATO countries have not formally requested its re-export.
Western countries have committed billions of dollars in new military aid to Ukraine in recent days: EU foreign ministers agreed on Monday to release the final tranche of 500 million euros ($545 million), three sources said.
But at Monday’s meeting of the European Union in Brussels and last week’s meeting of Western defense ministers in Germany, the issue of battle tanks dominated the discussions.
“At this stage there are no good arguments not to provide battle tanks,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Renkivics. “The argument of escalation does not work because Russia continues to escalate.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose country is neighboring Ukraine, like Latvia, said Warsaw would ask Germany for permission to re-export tanks to Kyiv.
But he added, “Even if we don’t get this approval…we will continue to transfer our tanks with others to Ukraine. The condition for us at the moment is to build at least a small coalition of countries.”
The German foreign minister appeared to open the door to approval of such shipments on Sunday when she said Berlin would not stand in her way if Poland wanted to send them.
Both Ukraine and Russia are believed to be planning spring offensives to break the stalemate in what has become a war of attrition in eastern and southern Ukraine as the first anniversary of the Russian invasion approaches.
The fighting is now concentrated in the town of Bakhmut in the east, where Russian Wagner mercenaries and Ukrainian forces are locked in battle.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been grappling with a corruption scandal that could dampen Western enthusiasm for his government.
One newspaper reported that the Ukrainian military had alleged that it had obtained food at deeply inflated prices, and a deputy minister had resigned after an investigation into allegations that he had accepted a bribe.
tiger on the road?
Ukrainian officials have been pleading with Western allies for tanks for months.
After the Ukrainian advance in the second half of 2022, the front lines were largely immobilized for two months, despite heavy losses on both sides. Ukraine says Western tanks will give its ground forces the ability to move, protect and firepower to break through Russian defensive lines and resume their advance.
Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andrei Yermak, wrote on Telegram: “We need tanks – not 10-20, but several hundred.” Our aim is (to restore) the 1991 borders and to punish the enemy, who will pay the price for his crimes.”
In an apparent shift in Germany’s position, Foreign Minister Analina Berbock said on Sunday that her government would not block Poland if it tried to send the Panthers. Upon her arrival in Brussels on Monday, Berbock declined to disclose those comments or say whether she was speaking on behalf of the entire government. She said it was important to “do everything we can to defend Ukraine”.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party argues that the West should avoid sudden moves that could escalate the war. But a number of allies reject that position, saying Russia is already fully committed to its attack on Ukraine.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the tanks should not stop another day, while Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said Russia could win the war if “the Europeans don’t help Ukraine with what they need now”.
If the tanks are sent without Berlin’s approval, defense analyst Konrad Muzyka said, Germany may at some point refuse to provide spare parts for them, which is why Poland hopes other countries will also send the Panthers.
He said that “the political problem for Germany if it wants to cut off the supply of spare parts will be much greater if there is an alliance.”
US lawmakers pushed their government on Sunday to export M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, saying even a symbolic number would help push European allies to do the same.
Britain said it would supply 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron said he did not rule out the possibility of sending Ukrainian Leclerc tanks.
The Panther, which is operated by about 20 countries, is more widely available than British and French tanks, and uses less fuel than the American turbo-powered Abrams.
The Kremlin said divisions in Europe over the supply of tanks to Kyiv showed there was growing “tension” within the NATO military alliance.
“But of course all countries that are directly or indirectly involved in pumping weapons into Ukraine and upgrading its technology bear responsibility” for the continuation of the conflict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Since its February 24, 2022 invasion, which it described as defending itself against an aggressive West, Russia has taken control of parts of Ukraine that it says will never return. Ukraine said that restoring its territorial integrity is not open to negotiation.
Additional reporting by Paul Florkiewicz, Anna Wlodarczak, Tom Sims and Lydia Kelly, Writing by Angus McSwan and Philippa Fletcher, Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alex Richardson
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