The United States and Germany are poised to provide a significant boost to Kyiv’s war effort with the delivery of heavy battle tanks to Ukraine, sources said, a move Moscow condemned as a “blatant provocation”.
Washington was expected to announce as soon as Wednesday that it will send M1 Abrams tanks and Berlin has decided to dispatch Leopard 2 tanks, the sources said, a reversal in policy that Kyiv has said would help reshape the conflict.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy again pressed Western allies to provide their most modern battle tanks, saying in his nightly video address that “discussions must be concluded with decisions”.
Germany and the United States have until now held back on providing heavy armour, wary of moves that could give the Kremlin reason to widen the conflict.
Moscow has warned that supplies of modern offensive weaponry to Ukraine will escalate the war, with some Russian officials warning that Kyiv’s allies were leading the world into a “global catastrophe”. Moscow has now repeatedly said that it is fighting the collective West in Ukraine.
The possible deliveries of battle tanks by Washington to Ukraine would be a “another blatant provocation” against Russia, Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, said on Wednesday.
“It is obvious that Washington is purposefully trying to inflict a strategic defeat on us,” Antonov said in remarks published on the embassy’s Telegram messaging app
Two U.S. officials told Reuters on Tuesday that Washington was ready to start a process that would eventually send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, just days after it had argued against granting Kyiv’s requests.
A third official said the U.S. commitment could total about 30 tanks delivered over the coming months.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had decided to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow other countries such as Poland to do so as well, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Spiegel magazine, which first reported the news, said Germany was planning to supply at least one company of Leopard 2 A6 tanks, which usually comprises 14 tanks. Other allies, in Scandinavia for example, intend to go along with Germany in supplying their Leopard tanks to Kyiv, the magazine reported.
While there was no official confirmation from Berlin or Washington, officials in Kyiv hailed what they said was a potential game changer on the battlefield in a war that is now 11 months old – even if the rumored tank numbers fell short of the hundreds they say they need to liberate all occupied areas.
“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 Zelenskiy’s administration, wrote on Telegram.
Front lines in the war, which stretch more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) through eastern and southern Ukraine, have been largely frozen for two months despite heavy losses on both sides. Russia and Ukraine are widely believed to be planning new offensives.
Zelenskiy said on Tuesday night that Russia was intensifying its push toward Bakhmut, an industrial town in eastern Ukraine that has been the focus of intense fighting. “They want to increase the pressure on a larger scale,” he said.
Whether to supply Ukraine with significant numbers of heavy modern battle tanks has dominated discussions among Kyiv’s Western allies in recent days.
Berlin has been pivotal because the German-made Leopards, fielded by some 20 armies around the world, are seen as the best option. The tanks are available in large numbers and easy to deploy and maintain.
While the U.S. Abrams tank is considered less suitable due to its heavy fuel consumption and difficulty to maintain, a U.S. move to send them to Ukraine could make it easier for Germany – which has called for a united front among Ukraine’s allies – to allow the supply of Leopards.
Russian President Vladimir Putin casts the “special military operation” that began when his troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year as a defensive and existential battle against an aggressive and arrogant West.
Ukraine and the West call Russia’s actions an unprovoked land grab to subdue a fellow former Soviet republic that Moscow regards as an artificial state.
Separately on Tuesday, Ukraine dismissed more than a dozen senior officials as part of an anti-corruption drive made more critical by the need to keep its Western backers onside.
The European Union, which offered Ukraine the status of candidate member last June, welcomed the development.
Among Ukrainian officials who resigned or were dismissed were the governors of the Kyiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, the latter three frontline provinces. Kyiv and Sumy were major battlefields earlier in the war.
Some, though not all, of the officials who left had been linked to corruption allegations.
Ukraine has a history of graft and shaky governance, and is under international pressure to show it can be a reliable steward of billions of dollars in Western aid.