Germany to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, US and allies also poised
BERLIN/KYIV (Reuters) -Germany cleared the way on Wednesday for Europe to send scores of battle tanks to Ukraine, and Washington was poised make a similar announcement - moves hailed by Kyiv as a potential turning point in the war, and condemned by Moscow as escalation.
Kyiv has been calling for months for Western main battle tanks that would give its forces greater firepower, protection and mobility to break through Russian defensive lines and potentially reclaim occupied territory.
Germany, previously the West's holdout, said it would send an initial company of 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks from its own stocks, and also approve shipments by other European countries.
The eventual aim would be to supply Ukraine with two battalions of Leopards, typically comprising three or four companies each, the first to arrive within three or four months.
"Germany will always be at the forefront when it comes to supporting Ukraine," Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the German parliament, to applause.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Scholz by phone and said he was "sincerely grateful to the Chancellor and all our friends in Germany".
The move lifts one of the last taboos in Western support: providing weapons that have a mainly offensive rather than defensive purpose.
"So the tank coalition is formed. Everyone who doubted this could ever happen sees now: for Ukraine and partners impossible is nothing," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
"I call on all new partners that have Leopard 2 tanks in service to join the coalition and provide as many of them as possible."
Russia's embassy in Berlin denounced Germany's "extremely dangerous decision" which, it said, "destroys the remnants of mutual trust" and could draw Germany into the war. Scholz pledged that no such thing would happen.
OTHERS TO FOLLOW
Berlin's move paves the way for pledges from other countries that field Leopards, which Germany made in the thousands and exported to allies.
Finland said it would send them, as did Poland, which has already sought Berlin's approval. Spain and the Netherlands said they were considering it, and Norway was reported to be discussing it. Britain has offered a company of 14 of its comparable Challengers and France is considering sending its Leclercs.
"At a critical moment in Russia's war, these tanks can help Ukraine defend itself, win and stand as an independent nation," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Two sources in the United States said Washington would announce later on Wednesday that it would provide dozens of its own Abrams M1 tanks.
Moscow says supplies of modern offensive weaponry to Ukraine will only 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".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any U.S. tanks sent to Ukraine would "burn like all the rest".
In the past week, Russia has ramped up its threats, including comments from Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, that a nuclear state facing defeat could use nuclear weapons.
Western officials who support sending the tanks have dismissed Moscow's threats, arguing that Russia is already waging war at full tilt and has been deterred from attacking NATO or using nuclear arms.
Last week, allies pledged billions of dollars' worth of military aid including hundreds of armoured fighting vehicles and troop carriers. Those are seen as more effective for attacking enemy lines when used alongside tanks.
Andriy Yermak, head of Zelenskiy's administration, described a force of what Ukraine hopes will be hundreds of Western tanks as "the real punching fist of democracy".
WITHDRAWAL FROM SOLEDAR
Ukraine sees the weapons as restoring its momentum in a war that has lately become a bloody, deadlocked slog.
Kyiv acknowledged on Wednesday that its forces had withdrawn from Soledar, a small salt-mining town in the east that Russia had claimed to capture more than a week ago, its biggest gain for more than half a year.
The town is close to Bakhmut, a larger city that has been the focus of an intense Russian assault for weeks.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine's Donetsk region said units of Russia's Wagner contract militia were now moving forward inside Bakhmut, with fighting on the outskirts and in neighbourhoods recently held by Ukraine.
Reuters could not verify the situation there.
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 allies say Ukraine never threatened Russia, and the invasion is a war of aggression to subdue a 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, and has declared this territory part of Russia. Ukraine says it will not stop fighting until it recaptures all its territory.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Timothy Heritage)