PARIS/LVIV, Ukraine, Jan. 23 (Reuters) – Germany would not stand in the way of Poland sending its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Germany’s foreign minister said, signaling a possible breakthrough for Ukraine as the tries to reinforce his troops ahead of an expected new Russian offensive.
Eleven months after Russia invaded its southern neighbour, fighting has centered around the eastern Ukraine town of Bakhmut, where Russian Wagner mercenaries and Ukrainian forces are engaged in a war of attrition.
Russia’s defense ministry said for a second straight day on Sunday that its troops were improving their positions in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region, though a Ukrainian military spokesman told the state broadcaster that the situation there was “difficult” but stable.
Reuters was unable to independently verify battlefield reports.
Ukrainian officials have been calling on Western allies for months to supply them with the modern German-made tanks, but Germany has held back from sending them or allowing other NATO countries to do so.
Leopard tanks, owned by a range of NATO countries but whose transfer to Ukraine requires Berlin’s approval, are seen by defense experts as the most suitable for Ukraine.
Western allies last week promised billions of dollars in weapons for Ukraine, but failed to convince Germany to lift its veto on supplying the tanks.
But in a marked shift in Germany’s position, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her government would not block Poland if it sent its Leopard 2 tanks without German approval.
“At the moment the question has not been asked, but if we were asked, we would not stand in the way,” she told France’s LCI TV, when asked about her government’s reaction to such a Polish decision.
Germany is under intense pressure to let Leopards go to Ukraine, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party has traditionally been skeptical of military involvement and wary of sudden moves that could lead to Russia escalating.
Baerbock’s comments seemed to go further than Scholz’s comments at a summit in Paris earlier on Sunday that all decisions on arms supplies would be made in consultation with allies, including the United States.
Ukraine says the heavily armored main battle tanks would give its ground forces more mobility and protection ahead of a new Russian offensive expected in the coming months.
But Germany appears to have linked such a contribution to a US move to send its Abrams tanks, something US officials have said they are reluctant to do because the vehicles are complicated to maintain.
US lawmakers on Sunday urged their administration to export M1 Abram’s main battle tanks to Ukraine, saying even sending a token number would be enough to prompt European allies to do the same.
Britain recently said it would deliver 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. Secretary of State James Cleverly said on Sunday it still wants an international deal to supply Ukraine with German-made tanks.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said he is not ruling out the possibility of sending Leclerc tanks to Ukraine.
Last week, the Kremlin spokesman said Western countries supplying additional tanks to Ukraine would not change the course of the conflict, but would increase the problems of the Ukrainian people.
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday that deliveries of offensive weapons to Kiev that threaten Russian territories will lead to global catastrophe and make arguments against the use of weapons of mass destruction untenable.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house, warned that US and NATO support for Ukraine was leading the world to a “terrible war”.
Since its February 24 invasion, which it has portrayed as a defense against the aggressive West, Russia has seized control of parts of Ukraine and has said it will never give it back. Ukraine has said that restoring its territorial integrity is non-negotiable.
In the embattled eastern Ukraine, the top Russian-installed official in the occupied parts of the Donetsk region said late on Sunday that he had visited the city of Soledar that Russia allegedly captured this month.
Denis Pushilin, the administrator, posted a short video to the Telegram messaging app showing him driving and walking through uninhabited areas and destroyed buildings.
Reuters could not independently verify when and where the video was taken.
On January 11, the private Russian military group Wagner said it had captured Soledar and Russian-installed authorities in the Donetsk region said last week they had control of the salt mining town.
Ukraine has never said publicly that the city was taken by Russian troops. On Sunday, its armed forces general staff said in a daily update that Russian troops had fired on Ukrainian positions in the area.
Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Leigh Thomas; Additional reporting by Tom Sims, Lidia Kelly and Humeyra Pamuk; Edited by Clarence Fernandez
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