PARIS/LEOPOLIS, Ukraine, Jan 23 (Reuters) – Germany’s foreign minister has said Germany would not oppose Poland sending its Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, which could be a breakthrough for Ukraine as it tries to reinforce their forces before a new Russian offensive.
Eleven months after Russia invaded its southern neighbor, fighting is raging in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, where Wagner’s Russian mercenaries and Ukrainian forces have been locked in a fight of attrition.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed for the second day in a row on Sunday that its forces were improving their positions in the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhia, although a Ukrainian military spokesman told the state broadcaster that the situation there was “difficult” but stable.
Reuters could not independently verify these battlefield reports.
Ukrainian authorities have been asking Western allies to supply them with the modern German-made tanks for months, but Germany has refrained from sending them or allowing other NATO countries to do so.
Leopard tanks, which are in the possession of several NATO countries but whose transfer to Ukraine requires Berlin’s approval, are considered by defense experts to be the most suitable for Ukraine.
Western allies last week promised billions of dollars worth of weapons to Ukraine but failed to convince Germany to lift its ban on sending the tanks.
But in an apparent reversal of Germany’s position, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her government would not veto Poland if it sent its Leopard 2 main battle tanks without German approval.
“At the moment the issue has not been raised, but if it were raised, we would not oppose it,” he told the French television channel LCI TV, when asked about his government’s reaction to a possible Polish decision.
Germany has come under heavy pressure to allow Leopards to be sent to Ukraine, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic party is traditionally skeptical of military interventions and wary of sudden decisions that could trigger an escalation by Russia.
Baerbock’s remarks appeared to go beyond comments by Scholz at a summit in Paris on Sunday, who said all decisions on arms supplies would be made in coordination with allies, including the United States.
Ukraine claims that the heavily armored main battle tanks would give its ground troops more mobility and protection from a new Russian offensive expected in the coming months.
However, Germany appears to have made any such contribution conditional on the United States sending its Abrams main battle tanks, something US authorities have been reluctant to do because these vehicles are difficult to maintain.
US lawmakers pressured their government on Sunday to export M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, saying sending even a token number would be enough to push European allies to do the same.
The UK recently stated that it was going to supply 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. His foreign minister, James Cleverly, said on Sunday that he still wanted an international agreement to provide Ukraine with the German-made tanks.
French President Emmanuel Macron, for his part, said he did not rule out the possibility of sending Leclerc tanks to Ukraine.
Last week, the Kremlin spokesman said that the supply of additional tanks to Ukraine by Western countries would not change the course of the conflict, but would aggravate the problems of the Ukrainian people.
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin claimed Sunday that offensive weapons supplies to kyiv that threaten Russian territories would lead to a global catastrophe and make arguments against the use of weapons of mass destruction untenable.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, warned that US and NATO support for Ukraine was leading the world into a “terrible war”.
Since its invasion on February 24, which it has portrayed as defending an aggressive West, Russia has seized control of parts of Ukraine and has said it will never give them back. Ukraine has said that the restoration of its territorial integrity is not open to negotiation.
In embattled eastern Ukraine, the Russian-appointed top official for the occupied Donetsk region said late on Sunday that he had visited the town of Soledar, which Russia says it captured earlier this month.
Denis Pushilin, the administrator, posted a short video on the Telegram messaging app of 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 Russian private military group Wagner said it had captured Soledar and Russian-installed authorities in the Donetsk region claimed last week they were in control of the salt town.
Ukraine has never publicly said that the city was taken by Russian forces. On Sunday, the General Staff of its armed forces said in a daily update that Russian forces 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; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Spanish editing by José Muñoz at the Gdańsk newsroom)