- Poland says plans to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine
- Under pressure from the Allies, Germany agreed
- President Zelensky is embroiled in a corruption scandal
- Russia says tank debate shows NATO split
WARSAW/KIV Jan 23 (Reuters) – Poland said on Monday it would ask Germany for permission to send Panther tanks to Ukraine – until other countries do as well, whether Berlin agrees or not.
The Kiev government wants the German-made Panther 2, one of the most widely used Western tanks, to help break through Russian borders and retake territory this year.
Germany, which must approve the re-export of the leopards, has so far held back, wary of moves that could escalate Moscow, saying other NATO countries have yet to formally ask for them to be re-exported.
Western countries have given Ukraine billions of dollars in new military aid in recent days: On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to release their latest tranche worth 500 million euros ($545 million).
But at Monday’s EU summit in Brussels and last week’s meeting of Western defense ministers in Germany, the issue of battle tanks dominated discussions.
“At this stage there are no good arguments why we cannot supply battle tanks,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics. “The escalation argument doesn’t work because Russia continues to escalate.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Latvia, like neighboring Ukraine, would ask Germany for permission to re-export tanks to Warsaw and Kiev.
But he added: “Even if we don’t get this approval … we will still transfer our tanks to Ukraine along with others. The condition for us at this time is to form at least a small coalition of countries.”
Germany’s foreign minister on Sunday left the door open to allowing such shipments, saying Berlin would not stand in the way if Poland wanted to send them.
As the first anniversary of the Russian invasion approaches, both Ukraine and Russia are believed to be planning spring offensives to break the war-torn stalemate in eastern and southern Ukraine.
The fighting is now centered on the eastern city of Pakmut, where Russia’s Wagner mercenaries and Ukrainian forces are locked in battle.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was struggling with a corruption scandal that could dampen Western enthusiasm for his government.
A newspaper reported that the Ukrainian military secured food at inflated prices, and a deputy minister resigned after an investigation into bribery allegations.
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Ukrainian officials have been pleading with Western allies for months for tanks.
After the Ukrainian advance in the second half of 2022, the frontlines were largely frozen for two months, despite heavy losses on both sides. Ukraine says the Western tanks will provide mobility, protection and firepower for its ground forces to break through Russian defense lines and continue their advance.
“We need tanks – not 10-20, but several hundred,” Zelenskiy’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak wrote in a telegram. “Our goal is to (restore) the 1991 borders and punish the enemies, who will pay for their crimes.”
In an apparent shift in Germany’s stance, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbach said on Sunday that her government would not stop Poland if it tried to send in its Panthers. Baerbock, reached in Brussels on Monday, declined to elaborate on those comments or say whether he was speaking for the entire government. He said it was important to “do everything we can to protect Ukraine.”
President Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party argues that the West should avoid sudden moves that could escalate war. But many allies reject that position, saying Russia is already fully committed to an attack on Ukraine.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the tanks should not be held back one more day, while Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said Russia could win the war if the Europeans “don’t give Ukraine the help it needs now”.
If the tanks are sent without Berlin’s permission, Germany may at some point refuse to supply spare parts for them, said defense analyst Konrad Musica, which is why Poland hopes other countries will also send Panthers.
“The political problem for Germany if it wants to stop the supply of spare parts is much bigger if there is an alliance,” he said.
US lawmakers on Sunday pushed their government to export M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, saying even a code number would help push European allies to do the same.
Britain says it will supply 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine French President Emmanuel Macron said Ukraine had not ruled out sending Leclerc tanks.
Operated by about 20 countries, the Panthers are more widely available than British and French tanks and use less fuel than the turbine-powered US Abrams.
The Kremlin said divisions in Europe over the supply of tanks to Kiev showed “anxiety” was rising within the NATO military alliance.
“But of course, all countries participating, directly or indirectly, in sending weapons into Ukraine and raising its technological level bear responsibility for the continuation of the conflict,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
On February 24, 2022, Russia took control of parts of Ukraine from its occupation, which it pretended to defend itself from an aggressive West. Ukraine has said restoring its territorial integrity is not open to negotiation.
Reporting by Pavel 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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