Three European countries promised Tuesday that Ukraine will get at least 100 tanks in the “coming months”, as the German defence minister made a surprise visit to Kyiv.
The German, Dutch and Danish defence ministries also said training and support would be sent for the Leopard 1 tanks, ahead of the delivery of more advanced tanks in the future.
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The pledge came as Moscow said Russian forces were advancing towards Bakhmut and Vugledar — two key centres of fighting in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, now the flashpoint of the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week urged Western countries to speed up deliveries of weapons pledged to Ukraine — particularly long-range missiles — so his forces can fend off Russian advances in “fortress” Bakhmut.
The statement promised that “at least 100 Leopard 1 A5 tanks” will be delivered “in the coming months”, which will come from industrial stock.
The unscheduled visit from Germany’s new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, come two weeks after Berlin agreed to provide tanks to help Ukraine counter Russian forces — following intense pressure from Kyiv and many of Berlin’s European allies.
Berlin has also promised Kyiv 14 of the newer Leopard 2 tanks.
Ukraine’s outgoing defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov tweeted a photo of him and Pistorius holding a model replica of the tank.
In all, Kyiv says it expects between 120 and 140 modern Western tanks, as the country braces for a new Russian offensive possibly in the coming weeks.
The capture of Bakhmut would offer a gateway for Russian forces to continue their advance into Donetsk — territory that Moscow is determined to capture as a military priority.
The battered town — just south of Soledar — has seen months of fighting, making it the longest-running battle since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.
– ‘Progressing with success’ –
“Military operations are at the moment progressing with success in areas around Vugledar and Artemovsk,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a meeting with defence officials, using the Russian name for Bakhmut.
He also listed seven other settlements in Donetsk that Russian forces had recently “liberated,” including the salt-mining town of Soledar that came under Russian control in January.
The Russian-installed mayor of the Donetsk region’s main city, also called Donetsk, said five people had been killed by Ukrainian shelling earlier Tuesday.
Near Yampil, north of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, Ukrainian serviceman Sergiy Solomon told AFP he was concerned about their stockpiles of arms and rumours of a looming Russian offensive.
“The Russians have tanks, armoured personnel carriers and Grads (rockets), everything you can think of,” the 31-year-old former builder said.
“We have equipment but not a lot of munitions,” he added.
– ‘Unpredictable’ escalation –
As well as guarantees of modern tanks from several Western countries, Washington has also said it will soon dispatch missiles that can punch deeper into Russian-held territory.
Kyiv is also appealing for modern fighter jets to gain air superiority.
Moscow has warned however that military aid delivered to Ukraine from its backers would only make the situation on the battlefield more difficult.
“The US and its allies are trying to drag out the conflict as long as possible. To do this, they have begun supplying heavy offensive weapons (to Kyiv) and openly calling on Ukraine to seize our territories,” defence minister Shoigu said Tuesday.
“Such steps draw NATO countries into the conflict and could see it escalate unpredictably,” he added.
The recent battles around Bakhmut have been described by both sides as among the most costly and bloody of the last year.
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has claimed to have spearheaded the assault both for Soledar and Bakhmut. Waves of recent recruits are overwhelming Ukrainian defensive lines held by fewer troops.
Wagner’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin this week said he had been onboard a fighter jet that had bombed Bakhmut.
Asked whether Ukrainian forces were preparing to withdraw from Bakhmut, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told local media Tuesday that “no scenario was being ruled out”.
“All maximum measures are being taken to prevent this from happening,” he said, adding that: “for now, Bakhmut is holding on.”
Before Russia sent troops to Ukraine, the town had an estimated population of around 70,000 and was known for its sparkling wine and salt production.
Stanislav DOSHCHITSYN in Kyiv and Phil HAZELWOOD in the east of Ukraine