KYIV/BERLIN: Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy said his government was expecting "strong decisions" from defence leaders of NATO and other countries meeting on Friday to discuss boosting Ukraine's ability to confront Russian forces with modern battle tanks.
The meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany is the latest in a series since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago, and where future weapons supplies will be discussed, particularly of Germany's Leopard 2 tanks used by armies across Europe.
Berlin has veto power over any decision to export the tanks and Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government has appeared reluctant to authorise that for fear of provoking Russia.
Some allies say Germany's concern is misplaced with Russia already fully committed to war and its repeated assertions that Western weapons transfers would prolong the conflict and increase suffering in Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia have both relied primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks, which have been destroyed in their hundreds during the war that Russian President Vladimir Putin started on Feb. 24, calling it a "special military operation" to protect Russia and Russian speakers.
Ukraine and its allies accuse Russia of an unprovoked war to grab territory and to erase the independence of a ex-Soviet republic and neighbour. Western countries have provided a steady supply of weapons to Ukraine.
"We are, in fact, now waiting for a decision from one European capital, which will activate the prepared chains of cooperation regarding tanks," Zelenskiy said in a video address on Thursday night.
The Lithuanian defence minister said earlier that several countries would announce sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine at Friday's meeting.
"Some of the countries will definitely send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, that is for sure", Arvydas Anusauskas told Reuters, about the Ramstein pledges, speaking after a preparatory meeting of 11 nations in Estonia.
Zelenskiy is due to address the gathering: "We are expecting strong decisions," he said.
US MILITARY ASSISTANCE
The United States on Thursday announced new military assistance for Ukraine valued at up to $2.5 billion, including hundreds of armoured vehicles and support for Ukraine's air defence.
The aid includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker Armored Personnel Carriers, the US Defense Department said. In total, the United States has committed more than $27.4 billion in security aid to Ukraine since the invasion began.
Government sources in Germany have said it would move on the Leopard tanks issue if the United States agreed to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Abrams tanks were not included in Thursday's US announcement.
Germany's new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, said earlier, however, that he did not know of any requirement that Ukraine receive US and German tanks simultaneously.
"I'm not aware of any such stipulation," Pistorius told German ARD television when asked if that meant Abrams and Leopards had to be delivered at the same time, a position that leaves open the possibility of an agreement on Friday.
CIA DIRECTOR VISIT
Ukraine's allies in the West have wanted to avoid NATO appearing to confront Russia directly and demurred on sending the Kyiv government their most potent weaponry.
Ukraine needed the tanks to defend itself, recapture occupied land, and did not plan to attack Russia, Zelenskiy told ARD television on Thursday.
"From Washington to London, from Paris to Warsaw, you hear one thing: Ukraine needs tanks. Tanks are the key to ending the war properly. It is time to stop trembling before Putin and take the final step," Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter.
Poland and Finland have already said they would send Leopard tanks to Ukraine if Germany gives approval for export. On Friday morning, Poland indicated that it might send the tanks even if Germany opposes.
"If there is strong resistance, we will be ready to take even such non-standard action," Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski told private radio RMF FM.
Meanwhile, CIA Director William Burns travelled in secret to Ukraine's capital Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy, a US official told Reuters on Thursday.
The official declined to say when the visit took place. The Washington Post, which first reported the visit, said it was at the end of last week. The Post said Burns briefed Zelenskiy on his expectations on Russia's military plans.
Fighting has been most intense in the industrial region known as the Donbas on Ukraine's eastern border with Russia, Ukrainian military officials said on Thursday night.
The Ukrainian military said Russian forces shelled the town of Bakhmut, Russia's main target in Donetsk province, which combined with Luhansk province forms the Donbas. Soledar, about 20 km (12 miles) from Bakhmut, also came under fire - Russian forces say they control Soledar, while Ukrainian sources say their military is still fighting there.
"Ukrainian forces have practically stabilised the front around Bakhmut," Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said on YouTube.
"As of today, Russia is turning Soledar into a military hub. And they are trying to redirect troops towards the towns of Spirne and Bilohorivka - just inside the Luhansk region."
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.