Ukraine is unlikely to be able to eject Russia from its territory this year, US military figures warned on Friday, as a crucial meeting of allies failed to resolve divisions over providing advanced battle tanks for Kyiv's forces.
At the US airbase in Ramstein, Germany, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin listed a series of pledges from countries to deliver defensive weapons and hardware, but the Leopard 2 tanks desired by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were absent.
“We can all do more” for Ukraine, he said, going on to say that Ukrainian forces were expected to mount a counter-offensive against Russia this spring and calling on allies to step up arms shipments to help Kyiv prepare.
“We’re really focused on making sure that Ukraine has a capability that it needs to be successful right now so we have a window of opportunity here between now and the spring, whenever they commence their counter-offensive,” he said.
Germany would need to consent for the tanks to be given to Ukraine, which is not a member of Nato. Despite pleas from Ukrainian officials and mounting pressure, Germany has so far resisted agreeing to quickly supply Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv, or at least clear the way for other countries, such as Poland, to deliver them from their own stocks.
Mr Austin maintained that Germany was a reliable ally and it would continue to exercise leadership.
“They are a reliable ally, they've been that way for a very, very long time and I truly believe that they'll continue to be a reliable ally going forward,” Mr Austin said.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleskii Reznikov said he had "a frank discussion" with German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius on Friday about the supply of Leopard tanks and added that the talks would continue.
A static front line
At the high-level defence meeting, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen Mark Milley expressed strong doubt that Ukraine would succeed in driving Russian troops out of its territory this year. He said the war had become a static front line.
“From a military standpoint, I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all, every inch of … Russian-occupied Ukraine,” he said.
Mariusz Blaszczak, Defence Minister of Poland, which has pledged a company of 14 Leopard tanks on condition that other countries also supply them, said earlier that 15 countries that have the German-made Leopards discussed the issue but no decisions were made.
He called the meeting a “good discussion among allies” and said the matter would be discussed again at future talks.
Mr Blaszczak's comments came a day after Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that he might press forward without Germany’s green light.
Though the tank debate appeared unresolved, Germany’s new defence minister Mr Pistorius suggested the issue was moving forward.
He said that his government was “carefully balancing pros and cons”.
“I'm sure there will be a decision in the short term,” said Mr Pistorius, who did not rule out the delivery of German battle tanks to Ukraine in the future. “Nothing is ever for ever,” he said.
Mr Pistorius remained evasive about the reasons behind Germany's hesitations.
“We don't fear anything,” he said. “We have [a] responsibility for our population in Germany and Europe.”
He said that it was not up to him to decide whether other countries such as Poland or Finland could send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and denied reports that Germany was unilaterally blocking the delivery.
“To be frank, I’m not allowed to grant that licence because it’s the role of another ministry and the chancellor,” he said.
Mr Pistorius said the German government would be ready to move quickly on the issue if there was consensus among allies.
Earlier in the day, he said he was “not aware” of a package deal reported by several media outlets, claiming that Germany would only send its Leopard 2s to Ukraine if the US also sent its M1 Abrams.
Defence experts previously told The National that Abrams are too difficult to operate and run on specialised fuel.
Germany’s Leopard 2 is the only European-made tank that has the capacity to be scaled up easily and enable large-scale training. There is also easy access to ammunition and spare parts.
Mr Pistorius rejected claims that Germany was letting down Ukraine by not approving the transfer of Leopard 2s, and said that “we will support Ukraine [as] long as it’s necessary and the war is over”.
'Hundreds of thank yous are not hundreds of tanks'
Speaking to defence officials on Friday morning via video-link, Ukraine's President made an impassioned plea for more Western battle tanks.
Mr Zelenskyy thanked allies for their latest military assistance packages, but said his country needs tanks to repel Russian invaders.
Make the meeting a “Ramstein of tanks”, Mr Zelenskyy told the defence chiefs, calling for future gatherings to “go down in history as a Ramstein of F16s and long-range missiles”.
“I can thank you hundreds of times, but hundreds of thank yous are not hundreds of tanks. I can’t use words instead of guns that are needed against Russian artillery.
“Every unit helps to save our people from terror, but time remains a Russian ally.
“We have to speed up.”
Mr Austin kicked off the Ramstein meeting by announcing the new package of military hardware worth $2.5 billion.
This includes additional National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, eight Avenger air defence systems and 59 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and ammunition.
It is the 30th US package to Ukraine since the conflict began and it brings Washington's total security assistance to Ukraine to more than $26.7 billion, said Mr Austin.
The US will also provide Ukrainian forces with training.
“Russia is regrouping recruiting and trying to re-equal. This is not a moment to slow down it’s a time to dig deeper,” said Mr Austin.
“The Ukrainian people are watching us, the Kremlin is watching us and history is watching us.”
Yet the package from the US does not include the ATA long-range missiles that Ukraine has requested.
The missiles, which can travel up to 300 kilometres, could enable Kyiv to strike Russian supply routes and depots far behind the front line that are beyond the reach of current Himars rocket systems.
But western partners also fear that despite assurances Ukraine could use long-range weapons to hit deep inside Russian territory or Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
A number of other western nations offered new shipments of weapons before the gathering.
Britain announced it would send 600 Brimstone missiles, Denmark said it would donate 19 French-made Caesar howitzers and Sweden promised its Archer artillery system, a modern mobile howitzer requested by Kyiv for months.
Finland announced on Friday a €400 million ($433 million) military aid package, but said it would not include Leopard tanks.
The Kremlin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that western countries supplying tanks to Ukraine would not change the course of the conflict, but instead add to the problems of the Ukrainian people.
“We see an adherence to the dramatic delusion about the possibility of Ukraine having success on the battlefield,” Mr Peskov said.
He claimed the war was “developing in an upwards spiral” for Moscow.