Ukraine pushes for tanks as Germany says new minister to decide

Ukraine moved a step closer on Tuesday in its bid to win a fleet of modern battle tanks it hopes could turn the tide of the war with Russia, after heavy-hitting West Germany said it would be the first item on the agenda of his new Minister of Defense.

In the central city of Dnipro, authorities ended the search for survivors in the ruins of an apartment building destroyed during Russian missile strikes on Saturday.

Forty-four people were confirmed dead and 20 remain missing in the attack, the deadliest for civilians in a three-month Russian missile bombing campaign, according to Ukrainian officials. Seventy-nine people were injured and 39 were rescued from the rubble.

Almost 11 months after Russia invaded, Kyiv says a fleet of Western battle tanks would give its troops the mobile firepower to drive out Russian troops in decisive battles in 2023.

The German-made Leopard main battle tanks, the workhorse of armies across Europe, cannot be delivered without authorization from Berlin, which has so far resisted.

With Western allies meeting at a US air base in Germany on Friday to pledge military support for Ukraine, Berlin is under intense pressure to lift its objections this week.

The decision is on the desk of new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, appointed on Tuesday to replace Christine Lambrecht, who resigned after comments critics called insensitive.

“When the person is declared, when the Minister of Defense, this is the first question that has to be decided concretely,” said German Economy Minister Robert Habeck on Tuesday on the Deutschlandfunk radio station, before that the appointment be announced.

In his first comments on the job, Pistorius, a regional politician seen as close to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, made no mention of arms for Ukraine: “I know the importance of the task,” he said in a statement. “It’s important to me to involve the Soldiers closely and bring them with me.”

Pistorius will host US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday ahead of Friday’s meeting of allies at Ramstein Air Base.

Germany has been wary of approving weapons that could be seen as an escalation of conflict.

Scholz, speaking in an interview for Bloomberg TV on Tuesday, confirmed that discussions with Germany’s allies about the tanks were ongoing, but that they were not to be held in public.

The Kremlin said last week that new arms deliveries, including French-made armored vehicles, to Kyiv would “deepen the suffering of the Ukrainian people” and would not change the course of the conflict.

Vladimir Solovyev, a pro-Kremlin anchor on state-run Rossiya 1 television, said any Western country supplying Ukraine with more advanced weapons should be considered a legitimate target for Russia.

Since President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine on February 24, the United States and its allies have donated tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons, including rocket systems, drones, armored vehicles and communications systems.

Ukraine’s top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said he had outlined the “urgent needs” of his forces in a first one-on-one meeting on Tuesday in Poland with the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.

Poland and Finland have already said they would send Leopards if Berlin gives re-export approval.

Separately, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told US President Joe Biden on Tuesday that the Netherlands would join the US and Germany in sending Patriot missiles to Ukraine.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said NATO allies were sending a clear message to Putin by increasing their arms supplies to Ukraine.

“The message we are sending to Putin … is that we pledged to support the Ukrainians until they are victorious,” Cleverly said at a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

A senior Ukrainian official blamed Russia for carrying out the bulk of the more than 2,000 cyberattacks on Ukraine in 2022, speaking at a news conference he said was delayed because of a cyberattack. There was no immediate comment on his allegations from Moscow.

Tens of thousands of people have died and millions have been driven from their homes since Russia launched what it calls a “special military operation” last February to eliminate security threats in Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western supporters call Russia’s actions a land grab.

Ukrainian forces pushed back Russian troops in the second half of 2022, but over the past two months the front lines have largely frozen despite both sides suffering heavy losses in relentless fighting.

Since October, Moscow has turned to a tactic of raining missiles on Ukrainian cities far from the front lines in the east and south, mainly targeting electrical infrastructure.

Russia says it aims to reduce Ukraine’s fighting capacity; Kyiv says the attacks have no military purpose and are intended to harm civilians, a war crime.

In Dnipro, residents left flowers and stuffed toys at a makeshift memorial near the apartment block devastated during a wave of missile attacks on Saturday.

Hundreds of mourners bid farewell to boxing trainer Mykhailo Korenovskyi, killed in a strike, as pictures showed the kitchen of his apartment, decorated in bright yellow colours, now exposed to the air after the outer wall was torn away.

A recent family video, shot in the same kitchen, showed Korenovskyi’s daughter smiling and blowing out four candles from her birthday cake while he stood behind her, holding another child in his arms.

Moscow denies it intentionally targeted civilians and blamed Ukraine’s air defenses for the missile that hit the apartment block. Kyiv says it was hit by a notoriously inaccurate Russian anti-ship missile for which Ukraine has no defenses.

© Thomson Reuters 2023.

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