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A Polish Leopard tank as troops from Poland, U.S., France and Sweden take part in the DEFENDER-Europe 22 military exercise, in Nowogard, Poland, on May 19, 2022.WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Western allies on Friday dampened Ukraine’s hopes for a rapid shipment of battle tanks to boost its firepower for a spring offensive against Russian forces, with the United States urging Kyiv to hold off from mounting such an operation.

The United States’ top general, speaking after a meeting of the allies at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, also said it would be very hard for Ukraine to drive Russia’s invading forces from the country this year.

The run-up to the Ramstein meeting had been dominated by the issue of whether Germany would agree to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine or permit other countries that have them to do so.

In the end, no decision on supplying Leopards was reached Friday, officials said, although pledges for large amounts of other weapons, including air-defence systems and some other models of tanks, were given.

“We had a frank discussion on Leopards 2. To be continued,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleskii Reznikov said after the meeting.

The United States was also holding fast to its decision not to provide Abrams tanks to Ukraine yet, a senior U.S. official said in Washington. It wanted to see the latest supply of U.S. weaponry in place and training provided, the official said.

Canada to send 200 more armoured vehicles to Ukraine as Kyiv stresses need for tanks

In Ramstein, U.S. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference: “From a military standpoint, I still maintain that for this year, it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine.”

The developments likely came as a disappointment to Ukraine, as the war unleashed by a Russian invasion last February grinds on, with no solution nor let-up in sight. President Volodymyr Zelensky had specifically requested more battle tanks.

Ukraine was hit especially hard this week, reporting 44 people confirmed dead and 20 unaccounted for after a Russian missile attack on an apartment block in Dnipro. Russians in St Petersburg and Moscow have been laying flowers at improvised memorials to the victims.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a news conference at the end of the Ramstein meeting that while time was of the essence for Ukraine to take the fight to Russia’s forces in the spring, Ukraine was well-equipped even without the Leopards.

“Ukraine is not dependent on a single platform,” he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration faces pressure at home to supply more advanced weaponry. A group of U.S. senators visiting Kyiv on Friday blasted the delays. “We should not send American troops to Ukraine, but we should provide Ukraine with whatever we would give our troops if they were fighting on the ground,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters Ukraine’s backers needed to focus not only on sending new weapons, but supplying ammunition for older systems and helping maintain them.

For its part, the Kremlin said supplying tanks to Ukraine would not help and that the West would regret its “delusion” that Kyiv could win on the battlefield.

Germany has been under heavy pressure to allow Leopards to be sent. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrat party is traditionally skeptical of military involvements and wary of sudden moves that could cause Moscow to further escalate.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said he could not say when there would be a decision on the tanks but Berlin was prepared to move quickly if there was consensus among allies.

“All pros and cons must be weighed very carefully,” Pistorius said.

Defence ministers from NATO and other countries met at Ramstein amid concern that Russia would soon re-energize its military campaign to seize parts of Ukraine’s east and south that it says it has annexed but does not fully control.

Zelensky thanked allies for their support at the start of the meeting, but said more was needed and more quickly.

“We have to speed up. Time must become our weapon. The Kremlin must lose,” he said.

Western allies pledged billions of dollars in weapons for Ukraine on Jan. 19 and some promised to send the tanks Kyiv has requested if Berlin agrees, but Germany gave no sign of lifting a veto on deliveries it fears would provoke Moscow.

Reuters

Meanwhile, Russia claimed Friday to have captured a village in eastern Ukraine as part of its intense, months-long push toward the city of Bakhmut, while Ukraine’s allies failed to resolve a dispute about whether to send advanced battle tanks that the country avidly desires.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the village of Klishchiivka, which is located nine kilometres south of Bakhmut, had been “liberated.”

The claim couldn’t be independently verified, and Ukrainian officials made no immediate comment on the claim.

Taking Klishchiivka would be only a minor breakthrough, but the Kremlin is hungry for good news from the battlefield after months of setbacks.

Bakhmut, on the other hand, would be a bigger prize. It could allow Russia to disrupt Ukrainian supply lines in the east and threaten other Ukrainian-held cities in the surrounding Donetsk region.

However, U.S. officials have begun to nudge the Ukrainians to shift focus away from Bakhmut and focus on preparation for an offensive in the south, according to an official familiar with the views of President Joe Biden’s administration.

The official said administration officials have conveyed that they believe there is a high potential for the Russians to eventually push Ukrainian forces out of Bakhmut amid some of the war’s most intense fighting to date. Administration officials believe that significant forces will be needed for an expected Ukrainian offensive in the south, but many of those forces are currently embroiled in Bakhmut.

With files from the Associated Press

A Canadian company supplying battle-ready armoured vehicles to Ukraine plans to deliver the 200 vehicles Ottawa promised to Kyiv before summer, the firm's Chief Executive Officer Roman Shimonov said on Jan. 19.

Reuters