Ukraine came a step closer on Tuesday in its bid to win a fleet of modern battle tanks it hopes could turn the course of the war with Russia, after the West’s big holdout Germany said this would be the first item on its new defence minister’s agenda.
In the central city of Dnipro, authorities called an end to the search for survivors in the ruins of an apartment building destroyed during Russian missile attacks on Saturday.
Forty-four people were confirmed killed and 20 remain unaccounted for in the attack, the deadliest for civilians of a three-month Russian missile bombardment campaign, according to Ukrainian officials. Seventy-nine people were wounded and 39 rescued from the rubble.
Nearly 11 months after Russia invaded, Kyiv says a fleet of Western battle tanks would give its troops the mobile firepower to drive Russian troops out in decisive battles in 2023.
German-made Leopard battle tanks, workhorse of armies across Europe, cannot be delivered without authorization from Berlin, which has so far demurred.
With Western allies meeting at a U.S. 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 sits on the desk of Germany’s new Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, named on Tuesday to replace Christine Lambrecht, who quit after comments critics called insensitive.
“When the person, when the minister of defence, is declared, this is the first question to be decided concretely,” German Economy Minister Robert Habeck told Deutschlandfunk radio broadcaster on Tuesday, before the appointment was announced.
In his first comments on the job, Pistorius, a regional politician viewed as close to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, made no mention of weapons for Ukraine: “I know the importance of the task,” he said in a statement. “It is important to me to involve the soldiers closely and to take them with me.”
Pistorius will host U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday ahead of Friday’s meeting of allies at Ramstein air base.
Germany has been cautious about approving weapons that could be seen as escalating conflict.
Scholz, speaking on Tuesday in an interview for Bloomberg TV, confirmed that discussions with Germany’s allies on tanks were ongoing but should not be conducted in public.
The Kremlin said last week that new deliveries of weapons, including French-made armoured 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 presenter on Rossiya 1 state television, said any Western countries which supplied more advanced weapons to Ukraine should be considered legitimate targets for Russia.
Since President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, the United States and its allies have given tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry including rocket systems, drones, armoured vehicles and communications systems.
Ukraine’s top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said he had outlined his forces’ “urgent needs” in a first personal meeting on Tuesday in Poland with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.
Milley met for a couple of hours with Zaluzhnyi, at an undisclosed location in southeastern Poland. The two leaders have talked frequently about Ukraine’s military needs and the state of the war over the past year but had never met.
The meeting comes as the international community ramps up the military assistance to Ukraine, including expanded training of Ukrainian troops by the U.S. and the provision of a Patriot missile battery, tanks and increased air defence and other weapons systems by the U.S. and a coalition of European and other nations.
It also marks a key time in the war. Ukraine’s troops face fierce fighting in the eastern Donetsk province, where Russian forces – supplemented by thousands of private Wagner Group contractors – seek to turn the tide after a series of battlefield setbacks in recent months.
Poland and Finland have already said they would send Leopards if Berlin gives re-export approval.
Separately, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday the Netherlands would join the United States and Germany in sending Patriot missiles to Ukraine.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said NATO allies were conveying a clear message to Putin by boosting their arms supplies to Ukraine.
“The message we’re sending to Putin … is that we made a commitment to support Ukrainians until they are victorious,” Cleverly told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
A senior Ukrainian official blamed Russia for carrying out the bulk of more than 2,000 cyberattacks on Ukraine in 2022, speaking at a news conference he said was itself delayed because of a cyberattack. There was no immediate comment on his allegations from Moscow.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions driven from their homes since Russia launched last February what it calls a “special military operation” to eliminate security threats in Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western backers call Russia’s actions a land grab.
Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops back during the second half of 2022, but over the past two months the front lines have largely been frozen in place despite both sides enduring heavy losses in relentless fighting.
Moscow has turned since October to a tactic of raining missiles down on Ukrainian cities far from the front lines in the east and south, mainly targeting electricity infrastructure.
Russia says it aims to reduce Ukraine’s ability to fight; Kyiv says the attacks serve no military purpose and are intended to harm civilians, a war crime.
In Dnipro, residents left flowers and cuddly toys at a makeshift memorial near the apartment block devastated during a wave of missile attacks on Saturday.
Hundreds of mourners bade farewell to boxing coach Mykhailo Korenovskyi, killed in a strike, while footage showed the kitchen of his apartment, decorated in bright yellow colours, now exposed to the air after the external wall was torn off.
A recent family video, filmed in the same kitchen, showed Korenovskyi’s daughter smiling and blowing out four candles on her birthday cake while he stood behind her, holding another child in his arms.
Moscow denies intentionally targeting civilians, and blamed Ukraine’s air defences 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 defences.
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With files from The Associated Press