Tanks for Ukraine in sight as holdout Germany says new minister to decide

  • New German defense minister announced as Boris Pistorius
  • Berlin holding up tanks from other European allies
  • Death toll in Dnipro rises to 44

DNIPRO, Ukraine/KYIV, Jan 17 (Reuters) – Ukraine came a step closer on Tuesday to winning the fleet of modern battle tanks it hopes could turn the course of the war against Russia, after the West’s big holdout Germany said this would be the first item on its new defense 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 still unaccounted for in the attack, the deadliest for civilians of a three-month Russian missile bombardment campaign. 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, are widely seen as the only plausible option available in sufficient numbers. But they cannot be delivered without authorization from Berlin, which has so far demurred.

With Western allies meeting at a US airbase in Germany on Friday to pledge military support for Ukraine, Berlin is under intense pressure to lift its objections this week, in what would be one of the most consequential shifts in Western aid so far.

The decision sits on the desk of Germany’s new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, named on Tuesday to replace Christine Lambrecht, who quit after missteps including a cheerful New Year’s message about the war that opponents called tone deaf.

“When the person, when the minister of defense, 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 in 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 is due to host US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday ahead of Friday’s big meeting of allies at Ramstein air base.

Germany has been cautious about approving weapons that could be seen as an escalation. But allies increasingly argue that concern is misplaced, with Russia showing no sign of backing down from its assault on its neighbor.

Britain broke the taboo over heavy tanks over the weekend, pledging a squadron of its Challengers. But it has too few to form the basis of a Ukrainian force. Washington’s Abrams tanks run on turbine engines, seen as burning too much fuel for Ukraine to field in large numbers.

That leaves the Leopards, which Germany made in the thousands during the Cold War and which are now fielded by armies across Europe. Poland and Finland have already said they would send Leopards if Berlin gives re-export approval.

“We hope and are trying to organize bigger support for Ukraine. We hope a few partners, allies, will give tanks to Ukraine,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In a sign of the stakes for Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy held a phone call with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeyer on Tuesday, and a video question-and-answer session with German students. He interrupted the latter to take what he said was an urgent call from troops at the front.

CUDDLY TOYS AT MEMORIAL

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions driven from their homes since Russia launched what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine in February last year.

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. Ukrainian officials say tanks would be key to breaking the stalemate.

Russia claims to have captured the small mining town of Soledar on the outskirts of the eastern city of Bakhmut last week. Kyiv says it is still fighting there: “Our units are located in Soledar and are constantly hitting the enemy with fire,” Serhiy Cherevaty, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said.

Moscow, meanwhile, has turned since October to a tactic of raining missiles down on Ukrainian cities far from the front, 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 destroyed during Russia’s wave of missile attacks on Saturday.

A soldier staggered away, wiping away tears, after laying flowers on the seat of a transport shelter turned into a temporary monument to victims. A candle burned beside the growing pile of toys and bouquets.

“We came here to look, pay our respects. It is very tough, such a shame about lives lost,” said 63-year-old Viktoria.

Moscow denies intentionally targeting 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.

Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, saying Kyiv’s close ties with the West created a security threat. Ukraine and its Western allies call it an unprovoked war to seize land and impose Russia’s will on its neighbor.

Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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