Germany’s offer of 14 Leopard tanks triggered calls from Ukraine’s government for western fighter jets and more heavy armour as it formally announced its forces’ retreat from the eastern town of Soledar after nine months of bloody battle.
Kyiv lauded Berlin’s decision, along with reports the US was preparing to send its own Abrams tanks, but the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and his ministers are also seeking to break a “taboo” on the provision of jets such as US-made F16s.
The appeal for further tanks is expected to be partly satisfied, as Berlin’s decision could unlock offers by Finland, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland and Norway to provide Ukraine with their own German-manufactured Leopard 2A6 machines.
Germany said it was yet to receive any requests – with the exception of Poland – for authorisation for the re-export of Leopard 2 tanks but that others would probably make announcements about their plans in the coming hours and days.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said: “So the tank coalition is formed. Everyone who doubted this could ever happen sees now: for Ukraine and partners impossible is nothing. I call on all new partners that have Leopard 2 tanks in service to join the coalition and provide as many of them as possible. They are free now.”
Kuleba later said he had spoken to Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, about further military aid, including fighter jets, a request that has been repeatedly put to Nato allies without success.
Yuriy Sak, who advises Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, also said fighter jets would be “the next big hurdle”.
“If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense”, he said. “It’s not just F-16s. Fourth generation aircraft, this is what we want.”
Previous calls for US-made jets have not borne fruit, but the Dutch government recently said it would consider transferring some of its 50 planes in coordination with allies. Ukraine has until now received only Soviet planes and spare parts for its air force.
In response to Berlin’s decision on tanks, Zelenskiy said he had spoken to Olaf Scholz, and that he was “sincerely grateful to the chancellor and all our friends”.
“German-main battle tanks, further broadening of defence support and training missions, green light for partners to supply similar weapons,” he tweeted. “Just heard about these important and timely decisions in a call with Olaf Scholz. Sincerely grateful to the chancellor and all our friends in Germany.”
Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskiy’s office, wrote on Telegram that a broader coalition of tanks was needed: “We need a lot of Leopards,” he said.
Zelenskiy, who celebrated his 45th birthday on Wednesday, has previously spoken of the need for 300 tanks to provide gamechanging input to the war in Ukraine after 11 months of conflict.
Western officials believe the provision of 100 tanks could be enough to make the difference in holding ground in the event of a Russian spring offensive and then retaking territory. The first instalment of Leopard 2 tanks is expected to arrive in three months.
A reminder of the scale of the challenge facing Ukraine’s forces came with the formal announcement from Ukraine’s defence ministry of its forces withdrawal from Soledar, in the east of the Donbas region, “in order to preserve the lives of personnel”.
Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern forces, said: “We have entrenched ourselves on pre-preprepared defence lines [to the west].”
Of the fighting against Russian troops in the area, which are heavily made up of soldiers from the private Wagner group, Cherevaty claimed that Ukraine’s forces had “knocked out the maximum forces, primarily the manpower of the personnel, exhausted the enemy”.
Ukraine’s army general staff claimed on Wednesday that over the past 24 hours, their forces had killed 910 Russian soldiers.
The Russian feat may, however, move their forces a step closer to taking, or at least encircling, the city of Bakhmut. The pro-Russian Readovka news platform claimed “two or three” supply routes to the city had already been cut, although the Institute for the Study of War, a thinktank in Washington, said earlier this month they believed the strategic importance of Soledar had been exaggerated by the Kremlin.
Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said he believed the provision of tanks could help Ukraine “defend itself, win and prevail”.