German chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to soldiers in front of a Leopard 2 main battle tank after the Aamy’s training and instruction exercise in Ostenholz, Germany. Photograph: dpa via AP
Poland will ask Germany for permission to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said.
Mr Morawiecki did not specify when the request will be made, saying that Poland is building a coalition of nations ready to send Leopards.
Even if there is no permission from Germany, Warsaw will take its own decisions, he said, without elaborating.
Ukrainian officials have been calling on Western allies to supply them with the modern German-made tanks for months but Germany has held back from sending them or allowing other Nato countries to do so.
Leopard tanks, which are held by an array of Nato countries but whose transfer to Ukraine requires Berlin’s approval, are seen by defence experts as the most suitable for Ukraine.
But in an apparent shift in Germany’s position, foreign minister Annalena Baerbock told French TV channel LCI on Sunday that Poland has not formally asked for Berlin’s approval to share some of its German-made Leopards, but added “if we were asked, we would not stand in the way”.
Regarding Ms Baerbock’s comments, Mr Morawiecki said that “exerting pressure makes sense” and that her words are a “spark of hope” that Germany may even take part in the coalition.
In a news conference in the western city of Poznan, Mr Morawiecki said Ms Baerbock “sent a different message that offers a spark of hope that not only Germany will no longer block, but maybe finally will offer heavy, modern equipment in support of Ukraine”.
He added: “We are constantly exerting pressure on the government in Berlin to make its Leopards available.”
According to Mr Morawiecki, Germany has “more than 350 active Leopards and about 200 in storage”.
Germany has been under heavy pressure to let Leopards go to Ukraine but the Social Democrat party of chancellor Olaf Scholz is traditionally sceptical of military involvements and wary of sudden moves that could trigger Russia to escalation.
Moscow, in response to the pledges of sophisticated Western weapons for Kyiv’s military, has stepped up its warnings that escalation risks catastrophe.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov reaffirmed Moscow’s claim that the Western supplies could lead to “unpredictable” consequences.
“We have said on numerous occasions that escalation is the most dangerous path, and the consequences may be unpredictable,” Mr Ryabkov said.
“Our signals are not listened to, and Russia’s adversaries keep raising the stakes.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin also said on Monday that it was the Ukrainian people who would suffer if the West sends tanks to support Kyiv.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said splits in Europe over whether to provide tanks to Kyiv showed there was “nervousness” within the Nato military alliance. He added that all countries bear responsibility for the consequences of “pumping” Ukraine with weapons.
With both sides’ battlefield positions mostly deadlocked during the winter months, the Kremlin’s forces have kept up their bombardments of Ukrainian areas.
Kharkiv governor Oleh Synyehubov said on Monday that Russian forces shelled several towns and villages in the north-eastern region over the previous 24 hours, killing a 67-year-old woman and leaving another resident wounded.
Elsewhere, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was in South Africa on Monday for talks with one of its most important allies on a continent that is divided over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and related Western attempts to isolate it.
He was to meet South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, in a trip some opposition parties and the small Ukrainian community have condemned as insensitive.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government regards South Africa as neutral in the conflict and has expressed a desire to mediate.
Pandor has repeatedly insisted that South Africa will not be dragged into taking sides, and has criticised the West for its selective condemnation of Russia while ignoring other issues such as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
Even as South Africa has proclaimed impartiality on the conflict and abstained from voting on United Nations resolutions, it has retained close relations with Russia, historically a friend of the governing African National Congress when it was a liberation movement against white minority rule.
The South African military is set to host a joint military exercise with Russia and China on its east coast from February 17th to 27th, a move likely to further strain ties with Washington and European countries. It coincides with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th.
The South African military said last week the military exercise is a “means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China”.
Russian news agency TASS reported on Monday that a Russian warship armed with new-generation hypersonic cruise weapons would take part in the drills.
South Africa has little trade with Russia, but it is a champion of a world view, favoured by China and Russia, that seeks to undo perceived US-hegemony in favour of a “multipolar” world in which geopolitical power is more diffuse.
Lavrov’s second African visit in six months comes in advance of the Russia-Africa summit, which has been postponed to July 2023 from last year due to the Ukraine conflict.
There was no official public comment from the Ukrainian embassy but officials said the embassy asked the South African government to help push president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s 10-point peace plan which he proposed to the G20 in November. – Agencies