Ukraine expects decisions on tanks at Western defence leaders' meeting
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy said his government was expecting "strong decisions" from defence leaders of NATO and other countries meeting on Friday to discuss boosting Ukraine's ability to confront Russian forces with modern battle tanks.
The meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany is the latest in a series since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago, and where future weapons supplies will be discussed, particularly of Germany's Leopard 2 tanks used by armies across Europe.
Berlin has veto power over any decision to export the tanks and Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government has appeared reluctant so far to authorise that for fear of provoking Russia.
Some allies say Berlin's concern is misplaced, with Russia already fully committed to war, while Moscow has repeatedly said Western weapons transfers would prolong the conflict and increase suffering in Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia have both relied primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks, which have been destroyed in their hundreds during the war that Russian President Vladimir Putin started last Feb. 24, calling it a "special military operation" to protect Russia and Russian speakers.
Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to grab territory and to erase the independence of a fellow ex-Soviet republic and neighbour. Western countries have provided a steady supply of weapons to Ukraine.
"We are, in fact, now waiting for a decision from one European capital, which will activate the prepared chains of cooperation regarding tanks," Zelenskiy said in a video address on Thursday night.
"We are preparing for the Ramstein meeting tomorrow. We are expecting strong decisions. We are expecting a powerful military aid package from the United States," he said.
U.S. MILITARY ASSISTANCE
The United States on Thursday announced new military assistance for Ukraine valued at up to $2.5 billion, including hundreds of armoured vehicles and support for Ukraine's air defence.
The aid includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker Armored Personnel Carriers, the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement. In total, the United States has committed more than $27.4 billion in security aid to Ukraine since the invasion began.
German government sources have said Berlin would move on the Leopard tanks issue if Washington agreed to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Abrams tanks were not included in Thursday's announcement by the United States.
Germany's new Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said earlier, however, that he did not know of any requirement that Ukraine receive U.S. and German tanks simultaneously.
"I'm not aware of any such stipulation," Pistorius told German ARD television when asked if that meant Abrams and Leopards had to be delivered at the same time, a position that leaves open the possibility of an agreement on Friday.
CIA DIRECTOR VISIT
Ukraine's allies in the West have wanted to avoid NATO appearing to confront Russia directly and demurred on sending the Kyiv government their most potent weaponry.
Ukraine needed the tanks to defend itself, recapture occupied land, and did not plan to attack Russia, Zelenskiy told ARD television on Thursday.
"From Washington to London, from Paris to Warsaw, you hear one thing: Ukraine needs tanks. Tanks are the key to ending the war properly. It is time to stop trembling before Putin and take the final step," tweeted Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.
Meanwhile, CIA Director William Burns travelled in secret to Ukraine's capital Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.
The official declined to say when the visit took place. The Washington Post, which first reported the visit, said it took place at the end of last week. The Post said Burns briefed Zelenskiy on his expectations on Russia's military plans.
Fighting continued to be most intense in the strategic industrial region known as the Donbas on Ukraine's eastern border with Russia, Ukrainian military officials said on Thursday night.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Russian forces shelled the town of Bakhmut, Russia's main target in Donetsk province, which combined with Luhansk province forms the Donbas. Soledar, about 20 km from Bakhmut, also came under fire - Russian forces say they control Soledar, while Ukrainian sources say their military is still fighting in Soledar.
Nearby towns also were shelled by Russian forces - including Klishchiivka, just south of Bakhmut, the Ukrainian military said. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Russian mercenary army, said his forces have taken control of Klishchiivka, a claim contested by Ukraine.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
** Putin ally warns NATO of nuclear war if Russia is defeated in Ukraine
An ally of President Vladimir Putin warned NATO on Thursday that a defeat of Russia in Ukraine could trigger a nuclear war, while the head of the Russian Orthodox Church said the world would end if the West tried to destroy Russia.
Such apocalyptic rhetoric is intended to deter the U.S.-led NATO military alliance from getting even more involved in the war, on the eve of a meeting of Ukraine's allies to discuss sending Kyiv more weapons.
But the explicit recognition that Russia might lose on the battlefield marked a rare moment of public doubt from a prominent member of Putin's inner circle.
"The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war," former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who serves as deputy chairman of Putin's powerful security council, said in a post on Telegram.
"Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends," said Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012.
Striking a similar tone at what he described as an anxious time for the country, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church said in a sermon for Epiphany that trying to destroy Russia would mean the end of the world.
Medvedev said NATO and other defence leaders, due to meet at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday to talk about strategy and support for the West's attempt to defeat Russia in Ukraine, should think about the risks of their policy.
Putin casts Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine as an existential battle with an aggressive and arrogant West, and has said that Russia will use all available means to protect itself and its people.
The Kremlin chief has sought in recent months to gird Russians for a much tougher battle while promising eventual victory in a war that the leaders of the West say they will never let him win.
The United States has denied Russian claims that it wants to destroy Russia, while President Joe Biden has cautioned that a conflict between Russia and NATO could trigger World War Three.
But top Putin allies say the tens of billions of dollars' worth of U.S. and European military assistance to Ukraine shows that Russia is now in a confrontation with NATO itself - the Cold War nightmare of both Soviet and Western leaders.
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said in a sermon: "We pray to the Lord that he bring the madmen to reason and help them understand that any desire to destroy Russia will mean the end of the world."
"Today is an alarming time," state news agency RIA quoted him as saying. "But we believe that the Lord will not leave Russian land."
Putin's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told reporters in Minsk that Russia would do everything to ensure NATO and European Union leaders "sobered up" as soon as possible.
"I hope that the sobering up will come," Lavrov said. "We will do everything so that our colleagues from NATO and the European Union sober up as soon as possible."
Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine has triggered one of the deadliest European conflicts since World War Two and the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The United States and its allies have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine as an imperial land grab, while Ukraine has vowed to fight until the last Russian soldier is ejected from its territory.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Medvedev has repeatedly raised the threat of a nuclear war, but his admission now of the possibility of Russia's defeat indicates the level of Moscow's concern over increased Western weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
Russia and the United States, by far the largest nuclear powers, hold around 90% of the world's nuclear warheads.
Asked if Medvedev's remarks signified that Russia was escalating the crisis to a new level, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "No, it absolutely does not mean that."
He said Medvedev's remarks were in full accordance with Russia's nuclear doctrine which allows for a nuclear strike after "aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened".
Kremlin rubbishes bizarre Zelensky claim about Putin
Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky claimed that he was not certain if Vladimir Putin actually holds the office of president of Russia, or is even alive. The Kremlin dismissed the remark as an expression of Zelensky’s wishful thinking.
Russia and Putin are “a big problem” for Zelensky, so it’s natural that he “would prefer that neither Russia nor Putin existed,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman told journalists on Thursday.
He was reacting to a claim that Zelensky had made earlier in the day during his virtual appearance at the Ukrainian Breakfast, an event hosted on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation.
“I am not certain that the president of Russia, who makes occasional appearances on TV in front of a chroma key is actually [Putin],” the Ukrainian leader said, using the term for a background replacement technique colloquially known as ‘green screen.’
“I absolutely do not know whether he is alive, whether he takes decisions or someone else does,” Zelensky added, speculating that Russia could be under a collegial rule.
The remark came as the Ukrainian leader claimed that failure to reduce tensions with Moscow during the years of his presidency and the lack of negotiations today were Russia’s fault.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assessed that Zelensky and his government were not free to take decisions on foreign policy and that the country was hostage to a Western proxy war against Russia.
“There can be no negotiation with Zelensky, if only because he legally banned any talks with the Russian government,” he pointed out.
Remarks by Zelensky seemed to allude to a popular conspiracy theory, which speculates that the Russian government employs a number of Putin lookalikes to stand in for him at various events. The extreme variant claims that the “real” Putin is long dead and that Russia is controlled by a cabal of puppeteers.
Some officials in the Ukrainian government apparently consider the idea to be viable to some extent. Kirill Budanov, who heads Ukraine’s military intelligence service, claimed in an interview in July that a double went to Iran earlier that month instead of Putin. He offered no evidence to back the allegation.
** Hungary blocks another EU tranche to finance military aid to Ukraine
Hungary has blocked the process of EU approval of the seventh tranche to purchase weapons for Ukraine, Poland’s RMF radio station reported citing anonymous EU diplomatic sources.
The installment, worth 500 million euro, is to be allocated from the so-called European Peace Facility (EPF).
According to the radio, EU countries will continue their pressure on Budapest during a foreign ministers’ meeting next Monday. If Hungary continues to resist, European diplomats are set to secure the approval of the package without its participation.
The European Peace Facility was established in 2020 with a budget of 5 billion euro (approximately 5.7 billion euro now), with the funds to be distributed over the period from 2021 to 2027. The fund was envisaged as a structure to provide military supplies to governments in conflict zones, especially in Africa and the Middle East, where the EU supported or intended to support its ‘peacekeeping missions’.
However, with the start of Russia’s special military operation, the fund was reoriented toward arms supplies to Ukraine. To date, supplies worth about 3.5 billion euros have been paid for from it. Last December, the EU Council approved a 2-billion-euro increase in the institution’s funding ceiling for 2023.