U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged allies on Friday (January 20) to “dig deeper” to support Ukraine at the start of a meeting of dozens of defense ministers at an air base in Germany, as pressure piled up on Berlin to provide tanks to Kyiv. NATO and defense leaders from roughly 50 countries are meeting at Ramstein Air Base, the latest in a series of arms-pledging conferences since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
Western allies on Friday dampened Ukraine’s hopes for a rapid shipment of battle tanks to boost its firepower for a spring offensive against Russian forces, with the United States urging Kyiv to hold off from mounting such an operation.
The senior-most U.S. general, speaking after a meeting of the allies at Ramstein Air Base, also said it would be very hard for Ukraine to drive Russia’s invading forces from the country this year.
The run-up to the Ramstein meeting had been dominated by the issue of whether Germany would agree to send Leopard 2 tanks, or permit other countries which have them, to Ukraine.
In the end, no decision on supplying Leopards was reached, officials said, although pledges for large amounts of other weapons including air defence systems and some other model of tanks, were given.
The United States was also holding fast to its decision not to provide Abrams tanks to Ukraine yet, a senior U.S. official said in Washington. It wanted to see the latest supply of U.S. weaponry in place and training provided, the official said.
In Ramstein, U.S. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference: “From a military standpoint, I still maintain that for this year, it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine.”
The developments were likely to come as a disappointment to Ukraine as the war unleashed by a Russian invasion last February grinds on with no solution nor let-up in the suffering in sight. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had specifically requested more tanks.
The German-built Leopards are seen as especially suitable for Ukraine as they are widely in use, meaning several countries could each chip in some of their tanks to support Ukraine. They would give Ukraine an edge as it switched from defensive to offensive operations.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking earlier in the day, urged allies to dig deeper to support Ukraine, without making specific reference to tanks.
“Russia is regrouping, recruiting, and trying to re-equip,” he said at the start of the meeting. “This is not a moment to slow down. It’s a time to dig deeper. The Ukrainian people are watching us,” he said.
The Kremlin said supplying tanks to Ukraine would not help and the West would regret its “delusion” that Kyiv could win on the battlefield.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters Ukraine’s backers needed to focus not only on sending new weapons, but supplying ammunition for older systems and helping maintain them.
A Ukrainian serviceman looks on and a local resident rides a bicycle while a broken tank is pulled to a truck near the frontline town of Bakhmut, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine January 20, 2023. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak
Spanish army tank Leopard 2 of NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group fires during the final phase of the Silver Arrow 2022 military drill on Adazi military training grounds, Latvia September 29, 2022. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley looks on during a news conference with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (not pictured), following their meeting in which they discuss how to help Ukraine defend itself, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, January 20, 2023. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
A protester holds a placard as people protest claiming for combat tank delivery to support the Ukrainian military, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Berlin, Germany January 20, 2023. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a news conference with U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley (not pictured), following their meeting in which they discuss how to help Ukraine defend itself, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, January 20, 2023. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
A Ukrainian tank is seen amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine January 19, 2023. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a phone call with Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine January 14, 2023. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
A relative looks at the site of a helicopter crash, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the town of Brovary, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, January 19, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
An empty road is seen, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine January 19, 2023. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak
Nadija Mykhailova, 33, who is 5 months pregnant eats soup on her hospital bed after suffering burns on the second floor of the civil infrastructure building during a helicopter crash, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the town of Brovary, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, January 19, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
A Russian Mi-28 military helicopter flies above a settlement in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in the Luhansk region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, January 19, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko