French and German leaders held a summit in France Sunday as pressure mounts on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to approve a shipment of Leopard 2 heavy tanks to Ukraine.
The chancellor did not say whether Germany would agree to provide Ukraine with a delivery of battle tanks, but the Reuters news agency cited him as saying such decisions would be made in coordination with allies including the United States.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he does not rule out the possibility of sending Leclerc tanks to Ukraine. He cautioned, however, that sending tanks must not endanger France’s security or escalate the war between Ukraine and Russia.
British Foreign Minister James Cleverly said Sunday in an interview with Sky News he would like to see the Ukrainians “equipped with things like the Leopard 2.” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, the newly installed Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told ABC’s “This Week” that the United States should offer its heavy Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine to encourage Germany to send its Leopard 2s as well.
“Just one Abrams tank would be enough to prompt allies, notably Germany, to unlock their own tank inventories for the fight against Russia,” he said.
Democratic Senator Chris Coons also told ABC that it was time to set aside U.S. concerns about delivering the Abrams.
“I respect that our military leaders think the Abrams is too sophisticated, too expensive a platform to be as useful as the Leopards, but we need to continue to work with our close allies and move forward in lock step.”
Their comments Sunday echoed reactions of European officials Saturday against Germany’s indecision about sending its heavy tanks to Ukraine. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called on Berlin to “provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine now.”
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas called for “many more” weapons to be sent to Ukraine and faster. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau urged “action now.”
“Ukrainian blood is shed for real,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is the price of hesitation over Leopard deliveries,” he said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Saturday expressed frustration with the slow pace of the military support the country’s allies are providing. “Every day of delay is the death of Ukrainians. Think faster.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops will start training to use Leopard 2 battle tanks on Polish soil, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told VOA’s Ukrainian Service Friday. Reznikov described the development as a breakthrough.
“I am optimistic regarding this because the first step has been made. We will start training programs for our tank crews on Leopard 2s,” Reznikov said.
In contrast, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, issued a dire warning on the Telegram messaging app.
“Deliveries of offensive weapons to the Kyiv regime will lead to a global catastrophe,” he said. “If Washington and NATO countries supply weapons that will be used to strike civilian cities and attempt to seize our territories, as they threaten, this will lead to retaliatory measures using more powerful weapons.
“Arguments that the nuclear powers have not previously used weapons of mass destruction in local conflicts are untenable,” Volodin added. “Because these states did not face a situation where there was a threat to the security of their citizens and the territorial integrity of the country.”
The British defense ministry said Sunday that Russia “highly likely assesses that an enhanced conventional military threat will endure for many years beyond the current Ukraine war.” In the intelligence update posted on Twitter Sunday, the ministry said Russia would “highly likely struggle to staff and equip the planned expansion.”
Russia’s defense ministry announced last week that it intends to increase its armed forces staffing to 1.5 million people.
Russia also announced plans to reestablish Moscow and Leningrad military districts. The U.K. defense ministry said that move represents “a partial return to the Soviet era organization of forces in western Russia.”
Russia also has plans to install a new army corps in Karelia, near the Finnish border.
Russia’s defense ministry said for the second straight day Sunday that its forces were improving their positions in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region.
“During offensive operations in the direction of Zaporizhzhia, units of the Eastern Military District took up more advantageous ground and positions,” the defense ministry said.
It claimed to have inflicted casualties and destroyed equipment including Ukrainian fighting vehicles, howitzers and two U.S.-made HIMARS rockets. The Reuters news agency was not able to independently verify Russia’s battlefield accounts. Ukraine Saturday said Russia’s claims of progress in Zaporizhzhia were exaggerated.
Return of bodies
Saturday, the Wagner Group, the private Russian paramilitary group, announced through its RIA FAN website that it plans to send the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed during fighting in the captured town of Soledar to Ukraine-held territory.
The RIA FAN website, part of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media holdings, quoted a Wagner commander as saying the mercenary company would send the bodies from Soledar to Ukrainian-held territory in four or five convoys totaling about 20 trucks.
Saturday’s report did not say how many bodies would be returned to Ukrainian authorities but claimed Ukraine’s forces had suffered heavy losses in Soledar.
It said Prigozhin had made clear that soldiers’ bodies should be returned to Ukraine in a “dignified” way but did not provide further details.
The White House has imposed new sanctions on Prigozhin’s paramilitary organization.
In a separate letter addressed to National Security Council coordinator John Kirby, Prigozhin’s press service asked, “Dear Mr. Kirby, could you please clarify what crime was committed by PMC Wagner?”
Kirby called Wagner “a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses.”
VOA’s Ruslan Petrychka contributed to this story. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.