Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov says Ukrainian forces will train to use Leopard 2 battle tanks, despite Western allies' failure Friday to reach a decision on whether to supply Kyiv with the German-made tanks.
Reznikov told VOA's Ukrainian Service on Friday that Ukraine's troops will train on the tanks in Poland and described the development as a breakthrough.
'Countries that already have Leopard tanks can begin training missions for our tank crews. We will start with that, and we will go from there. I hope, Germany will follow their process, conduct their internal consultations, and will arrive at the decision to transfer tanks. I am optimistic regarding this because the first step has been made. We will start training programs for our tank crews on Leopards 2," Reznikov said.
Earlier Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army General Mark Milley said no Leopard tanks would be given to Ukraine by Germany at this time. They made the remarks at a briefing at U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany following an international conference on Ukraine support.
The meeting was held amid Kyiv's frustration with the dissent over sending tanks to Ukraine as the full-scale invasion reaches the 11-month mark. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made direct pleas for tanks at the meeting.
Reznikov said he was pleased with the results, "I consider that the key concepts of this meeting today were unity, timelines of delivering aid, and enhancement of the capabilities of the armed forces of Ukraine to continue counter-offensive operations in order to liberate temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. All the previously announced [military aid] packages have been confirmed. In addition, some new packages were discussed behind closed doors, but I am not at liberty to announce them just yet. This is inspiring. I am very satisfied."
Austin denied there is a link between Germany not sending its Leopard tanks and the U.S. not committing its Abrams tanks. Downplaying the immediate importance of tanks, he emphasized that an extensive new U.S. military assistance package to Ukraine -- which includes 59 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers -- would give Ukraine new capabilities in the war.
'What we're really focused on is making sure that Ukraine has a capability that it needs to be successful right now. So, we have a window of opportunity here - between now and in the spring ... whenever they commence their operation, their counteroffensive,' he said.
The new U.S. aid package, worth $2.5 billion, brings American military assistance to Ukraine to almost $27 billion since Russia's invasion nearly a year ago.
The military package also includes three types of missiles, tens of thousands of artillery and mortar rounds, and additional HIMARS ammunition, with eight Avenger air defense systems. The U.S. already announced it would send a Patriot missile system, while the Netherlands will supply two launching pads for them as well as missiles, Dutch news agency ANP reported.
People hold signs referencing Leopard tanks being sent to Ukraine, at a demonstration in Berlin, Germany, Jan. 20, 2023.
Austin reaffirmed the allies' commitment to defending Ukraine.
'It is not only about Ukraine security, it is about European security and about global security,' he said. He expressed confidence the group will remain united and continue to build momentum.
Asked if Germany is a reliable ally, Austin responded, 'They are a reliable ally, they've been that way for a very, very long time, and I truly believe that they'll continue to be a reliable ally going forward.'
Milley echoed Austin's comment and noted this is the most unified he has seen NATO in his 40 years in uniform. He said the U.S. assistance package, along with unified donations from other countries, signify their resolve to defend Ukraine.
'As much as it takes, as long as it takes in order to keep Ukraine free, independent and sovereign,' he said.
However, Milley pointed out that 'synchronizing, sending all these armaments and training Ukrainian troops in a short window before spring is challenging; equipment getting married to the people and creating a coherent plan.'
He also said it would be very hard for Ukraine to drive Russia's invading forces from the country this year, and he stressed the importance of solidifying Ukraine's defensive front.
Defense ministers from about 50 countries, including all NATO members, met at Ramstein. This was the eighth Ramstein summit since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Regarding tanks, Germany's new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, suggested the issue was inching forward. Speaking to reporters outside the Ramstein conference hall at midday, Pistorius said, 'We will make our decisions as soon as possible.'
In an interview with VOA's Patsy Widakuswara on Friday, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that it is up to Germany to decide the size, scale and scope of military assistance they are comfortable with providing to Ukraine. 'We are not there, arm-twisting and pushing and cajoling,' he said.
Kirby said the NATO alliance remains 'very, very solidly behind Ukraine.' However, he said NATO allies, as 'sovereign nations, they get to decide because they have to have their own national security needs, they have to consider as well, just like we do.'
Earlier Friday, the head of NATO's Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer of the Royal Netherlands Navy, also said Germany and other countries supporting Ukraine will have to decide individually on whether to supply it with tanks but warned that 'giving away stuff now costs money but the cost for all of us will be much higher if Russia wins the war in Ukraine. ... We need to seriously look at what Ukraine requires, and if possible, give them what they ask for.'
Zelenskyy said in his evening address Friday that Ukraine will have to fight to secure a supply of modern heavy armor.
'Every day we make it more obvious there is no alternative to making the decision on tanks,' he said.
Zelenskyy thanked the U.S., European allies and Canada for military weapons and stressed the significance of their speedy delivery. 'The only thing worth emphasizing is the time, the delivery time,' he said. 'Each agreement must be implemented as quickly as possible - for our defense.'
Moscow said Friday any additional tanks supplied to Ukraine will have no effect on the course of the conflict.
'We have repeatedly said that such supplies will not fundamentally change anything but will add problems for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,' Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow.
He said the West will 'regret its delusion' that Ukraine can win on the battlefield.
In Kyiv on Friday, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal, Lindsey Graham and Sheldon Whitehouse met with Zelenskyy and Ukrainian military officials. VOA's Kyiv correspondent Anna Chernikova reported that during a news conference, the senators asserted the U.S. should provide tanks and long-range weapons to Ukraine to stop Russia's invasion.
They expressed their conviction that Ukraine needs this help now, because time is not on the side of Ukraine and its allies. They also said that if Russian President Vladimir Putin is not stopped now, NATO countries would be next.
The senators appealed to their voters, asserting that their money is necessary to restore the world order. The main message to Ukrainians was that the U.S. would stay with them for as long as it takes.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.