WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland said Monday it would ask Berlin for permission to send German-built Leopard tanks to Ukraine as the government in Warsaw pushes its Western allies to move faster on supplying Kyiv with more military hardware to thwart Russia’s invasion.
Germany has hesitated over sending tanks to Ukraine. But Polish officials took heart from remarks Sunday by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock that Berlin wouldn't seek to stop Poland from providing Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki didn’t specify when the request to Germany will be made. He said that Poland is building a coalition of nations ready to send Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine.
Poland needs the consent of Germany, which builds the tanks, to send them to a non-NATO country.
But even if there is no permission from Germany, Warsaw will make its own decisions, Morawiecki said at a news conference.
Poland has become a leading advocate in the European Union for giving Ukraine the military aid that could help it prevail over the Kremlin’s invading forces 11 months after the war began. Germany’s hesitation has drawn criticism, particularly from Poland and the Baltic countries on NATO’s eastern flank that feel especially threatened by Russia’s renewed aggression.
Although Berlin has provided substantial aid, it has been criticized for dragging its feet on providing military hardware.
German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said it was important for Germany not to take a “reckless” step it might regret, adding that a decision will not be rushed.
“These are hard questions of life and death,” he added. “We have to ask what this means for the defense of our own country.”
Pressed on how long a decision on sending tanks might take, Hebestreit said: “I assume that it’s not a question of months now.”
The Ukrainian government says that tanks, and especially the Leopards, are vital to Kyiv.
Previously, Polish officials have indicated that Finland and Denmark were ready to join Warsaw in sending Leopards to Ukraine. The United Kingdom has pledged to send some of its Challenger tanks. French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday he doesn't rule out sending Leclerc battle tanks to Ukraine and had asked his defense minister to “work on” the idea.
But Macron said a decision hinged on three criteria that have also weighed on the minds of other Western leaders: that sharing the equipment doesn't lead to an escalation of the conflict; that it would provide efficient and workable help when training time is taken into account; and that it wouldn’t weaken his own military.
Morawiecki said that while Poland intends to ask Germany for permission to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, the request is “a secondary matter” as a group of EU countries look at how to help Kyiv.
“Even if, eventually, we do not get this permission, we — within this small coalition — even if Germany is not in this coalition, we will hand over our tanks, together with the others, to Ukraine,” he said.
Morawiecki said talks have also been held “with our partners in Brussels” on the subject, referring to the 27-nation EU.
“Naturally, these are not easy talks, but we will be taking efforts to break this barrier of unwillingness in various countries,” he said.
Baerbock, Germany's top diplomat, told French television channel LCI on Sunday that Poland hasn't formally asked for Berlin’s approval to share some of its Leopards, but added “if we were asked, we would not stand in the way.”
Regarding Baerbock’s comments, 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.
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,” Morawiecki said.
“We are constantly exerting pressure on the government in Berlin to make its Leopards available,” he told reporters in the western city of Poznan.
According to Morawiecki, Germany has “more than 350 active Leopards and about 200 in storage.”
Poland wants to send a company of Leopard tanks, which means 14 of them, but they would barely make an impression in a war that involves thousands of tanks. If other countries contribute, Warsaw reckons, the tank detachment could grow to a much bigger brigade size.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the latest developments on sending Western Europe tanks to Ukraine “signaled increasing nervousness among members of the alliance.”
In interview clips posted by LCI, Baerbock said German officials “know how important these tanks are” and “this is why we are discussing this now with our partners.”
Ukraine’s supporters pledged billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine during a meeting Friday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. International defense leaders discussed Ukraine’s urgent request for the Leopard 2 tanks, and the absence of an agreement overshadowed new military commitments.
Germany is one of the main donors of weapons to Ukraine, and it ordered a review of its Leopard 2 stocks in preparation for a possible green light. Nonetheless, Berlin has shown caution at each step of increasing its aid to Ukraine, a hesitancy seen as rooted in its history and political culture.
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 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,” Ryabkov said. “Our signals are not listened to, and Russia’s adversaries keep raising the stakes.”
With both sides’ battlefield positions mostly deadlocked during winter, the Kremlin’s forces have kept up their bombardments of Ukrainian areas.
Kharkiv Gov. Oleh Synyehubov said Russian forces shelled several towns and villages in the northeastern region in the previous 24 hours, killing a 67-year-old woman and leaving another resident wounded.
Neither side shows signs of backing down as the war heads for a second year.
The Kremlin appears to be keeping its options open on mobilizing more soldiers. Russian authorities declared that the mobilization of an additional 300,000 reservists in late October is complete. However, some Russian lawyers and rights groups pointed out that Putin’s mobilization decree remains in effect until another presidential decree is issued to formally end the action.
Peskov said Monday although the assigned number of reservists have been mobilized, the decree remains in force because it also includes “other measures needed to ensure the fulfillment of tasks by the military.” He didn’t elaborate.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly warned of Russia’s plans to continue mobilizing more troops.