Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy had a simple message for his Western allies at a donor conference Friday in Germany: “speed up” your arms deliveries.
Speaking by video link to the gathering at the U.S. Air Force’s Ramstein Air Base, where Ukraine’s allies have gathered to discuss the best way to help Ukraine as it battles a nearly yearlong Russian invasion, Zelenskyy said the allies need “not to bargain about different numbers of tanks, but to open that principal supply that will stop evil."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the donor nations, "We need to dig even deeper. This is a decisive moment for Ukraine." He said, "The Ukrainian people are watching us, the Kremlin is watching us, and history is watching us.”
The meeting included representatives from 50 countries, including all NATO members.
Before Friday’s meeting, the U.S. and Germany appeared to be reticent about supplying the Leopard 2 and Abrams tanks that Ukraine has requested, with Austin saying, “we'll renew our united commitment to support Ukraine's self-defense for the long haul" at the Ramstein meeting but did not mention specific new equipment.
Zelenskyy has been clear that what Ukraine needs is a supply of modern tanks. In a video address late Thursday, he said his country is expecting “strong decisions” and “a powerful military aid package from the United States.”
Russia 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 spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow.
He said the West will “regret its delusion” that Ukraine can win on the battlefield.
The United States on Thursday announced more than $2.5 billion in military aid that did not include tanks.
The latest U.S. package of weaponry includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers. The vehicles come with three types of missiles, tens of thousands of artillery and mortar rounds, and additional HIMARS and other air defense systems.
The new U.S. aid package brings American military assistance to Ukraine to almost $27 billion since Russia’s invasion nearly a year ago.
In a joint statement Thursday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov expressed gratitude toward 50 countries that have helped strengthen Ukraine's defenses, but they said the Russian military has a "substantial quantitative advantage in troops, weapons and military equipment."
The officials said one of the most pressing needs in fighting off the Russian invasion is to provide Ukraine with modern armored vehicles and give Ukrainian troops better firing and maneuverability capabilities with Western tanks.
Kuleba and Reznikov welcomed Britain's move to send its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, while urging countries that have German-made Leopard 2 tanks to also send them to Ukraine.
"We guarantee that we will use these weapons responsibly and exclusively for the purposes of protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine within internationally recognized borders," the ministers said.
A U.S. official who spoke to The Associated Press and a German official who spoke to Reuters said Germany would allow the Leopard 2 tanks to be sent to Ukraine if the United States sends its Abrams tanks, which it has not agreed to do.
"When someone says 'I will give tanks if someone else will also share tanks,’” Zelenskyy recently told the World Economic Forum in Davo via video link, “I don't think this is the right strategy to go with."
U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters Wednesday that Ukraine needs equipment to help it break through entrenched Russian lines, but the Abrams is not a good fit for Ukraine because of the amount of fuel and maintenance it needs.
"One of the things that Secretary Austin has been very focused on is that we should not be providing the Ukrainians systems they can't repair, they can't sustain, and that they over the long term can't afford, because it's not helpful," Kahl said.
New German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, in welcoming Austin to Berlin, said German weapons systems sent to Ukraine have proved effective, but he did not mention the Leopard 2 tanks.
"We will continue in the future, together with our partners, to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom, territorial independence and sovereignty," Pistorius said.
In Washington, a Pentagon spokesperson voiced U.S. support for Ukraine if it attempts to take back its Crimean Peninsula that Russia seized in 2014.
"They have every right to take that back. Crimea is part of Ukraine. We've made that very clear from the beginning. If they decide to conduct an operation in Crimea, that is well in their bounds," Deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh said.
Zelenskyy tweeted his thanks Thursday to Estonia and Sweden for their announcements of new military aid packages.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said her government was sending howitzers, grenade launchers and ammunition in its "biggest aid package of heavy weapons so far to Ukraine."
Zelenskyy called the aid "investment into our common victory."
Sweden said Thursday it was sending armored infantry fighting vehicles and anti-tank weapons as part of a $419 million package.
"Military support to Ukraine is absolutely crucial," Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told a news conference. "Ukraine's wishes in terms of what they want carries a lot of weight in our decision."
European Council President Charles Michel said Thursday he was traveling to Kyiv to meet with Zelenskyy and other officials.
In a video posted to Twitter, Michel said Ukrainians are "fighting for their land, they are fighting for their future and the future of their children," as well as "our common European values and principles."
"They need and deserve our support, and that's why again we'll discuss with President Zelenskyy and his team what are the concrete measures we can develop in order to make sure they are stronger and more powerful," Michel said.