Germany on Tuesday said it would decide "shortly" whether to authorise the export of powerful German-made Leopard battle tanks long sought by Kyiv and encouraged allies to start training Ukrainian forces to use them.
While Western nations have pledged ever more sophisticated military hardware in recent weeks to help Ukraine repel Russia's invasion, all eyes in Kyiv are on the battle tanks.
Berlin on Tuesday stopped short of granting permission for the transfer but underscored that a decision was imminent, provoking a defiant response from the Kremlin.
Poland also upped the ante by putting forward a formal application for the delivery of the German-made tanks from its stocks to Ukraine.
But in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was battling a deepening corruption scandal within his government, sacking several officials over graft while others resigned.
Ukraine and several of its allies have been urging Germany for weeks to allow the delivery of the Leopards, but a US-led meeting of Kyiv's allies in Germany last week failed to yield a decision.
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius indicated on Tuesday that the moment of truth could be imminent, saying he had "expressly encouraged partner countries that have Leopard tanks that are ready for deployment to train Ukrainian forces on these tanks".
"I expect a decision to be made shortly," he added following talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Berlin.
Stoltenberg welcomed the "clear message" from the minister because it "will take some time" to ready the tanks and train Ukrainian soldiers to use them after a decision on their delivery.
"We must provide heavier and more advanced systems to Ukraine, and we must do it faster," Stoltenberg said, adding that he expected a decision by Berlin "soon".
- 'Lasting mark' -
Moscow shows no signs of changing course in its invasion, Stoltenberg added, noting that Russia has mobilised more than 200,000 troops and is acquiring new weapons from countries like North Korea or Iran.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the delivery of the tanks would "bring nothing good to the future relationship" between Berlin and Moscow.
"They will leave a lasting mark," he warned.
Under Germany's war weapons control rules, countries using German-made armaments are required to seek Berlin's permission if they wish to transfer them to a third party.
Poland, one of the loudest voices calling for permission to send Leopard tanks, said earlier this month it was ready to deliver 14 of them to Kyiv within the framework of an international coalition of countries.
Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak on Tuesday said the country had now sent in a formal request.
Confirming receipt, a German government spokesman said it would be examined "with necessary urgency".
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he was counting on a "quick" response, accusing the Germans of "dragging their feet, dithering and behaving in a manner that is difficult to understand".
Morawiecki added that Poland will also ask the European Union to cover the costs of the tank transfer, in a "test of its goodwill".
- Food procurement fraud -
Germany's Pistorius had earlier defended Chancellor Olaf Scholz against accusations of dithering on whether to approve the delivery of Leopards.
"Taking the lead does not mean blindly going ahead," he said in an interview with the ZDF broadcaster. "If the decision takes another day or two, then that's just the way it is."
Pistorius, who took office only last week at a crucial time for the German defence ministry, also insisted there was no division among Ukraine's Western allies.
As Ukraine marked 11 months since the start of the war on Tuesday, Zelensky urged his troops to keep up the fight against Russia.
But the comments came with Zelensky battling a widening corruption scandal as his defence ministry was shaken by accusations of food procurement fraud.
Local media reports last week accused the ministry of having signed a deal at prices "two to three times higher" than current rates for basic foodstuffs.
Several officials resigned on Tuesday over the allegations, including a deputy defence minister, two deputy ministers of development of communities and territories, and a deputy minister of social policy.
Ukraine has a history of endemic corruption, including among the political elite, but efforts to stamp out graft have been overshadowed by the war.
Kyiv's Western allies, who have allocated billions of dollars in financial and military support, have been pushing for anti-corruption reforms for years, sometimes as a precondition for aid.