Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has appealed to the West to supply fighter jets and longer-range missiles as he vowed to use modern tanks as a “fist of freedom” against Vladimir Putin’s war.
He praised America, Germany and other allies for following Britain’s lead in supplying battle tanks ahead of expected spring offensives by his forces and Russia. “We must form a tank fist, a fist of freedom whose hits will not let tyranny stand up again,” Mr Zelensky, said in his overnight address.
The delivery of tanks, and training to use them, had to be achieved at “speed and volume”, he added. But he also set his sights on persuading the West to send fighter jets, such as US-made F-16s, and missiles which could hit even deeper behind Russian lines.
Highlighting talks with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg yesterday, Mr Zelensky said: “We have to unlock the supply of long-range missiles to Ukraine, it is important for us to expand our co-operation in artillery, we have to achieve the supply of aircraft to Ukraine. And this is a dream... a task. An important task for all of us.”
Asked about the latest requests from Kyiv, Mr Stoltenberg told Sky News: “We will need to constantly assess what more we should do.”
Moscow reacted with fury to the German and US tank pledges. Putin’s military chiefs launched a rush-hour barrage of missiles against Ukraine this morning. The Ukrainian military said it had shot down 24 drones sent overnight by Russia, including 15 around the capital Kyiv. But soon afterwards, air raid alarms sounded across Ukraine as people were heading to work, and senior officials said air defences were shooting down incoming missiles. In the capital, crowds took cover in underground metro stations, and a loud explosion was heard.
Kyiv’s military administration said more than 15 missiles fired at the capital had been shot down but urged people to remain in shelters.
Britain has led the West in supplying Ukraine with military equipment, first by sending thousands of light anti-tank weapons at the start of the conflict and now 14 Challenger II tanks, which are expected to arrive on the battlefield in March.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee, stressed that the UK has been seeking to “push the envelope” on what military support could be sent to Kyiv from the West.
“There will now be big questions, difficult questions, on further military support that Zelensky is going to request, including F-16s, helicopters and artillery,” he added.
“Are we going to dither again, are we going to hesitate again? This year must be pivotal that we push Russia out of Ukraine.”
Dutch ministers have signalled that they may be willing to send fighter jets to Ukraine. US defence giant Lockheed Martin is “going to be ramping production on F-16s” at its factory in South Carolina to “get to the place where we will be able to backfill pretty capably any countries that choose to do third party transfers to help with the current conflict,” its chief operating officer Frank
St John told the Financial Times. While the company was not directly involved in supplying jets to Kyiv, he added that there was “a lot of conversation about third party transfer of F-16s”. Under these plans, countries could re-export their US-made F-16 jets to Ukraine to protect its airspace against Russian attacks.
There is also talk of sending missiles capable of striking almost 200 miles behind Russian lines.
But the immediate focus of Western defence chiefs was building up Ukraine’s tank capabilities.
It has been seeking 300 modern tanks to give its troops the fire power to break Russian defensive lines and reclaim occupied territory in the south and east. Kyiv and Moscow have so far been relying primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks.
The promise of tanks comes as both are expected to launch new offensives in the war and as fighting has intensified in Bakhmut in Ukraine’s east. US president Joe Biden announced his decision to supply 31 M1 Abrams tanks hours after Berlin said it would provide Leopard 2 tanks, the workhorse of Nato armies across Europe. German chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would supply Leopards, and allow other allies to send the German-built tanks.
Russia reacted with anger to Germany’s decision to approve the delivery of the Leopards. “This extremely dangerous decision takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation,” said Sergei Nechayev, Russia’s ambassador to Germany.
The Leopards from Germany and other allies are expected to be delivered far more quickly than the Abrams from America, with speculation that the latter could take as long as a year to arrive.
The US has been wary of deploying the difficult-to-maintain Abrams but had to change tack to persuade Germany to send to Ukraine its more easily-operated Leopards.
Berlin will send an initial company of 14 tanks from its stocks. These would probably be ready in three or four months, its defence minister Boris Pistorius said.
Pledges to Ukraine from other countries that field Leopards have multiplied with announcements from Poland, Finland and Norway. Spain and the Netherlands said they were considering it. France is considering sending its Leclercs tanks.