UPDATED: Scholz: will prevent Ukraine war escalating to involve NATO, Germany approves Leopard tanks deliveries to Ukraine

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BERLIN, Jan 25 (Reuters) – Germany will always be at the forefront when it comes to supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion but will also ensure the conflict does not escalate to involve NATO, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Wednesday.

“Germany will always be at the forefront when it comes to supporting Ukraine,” Scholz told lawmakers after agreeing to send the Ukrainians Leopard 2 battle tanks.

He added that while supporting Ukraine, “at the same time, we must prevent the war from escalating into a war between Russia and NATO. And we will always keep this principle in mind.”

U.S. President Joe Biden is a good partner for Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Wednesday, adding that their recent talks had been friendly.

“This is a president who is really a good partner,” Scholz told German lawmakers after Berlin cleared the way for Europe to send scores of battle tanks to Ukraine.

Germany will supply its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, it announced on Wednesday, overcoming misgivings about sending heavy weaponry that Kyiv sees as crucial to defeat the Russian invasion but Moscow cast as a needless provocation.

Pressure has been building for weeks on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government to send the tanks and allow other NATO allies to do the same ahead of expected spring offensives by both sides that could help turn the tide of the war.

Scholz’s government had stalled on the decision, wary of moves that could prompt Russia to escalate or suck the NATO alliance into becoming party to the conflict.

Germany’s decision paves the way for other countries such as Poland, Spain and Norway to supply their stocks of Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

“This decision follows our well-known line of supporting Ukraine to the best of our ability. We are acting in a closely coordinated manner internationally,” Scholz said in a statement.

The goal was to quickly establish two battalions with Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine, the statement said, adding Germany would in a first step provide 14 Leopard 2 tanks from military stocks.

Training of Ukrainian troops in Germany will begin soon, and Germany will also provide logistics and ammunition, it said.

Germany will issue the appropriate transfer permits to partner countries that want to quickly deliver Leopard 2 tanks from their stocks to Ukraine, it said.

Moscow has warned that supplies of modern offensive weaponry to Ukraine will escalate the war, with some Russian officials warning that Kyiv’s allies were leading the world into a “global catastrophe”. Moscow has now repeatedly said that it is fighting the collective West in Ukraine.

The possible deliveries of battle tanks by Washington to Ukraine would be a “another blatant provocation” against Russia, Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, said on Wednesday.

“It is obvious that Washington is purposefully trying to inflict a strategic defeat on us,” Antonov said in remarks published on the embassy’s Telegram messaging app.

Two U.S. officials told Reuters on Tuesday that Washington was ready to start a process that would eventually send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, just days after it had argued against granting Kyiv’s requests.

A third official said the U.S. commitment could total about 30 tanks delivered over the coming months.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had decided to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow other countries such as Poland to do so as well, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Spiegel magazine, which first reported the news, said Germany was planning to supply at least one company of Leopard 2 A6 tanks, which usually comprises 14 tanks. Other allies, in Scandinavia for example, intend to go along with Germany in supplying their Leopard tanks to Kyiv, the magazine reported.

While there was no official confirmation from Berlin or Washington, officials in Kyiv hailed what they said was a potential gamechanger on the battlefield in a war that is now 11 months old – even if the rumoured tank numbers fell short of the hundreds they say they need to liberate all occupied areas.

“A few hundred tanks for our tank crews …. This is what is going to become a real punching fist of democracy,” Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskiy’s administration, wrote on Telegram.

FRONT LINES FROZEN

Front lines in the war, which stretch more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) through eastern and southern Ukraine, have been largely frozen for two months despite heavy losses on both sides. Russia and Ukraine are widely believed to be planning new offensives.

Zelenskiy said on Tuesday night that Russia was intensifying its push toward Bakhmut, an industrial town in eastern Ukraine that has been the focus of intense fighting. “They want to increase the pressure on a larger scale,” he said.

Whether to supply Ukraine with significant numbers of heavy modern battle tanks has dominated discussions among Kyiv’s Western allies in recent days.

Berlin has been pivotal because the German-made Leopards, fielded by some 20 armies around the world, are seen as the best option. The tanks are available in large numbers and easy to deploy and maintain.

While the U.S. Abrams tank is considered less suitable due to its heavy fuel consumption and difficulty to maintain, a U.S. move to send them to Ukraine could make it easier for Germany – which has called for a united front among Ukraine’s allies – to allow the supply of Leopards.

Russian President Vladimir Putin casts the “special military operation” that began when his troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year as a defensive and existential battle against an aggressive and arrogant West.

Ukraine and the West call Russia’s actions an unprovoked land grab to subdue a fellow former Soviet republic that Moscow regards as an artificial state.

LEADERSHIP PURGE

Separately on Tuesday, Ukraine dismissed more than a dozen senior officials as part of an anti-corruption drive made more critical by the need to keep its Western backers onside.

The European Union, which offered Ukraine the status of candidate member last June, welcomed the development.

Five top regional prosecutors were dismissed from their jobs on Wednesday, a day after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy launched Ukraine’s largest political shakeup of the war.

The officials, who were the most senior prosecutors in their respective regions, were dismissed “voluntarily” by Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, his office said in a brief statement.

“Andriy Kostin signed orders on voluntary dismissal from administrative positions of the heads of the Zaporizhzhia, Kirovohrad, Poltava, Sumy and Chernihiv regional prosecutors’ offices,” it said on its website.

Over a dozen senior officials, including one of the prosecutor general’s deputies, were removed from their posts on Tuesday in what analysts said was a reaction to recent corruption and

Ukrainians hold placards and wave Ukrainian flags during a rally supporting the deployment of Leopard tanks and other military equipment to Ukraine, outside the European Council building during a EU Foreign Ministers Council in Brussels, Belgium. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

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