UPDATED: Need to focus on ammunition, maintaining weapons to Ukraine- NATO chief

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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany, Jan 20 (Reuters) – NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday that countries backing Ukraine needed to focus not only on sending new weapons to Kyiv, but looking at ammunition for older systems and helping maintain them.

NATO and defence leaders from about 50 countries are meeting at Ramstein Air Base, the latest arms-pledging conference since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.

“We need also to remember that we need to not only focus on new platforms, but also to ensure that all the platforms which are already there can function as they should,” Stoltenberg told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting.

“We need ammunition. We need a spare parts. We need maintenance and we training,” he said.

The United States announced an additional $2.5 billion in military aid for Ukraine on Thursday, a package which will include more armored vehicles and ammunition.

NATO and defense leaders from roughly 50 countries are meeting at Ramstein Air Base, the latest in a series of arms-pledging conferences since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.

“Russia is regrouping, recruiting, and trying to re-equip,” Austin said at the start of the meeting.

“This is not a moment to slow down. It’s a time to dig deeper. The Ukrainian people are watching us,” he said without making specific reference to tanks.

The United States announced an additional $2.5 billion in military aid for Ukraine on Thursday, a package which will include more armored vehicles and ammunition.

But the major focus is on whether Germany will send Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine or at least approve their transfer from third countries.

Germany has become one of Ukraine’s top military supporters in response to Russia’s invasion, overcoming a taboo rooted in its bloody 20th century history, but it has not yet agreed to send tanks or allow other countries to send their own German-made tanks.

Leopard tanks are seen as especially suitable for Ukraine as they are widely in use, meaning several countries could each chip in some of their tanks to support Ukraine.

This would also make it easier for Ukraine to manage maintenance and crew training.

PRESSURE ON BERLIN

Critics say German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ruling SPD are too slow, waiting for allies to act first instead of assuming Germany’s responsibility as the Western power closest to Ukraine.

Government sources in Germany have said it would move on the Leopard tanks issue if the United States agreed to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

The United States has made clear that it will not be sending Abrams anytime soon, arguing it would be a logistical nightmare for Ukrainian troops to use the American tanks because of the fuel that would be required and maintenance needed.

In one of his first interviews as Germany’s new defence minister, Boris Pistorius did not explicitly describe Abrams deliveries as a condition for Leopard supplies late on Thursday.

“We are well aware that it (the Leopard) can play an important role,” he told German public TV station ZDF, while stressing the importance of joint trans-atlantic decisions.

“Nobody rules out that the Leopard tank can be delivered – or approval can be given for deliveries of other European partners,” he added.

Public pressure has been building on Berlin.

“Ukrainians will fight! With tanks or without. But every tank from Ramstein means saved Ukrainian lives,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Telegram.

Several countries will announce sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine on Friday at a meeting at the German Ramstein Air Base, the Lithuanian defence minister said on Thursday.

Poland could send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine even without Germany’s re-export approval, a deputy foreign minister said on Friday, ahead of a crunch meeting on weapons for Kyiv.

Britain has said that it would send 14 of its main battle tanks along with additional artillery support to Ukraine, a step officials hope will open the door for Germany to make similar moves.

The Kremlin’s spokesman said on Friday that Western countries supplying additional tanks to Ukraine would not change the course of the conflict and that they would add to the problems of the Ukrainian people.

CIA DIRECTOR VISIT

Ukraine’s allies in the West have wanted to avoid NATO appearing to confront Russia directly and demurred on sending the Kyiv government their most potent weaponry.

Ukraine needed the tanks to defend itself, recapture occupied land, and did not plan to attack Russia, Zelenskiy told ARD television on Thursday.

“From Washington to London, from Paris to Warsaw, you hear one thing: Ukraine needs tanks. Tanks are the key to ending the war properly. It is time to stop trembling before Putin and take the final step,” tweeted Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

Meanwhile, CIA Director William Burns travelled in secret to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.

The official declined to say when the visit took place. The Washington Post, which first reported the visit, said it took place at the end of last week. The Post said Burns briefed Zelenskiy on his expectations on Russia’s military plans.

Fighting continued to be most intense in the strategic industrial region known as the Donbas on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, Ukrainian military officials said on Thursday night.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Russian forces shelled the town of Bakhmut, Russia’s main target in Donetsk province, which combined with Luhansk province forms the Donbas. Soledar, about 20 km (12 miles) from Bakhmut, also came under fire – Russian forces say they control Soledar, while Ukrainian sources say their military is still fighting in Soledar.

“Ukrainian forces have practically stabilised the front around Bakhmut,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said on YouTube.

“As of today, Russia is turning Soledar into a military hub. And they are trying to redirect troops towards the towns of Spirne and Bilohorivka – just inside the Luhansk region.”

A Ukrainian flag posted on the wreckage of a motor vehicle in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities are urging residents to evacuate from the frontline territories, though some 8,000 have chosen to stay in their homes. There is no working infrastructure left – no electricity, heating, water or gas. Also the risk to be injured or killed by Russian shelling remains high, so that people mostly spend their time in shelters or basements. EPA-EFE/OLEG PETRASYUK

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