Ukraine live briefing: NATO allies consider sending tanks to Kyiv as U.S. readies $2.5 billion in military aid

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged allies to “dig even deeper” in supporting Ukraine at a conference on Jan. 20 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. (Video: The Washington Post)
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BERLIN — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met his newly appointed German counterpart for talks that have taken on a new urgency as Berlin has placed conditions on the delivery of tanks and top Ukrainian officials continue their appeal for them. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stressed in a call with President Biden that for Germany to unlock a package of Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine, Washington should send tanks, too, according to a German and a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation. Earlier this week, the United Kingdom became Ukraine’s first backer to pledge to send tanks.

The Biden administration announced Thursday afternoon a new military package for Ukraine worth about $2.5 billion that includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers. The package will also include restocking of ammunition for howitzers and rocket artillery, as well as 53 mine-resistant vehicles and eight Avenger air defense systems.

Modern Western tanks, though, remain a priority, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Thursday. Ukraine’s foreign affairs and defense ministries also released a statement Thursday describing modern tanks as one of the country’s “most pressing and urgent needs.”

“I thank Mr. Charles Michel, president of the European Council, who was in Kyiv today and who very clearly calls on Europe to make a decision on tanks," Zelensky said Thursday night. “[N]ow we are waiting for a decision from one European capital that will activate the prepared chains of cooperation on tanks. I believe that the strength of German leadership will remain unchanged.”

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Why is Germany under pressure to send tanks to Ukraine?

1. Key developments

  • Austin arrived Thursday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he is to be joined by Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which is set to include defense ministers and chiefs “from nearly 50 nations,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
  • CIA Director William J. Burns secretly traveled to Kyiv at the end of last week, John Hudson reports for The Washington Post. Burns made the trip to brief Zelensky on his expectations for Russia’s military plans in the coming weeks and months, according to a U.S. official and other people familiar with the visit.
  • The latest U.S. military aid package for Ukraine could include nearly 100 Strykers, people familiar with the plan told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss it before a formal announcement. It would be the first time the Pentagon has supplied Ukrainian forces with the armored vehicles, which would boost their firepower and allow the swift movement of troops around the battlefield. Canada will send an additional 200 armored vehicles to Ukraine, its defense minister said.
  • Russian officials have opened a criminal case against a U.S. national suspected of espionage. The individual was not identified by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, in its announcement of the case early Thursday. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and it was not clear whether the U.S. national has been detained by Russian authorities.
  • Ukraine’s security services opened a criminal investigation into the helicopter crash near a kindergarten that killed at least 14 people, including Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address. One child was among the dead, and 25 people, including 11 children, were injured. Zelensky said the rescue operation lasted nine hours and involved hundreds of people. Ihor Klymenko, head of the national police service, has been appointed as acting interior minister. In remarks Thursday, Austin expressed “deep sorrow” over the crash.
  • European Council President Charles Michel visited Kyiv on Thursday in a show of ongoing support for Ukraine. “We hear your message. You need more air defense and artillery systems, more ammunitions,” he said. “I believe that tanks must be delivered.” Michel also said he was “firmly committed” to working with Ukrainian officials and E.U. partners to advance Ukraine’s candidacy for membership in the European Union. Ukraine was granted candidate status in June. Zelensky reiterated Friday that his country has “a great desire” to join the bloc.

2. Battlefield updates

  • Russian mercenaries claim to have captured the village of Klishchiivka, on the edge of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which for days has been the subject of a fierce Russian offensive. The Post was not able to immediately verify the claim. In an audio message posted online, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch behind the Wagner Group, said his fighters were slowly advancing and would take Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces are continuing to shell near Soledar, Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, said on Telegram. The situation around the salt mining town near Bakhmut — the site of recent intense fighting and competing claims of control — continues to be tense, he said.
  • Russia might be considering deploying a few T-14 Armata battle tanks in Ukraine, the British Defense Ministry said Thursday, citing imagery from late December of a training ground in southern Russia. The move is likely to be a “high-risk decision” for Russia because the tanks have been dogged by reports of manufacturing problems and pose an additional challenge for Russia’s logistics chain, the ministry said. It said any deployment of the relatively large, heavy tanks is likely to be mainly for “propaganda purposes” and that commanders “are unlikely to trust the vehicle in combat.”
  • The head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog warned a nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia plant in southeastern Ukraine could happen “any day.” In comments after a week-long visit to Ukraine, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said there has been “a dramatic reduction in the number of staff” since Russia took control of the site in March, though staffing remains sufficient to sustain operations in their current, reduced form. “I am very worried about Zaporizhzhia,” he said, noting its position on the front line and his concern that the world has become complacent about the threat. Two explosions took place near the site on Thursday. Grossi said he would visit Russia “soon” to discuss the situation at the plant.

3. Global impact

  • The Kremlin said there would be global consequences if Ukraine’s allies supply it with weapons that would allow its army to strike inside Russian territory. “That would mean that the conflict reaches a new qualitative level, which will not bode well for global and common European security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday. Even the discussion in itself is “potentially extremely dangerous,” he said.
  • Photos circulating Thursday showed what experts say are probably Pantsir missile systems installed on the roofs of some buildings in Moscow, including the Russian Ministry of Defense headquarters. “These look like Pantsirs to me. It’s a pretty distinctive system,” said Ian Williams, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “I’m curious as to why they are putting these up now. They must be worried about something, though Ukraine has very limited to nonexistent capability to strike that far.”
  • The Azov Regiment is no longer considered a “Dangerous Organization” by Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The change, confirmed to The Post on Thursday by a Meta spokesperson, allows the Azov Regiment to create accounts on the tech giant’s platforms and permits members to post content about the unit without it being removed. The decision was made in part because Meta argues that the Azov Regiment is separate from the far-right nationalist Azov Movement now that the Ukrainian government has formal command and control over the unit. “Other elements of the Azov Movement, including the National Corp., and its founder Andriy Biletsky are still designated,” the Meta spokesperson said.
  • A Russian vessel that U.S. officials believe to be an intelligence-gathering ship has been off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands in recent weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard announced Wednesday. “While foreign military vessels may transit freely through the U.S. economic exclusive zone (EEZ), as per customary international laws, foreign-flagged military vessels have often been observed operating and loitering within Coast Guard District Fourteen’s area of response,” a Coast Guard statement reads.
  • At talks in Estonia on Thursday, the defense ministers of Estonia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, along with officials from Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Slovakia, pledged a large new aid package to Ukraine, including antitank weapons and, from Britain, a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks with armored recovery and repair vehicles. The package places Estonia’s military support for Ukraine above 1 percent of its GDP, Agence France-Presse reported.
  • Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Warsaw would go ahead and send the 14 Leopard 2 tanks it has pledged to Ukraine whether or not Germany consents. “Consent is secondary,” he said in an interview with Polsat news on his way back from Davos. “Either we will obtain this consent, or we will do the right thing ourselves.” Because the Leopard 2 is manufactured in Germany, Berlin’s permission is technically required for reexports. But “several countries” plan to announce at Ramstein that they will send the tanks to Ukraine, Lithuanian Defense Minister Aryvdas Anusauskas told Reuters, adding that hundreds of armored vehicles could be pledged in total Friday.
  • Germany no longer depends on Russian imports for its energy supply, Finance Minister Christian Lindner said in an interview with the BBC. Lindner said the country has diversified its energy infrastructure since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. “Yes, of course, Germany is still dependent on energy imports, but today, not from Russian imports but from global markets,” he said.
  • Zelensky attempted to initiate a dialogue with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the form of a letter, Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, told reporters at Davos, adding that she personally handed the note to Chinese officials. Beijing has attempted to walk a diplomatic tightrope since the start of the war, refusing to condemn the Russian invasion. In an interview last year with the South China Morning Post, Zelensky said he wanted China to use its political and economic leverage to restrain Russian aggression.

4. From our correspondents

After a 19-year-old war critic’s classmates reported her, Russian authorities charged her as a terrorist. Olesya Krivtsova, a student at Northern Federal University in Arkhangelsk, Russia, posted an Instagram story criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine shortly after the explosion on the Crimean Bridge in October. Her classmates took a screenshot and reported her to the authorities. Three months later, Russian officials deemed that sufficient to add Krivtsova to a list of terrorists and extremists, on par with the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and to charge her with discrediting the Russian army under laws adopted in March to stifle public criticism of the war.

The case of Krivtsova, a young student who lives in a remote city near the Arctic Circle, illustrates the depth of intolerance for dissent in wartime Russia, which is targeting not just organized political opposition movements, which have largely been dismantled, but also seemingly harmless individuals, The Post’s Mary Ilyushina reports.

Cunningham reported from Washington, Masih from Seoul and Sands from London. Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia; Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw; and Alex Horton and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.