Ukraine live briefing: Western allies divided over tanks to Ukraine; U.S. labels Wagner Group a ‘criminal organization’

A Ukrainian flag is planted above the wreckage of a motor vehicle in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Jan. 19. (Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested Friday that Western allies, meeting at the Ramstein Airbase in Germany, were unable to resolve a rift over which countries would supply Kyiv with battle tanks.

“We will still have to fight for the supply of modern tanks,” Zelensky said in a nightly address. “But every day we make it more obvious there is no alternative to making the decision” to send them, he said.

Germany has been under pressure to supply Ukraine with its Leopard 2 tanks as the country continues to battle invading Russian forces. At a news conference Friday, new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Berlin was still weighing the pros and cons of supplying the tanks. But the idea that Germany is “standing in the way” of allies who are ready to do so is “wrong,” he said.

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

  • The Treasury Department will designate Russia’s Wagner Group as a “significant transnational criminal organization,” John Kirby, communications coordinator for the National Security Council, said Friday. Additional sanctions will be imposed against Wagner next week, he said in a briefing. The group, a private military contractor founded by a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has committed “widespread atrocities and human rights abuses,” including in Ukraine, Kirby said.
  • Kirby also showed satellite images of what he said were Russian rail cars entering North Korea to transport weapons to Wagner. “North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner toward the end of last year,” Kirby said. He urged North Korea to halt those deliveries, but added that the weapons have “not changed battlefield dynamics in Ukraine.”
  • A former Navy SEAL who deserted from the service in 2019 was killed in Ukraine this week, military officials said.
  • Pistorius said Friday that he had ordered an audit of Leopard tank stocks, but added that “none of us can yet say when a decision will be made and what the decision will look like.” Germany has so far declined to provide its powerful Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, saying it will only do so if the United States sends tanks as well.
  • Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) exhorted the Biden administration and Germany to send tanks to Ukraine as he and Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said they met with Zelensky in Kyiv on Friday.
  • The United States on Thursday announced a $2.5 billion military aid package for Ukraine, including hundreds of armored vehicles, as well as ammunition and Avenger air defense systems. “This isn’t about one single platform — our goal … is to provide the capability that Ukraine needs to be successful in the near term,” Austin told reporters in Germany on Friday, praising “deepened cooperation” among the contact group. Allies “will support Ukraine’s self-defense for as long as it takes,” he said.

2. Battleground updates

  • Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group have become “a key component of the Ukraine campaign,” the British Defense Ministry said Friday. In its daily update, the ministry echoed U.S. estimates that up to 50,000 Wagner fighters are fighting in Ukraine, most of which Washington says were directly recruited from Russian prisons.
  • Russia’s state nuclear power conglomerate, Rosatom, has been working to supply the Russian arms industry with components, technology and raw materials for missile fuel, documents show, aiding Moscow’s deadly onslaught on Ukraine and leading to calls for the company to be put under sanctions.
  • Officials from 11 European nations announced a separate aid package for Ukraine, including a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks from Britain, on Thursday. “We recognize that equipping Ukraine to push Russia out of its territory is as important as equipping them to defend what they already have,” they said in a joint statement.
  • Senior Kremlin officials have been meeting with the Belarusian national leadership, potentially “setting conditions” for a Russian attack on Ukraine from Belarus, the Institute for the Study of War reported. The think tank said such an attack is “unlikely but more plausible” in late 2023.

3. Global impact

  • The Justice Department on Friday announced charges against a Russian man and a British national for sanctions evasion and a money laundering scheme related to a $90 million luxury yacht owned by a Russian oligarch. The defendants are charged with money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States and violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. At least one of the defendants was arrested in Spain, the Justice Department said in a release.
  • Fewer than 9 percent of European Union and Group of Seven companies have pulled out of Russia since the invasion, a study from Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen found. Of the E.U. and G-7 firms remaining in Russia, almost 1 in 5 are German, and 12.4 percent are American-owned, the university said.
  • The Pentagon confirmed Thursday that the United States has been pulling from stockpiles in South Korea and Israel to supply Ukraine with munitions. “We have been working with ROK [the Republic of Korea] and Israel when it comes to withdrawing from our stocks and communicating that with them,” a Department of Defense spokeswoman said at a news briefing. “But that doesn’t mean it impacts our readiness. That doesn’t impact our capabilities to protect Americans here at home and — or abroad.”

4. From our correspondents

In Dnipro missile strike: Nine floors of random death and destruction: A Russian missile attack on a residential apartment block in Dnipro on Saturday, located on a street called Victory Embankment overlooking the Dnieper River, laid bare some of the most terrifying realities of this war, The Post’s Siobhán O’Grady and Anastacia Galouchka report. Safety is fleeting. Strikes are unpredictable. The smallest, most banal decisions make the difference between life and death.

The attack destroyed more than 70 apartments in a sprawling complex that housed not only local residents but many people displaced from elsewhere in the country. Some had fled the country’s harshest front lines in the east and south, only for the war to catch up to them in Dnipro, a city that was considered a relative safe haven.

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