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Berlin looked set to succumb to international pressure and finally allow the export of tanks on Tuesday as Poland submitted its formal application to send Leopard IIs to Ukraine.
A German official confirmed the request from Warsaw to re-export Leopard II main battle tanks to Kyiv. Germany is expected to give Poland approval as soon as Wednesday, sources told Bloomberg.
It came as Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, warned the alliance’s members they had to “urgently” ramp up support for Ukraine ahead of an expected new offensive by Russian forces.
In recent days, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, has been under significant pressure to grant export licences for the German-made Leopard tanks from Western allies. Poland and a number of other countries have said they are willing to send Leopard IIs from their tank fleets.
The German leader’s decision is vital because, under international agreements, countries using the tanks must be granted permission by Berlin before exporting them overseas.
Warsaw’s official request appeared to leave Mr Scholz with little room to further delay any decision over whether Leopard IIs should be sent to Ukraine.
“I hope that the answer from the Germans will come quickly this time. They are procrastinating, acting in a way that is difficult to understand,” Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said on Tuesday.
Mariusz Blaszczak, the Polish defence minister, said: “I also appeal to the German side to join the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine with Leopard II tanks. This is our common cause, because it is about the security of the whole of Europe. We can see that they do not want to help Ukraine defend itself in a wider way.”
It came a day after Berlin encouraged Poland to table a formal request instead of threatening to send the tanks without permission.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Stoltenberg said he was “confident” a deal could be reached to end a growing dispute between Berlin and many of its Nato allies.
“We will deal with the application according to the established procedure and with the appropriate urgency,” a German official said in response to Poland’s approach to Berlin for permission.
Speaking before the request had been made public, Boris Pistorius, who was appointed as Germany’s new defence minister last week, said an agreement on the Leopard IIs could be made in “one or two days”.
On Tuesday, the row dominated talks in Berlin between Mr Pistorius and Mr Stoltenberg.
“We have a discussion on the Leopards, and I think that’s a kind of natural part of an evolving policy when it comes to exactly what kind of capabilities we should deliver to Ukraine,” the Nato secretary general told reporters in Berlin.
“I welcome, of course, the message from the minister that there will be a conclusion soon, because time matters.
“This is important because Russia is preparing for new offensives. We need to enable the Ukrainians soon or fast to be able to repel those offensives and also enable them to retake... liberate their own territory.”
In recent days, many of Germany’s top politicians and officials had issued mixed messages over Leopard II deliveries to Ukraine.
Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister, claimed on Sunday that Berlin would not block formal requests to re-export Leopards. But her intervention was watered down by officials inside Mr Scholz’s office, who insisted no decisions had been made yet.
Ukraine has made the German-manufactured tanks, which have interchangeable parts and are easy to maintain, the number one priority in its calls to Western allies.
Officials in Kyiv have suggested there are already 12 countries willing to donate as many as 100 Leopards from their stocks if granted permission by Berlin. Finland, Norway, Sweden and Spain, which also possess the tanks, are considering their options.
In a sign that the deadlock could soon be broken, Berlin suggested that countries willing to donate their Leopards could begin training Ukrainian crews. “Partner countries that already have Leopard tanks that can be deployed, the training of tank teams from Ukraine can already start,” said Mr Pistorius.