WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will work with allies to transfer Soviet-made tanks to bolster Ukraine’s defenses in the country’s eastern Donbass region, a U.S. official said Friday.
The decision to act as an intermediary to help transfer Soviet-made tanks that Ukrainian troops know how to use was in response to a request from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, the official said. It is the first time in this war that the United States has assisted in the transfer of tanks.
The official said transfers would begin soon but declined to say how many tanks would be sent or which countries they would come from. They will allow Ukraine to conduct long-range artillery strikes on Russian targets in Donbass, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The arrival of the tanks could be another signal of a new phase in the war, which is five weeks old and has been dominated by Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities and facilities from the air and a stalled Russian advance on the ground. Earlier this week, Russian officials said they would refocus efforts on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian soldiers since 2014.
Mr Zelensky on Sunday called on NATO allies to provide tanks and planes in addition to the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that have become a mainstay of arms transfers from the West to Ukraine. Frustrated by what he sees as the slow pace of arms transfers, Mr Zelensky specifically requested tanks in a remark a day after President Biden met senior Ukrainian officials in Poland.
An enraged Mr. Zelensky criticized the West for what he called its “ping-pong” over arms transfers. “I spoke to the Mariupol defenders today,” he said, referring to the besieged city, which has been under Russian attack for four weeks. “If those who spent 31 days contemplating handing over dozens of jets and tanks had just 1 percent of their courage.”
In the past, the Biden administration has taken pains to label the weapons it provides to Ukraine as defensive, focusing on smaller, more easily portable weapons. But as the war has progressed, the definition of defensive has become more elastic.
Ukraine had already found a source of tanks, with at least 161 captured from Russia on the battlefield, according to military analysis site Oryx, although Russia has also destroyed a number of Ukrainian tanks. For its part, Russia captured 43 Ukrainian tanks, according to analysts studying photos and videos on social media.
The decision to help move the tanks comes as the Ukrainian military continues to repel Russia’s ground push. Pentagon officials have been quick to point out that Russia’s move towards the Donbass and away from capturing the capital Kyiv may be a necessity for Moscow after Russian forces faltered in the central part of the country.
On Wednesday, officials in the Biden administration, citing declassified US intelligence agencies, said Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was misinformed by his advisers about the Russian military’s problems in Ukraine. The intelligence, American officials said, also revealed what appears to be growing tensions between Mr Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, who was once among the most trusted members of the Kremlin’s inner circle.
Russian officials have denied the allegations, with the Kremlin on Thursday calling it a “complete misunderstanding” of the situation that could have “bad consequences”.