UK willing to send battle tanks to Ukraine as British aid workers go missing

Britain is considering becoming the first country to send Western tanks to Ukraine in what would be a major stepping up of international support.

Defence sources said the UK could supply Volodymr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, with Challenger II – the British Army’s main battle tank – to encourage other Western allies to follow suit and stop the war.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, is understood to be supportive of efforts to send British tanks to Ukraine and spoke to Mr Zelensky last week.

The move would bust the taboo that has prevented Western allies from sending modern tanks for fear of escalating the conflict with Russia since Ukraine was invaded in February last year.

Challenger II tanks would “provide the punch needed to knock the Russians out of Ukraine”, one former senior officer said.

It came as news broke that two British aid workers have gone missing in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region amid some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

Andrew Bagshaw, 48, and Christopher Parry, 28, disappeared last week while helping to evacuate citizens near Soledar, close to the frontline city of Bakhmut.

Russians were “literally walking on the corpses of their own soldiers” in Soledar where Ukrainians “courageously defend every metre of their native land”, said Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, on Monday.

Mr Zelensky has spent months begging for Western-made tanks, air defence systems and fighter jets to press home Ukraine’s hard-won advantages in the battle for its survival.

The Ukrainian leader said he and Mr Sunak had made “concrete decisions” to “intensify our efforts to bring victory closer this year” after the call between the two leaders. A squadron of 12 Challenger II tanks could be sent from the Army’s stock of almost 200.

Challenger II’s Chobham and Dorchester armour – the exact composition of which is graded secret – will enable the vehicles to survive direct hits from Russian T-72s, which would be outmatched by the superior British tank.

A defence source told The Telegraph that no final decision over increased British support had yet been taken, but that discussions on the issue have been going on “for weeks”.

France, Germany and the US have all promised in recent days to send Kyiv powerful armoured vehicles, but the Challenger II would be the first Western, rather than Soviet, main battle tanks sent.

Britain faced criticism for falling behind its allies last week after Paris and Berlin promised lighter, wheeled combat vehicles.

‘A good precedent’

Last Friday, the US pledged a further $3 billion in military aid for Ukraine, which included 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles. On the same day, Berlin promised to send 40 Marder vehicles, marking a significant upgrade in firepower for Kyiv’s troops.

The Marder and Bradley vehicles lack the firepower and protection of main battle tanks, but the move was seen as a watershed moment. Earlier in the week, France said it would send Ukraine an unspecified number of AMX-10 armoured combat vehicles.

German-made Leopard II tanks, in service with several Nato allies, including Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Spain and soon-to-join Finland have been high on Kyiv’s wish list for months.

Poland and Finland are thought to be happy to supply their Leopard II tanks to Ukraine, but require the approval of Germany, the holder of the export licence.

Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, has been reluctant to provide permission while other countries are unwilling to supply heavy armour, in case the move is seen as too confrontational. It is hoped that if Britain sends Challengers, Berlin could be convinced to do the same.

“It will be a good precedent to demonstrate [to] others – to Germany first of all, with their Leopards … and Abrams from the United States,” a Ukrainian source told Sky News.

Robert Habeck, the German economy minister, said on Monday that the country had no plans to send Kyiv its Leopard II tanks, but that it could not be ruled out in the future.

Last week James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain was open to sending Ukraine tanks and “will continue to evolve our support” as Kyiv readies “the next phase of their self-defence”.

The remarks were a shift in the Government’s position, with Number 10 previously being in lockstep with other Nato allies in being reluctant to supply heavy armoured vehicles. Any pledge by the UK could be made at the next meeting of the US-led Ramstein Contact Group of international supporters of Ukraine, due next week.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer in the Royal Tank Regiment, said: “Tanks are best used for ‘shock action’, where their firepower and movement can dislocate and rout an enemy.

“I suspect that the very impressive Ukrainian army will show the Russians a thing or two about tank warfare if we give them modern Western tanks. Combined with the armoured fighting vehicles the US and the French have already offered, this force could provide the punch needed to knock the Russians out of Ukraine.”

The Kremlin has said supplying Ukraine with armoured vehicles would “prolong the suffering” of the Ukrainian people and “not change anything”.

Meanwhile, Nato and the EU are seeking to ramp up cooperation in response to Russia’s invasion, a joint declaration seen by AFP on Monday said.

The two Brussels-based organisations have been looking to improve coordination for years, despite fears in some quarters that efforts to bolster the EU’s role in defence could undermine the US-led alliance.

“As the security threats and challenges we are confronted with are evolving in scope and magnitude, we will take our partnership to the next level,” said the statement, expected to be released by top Nato and EU officials on Tuesday.

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was “supporting the families of two British men who have gone missing in Ukraine”. The two volunteers were last seen on Jan 6.

Ukrainian police said they had received reports that the men, who are “citizens of Great Britain”, had disappeared at around 5.15pm local time on Monday. The two are believed to have been helping civilians evacuate while under fire from Russian forces.

Mr Bagshaw’s parents said their son had travelled to Ukraine to “assist the people, believing it to be the morally right thing to do”.

Published by anthonyhayble

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