Germany cleared the way on Wednesday for Europe to send scores of battle tanks to Ukraine and the United States prepared to make a similar announcement, moves hailed by Kyiv as a potential turning point in the war, and condemned by Moscow as escalation.
Kyiv has been calling for months for Western main battle tanks that would give its forces greater firepower, protection and mobility to break through Russian front lines and potentially reclaim occupied territory in the east and south.
Germany, previously the West's holdout, said it would send an initial company of 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks from its own stocks, and also approve shipments by other European countries.
The eventual aim would be to supply Ukraine with two battalions of Leopards, typically comprising three or four companies each, the first to arrive within three or four months.
"Germany will always be at the forefront when it comes to supporting Ukraine," Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the German parliament, to applause.
He told a press conference later that Germany would send further military aid to Ukraine beyond the Leopards delivery, including for example air defense systems, heavy artillery and multiple rocket launchers.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Scholz by phone and said he was "sincerely grateful to the Chancellor and all our friends in Germany".
The move lifts one of the last taboos in Western support for Ukraine against Russia's almost year-old invasion: providing arms that have a mainly offensive rather than defensive purpose.
"So the tank coalition is formed. Everyone who doubted this could ever happen sees now: for Ukraine and partners impossible is nothing," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
"I call on all new partners that have Leopard 2 tanks in service to join the coalition and provide as many of them as possible," he wrote on Twitter.
The Russian embassy in Berlin denounced Germany's "extremely dangerous decision" which, it said, "destroys the remnants of mutual trust" and could draw Germany into the war. Scholz pledged that no such thing would happen.
Others to follow
Berlin's move paves the way for pledges from other countries that field Leopards, which Germany made in the thousands and exported to allies in NATO.
Finland said it would send them, as did Poland, which has already sought Berlin's approval. Spain and the Netherlands said they were considering it and Norway was reported to be discussing it. Britain has offered a company of 14 of its comparable Challenger tanks and France is considering sending its Leclercs.
"At a critical moment in Russia's war, these tanks can help Ukraine defend itself, win and stand as an independent nation," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Two sources in the United States said Washington would announce later on Wednesday that it would provide dozens of its own Abrams M1 tanks.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said he spoke with US counterpart Lloyd Austin on Wednesday, promising "more good news to be announced soon".
Reznikov said they discussed "further strengthening of (Ukraine's army), including tank supplies and maintenance of the new armament."
Moscow says supplies of modern offensive weaponry to Ukraine will only postpone what it says will be its inevitable victory. Anatoly Antonov, Russia's ambassador in Washington, said deliveries of US battle tanks would be a "another blatant provocation".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any US tanks sent to Ukraine would "burn like all the rest".
In the past week, Russia has ramped up threats, including comments from Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, that a nuclear state facing defeat could use nuclear weapons.
Western officials who support sending the tanks have dismissed Moscow's threats, arguing that Russia is already waging war at full tilt and has been deterred from attacking NATO or using nuclear arms.
Last week, allies pledged billions of dollars' worth of military aid including hundreds of armored fighting vehicles and troop carriers. Those are seen as more effective for attacking enemy lines when used alongside tanks.
Withdrawal from Soledar
Ukraine sees the weapons as restoring its momentum in a war that has lately become a bloody, deadlocked slog.
Kyiv acknowledged on Wednesday its forces had withdrawn from Soledar, a small salt-mining town in the east that Russia had claimed to capture more than a week ago, its biggest gain for more than half a year.
The town is close to Bakhmut, a larger city that has been the focus of an intense Russian assault for weeks.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine's Donetsk region said units of Russia's Wagner contract militia were now moving forward inside Bakhmut, with fighting on the outskirts and in neighborhoods recently held by Ukraine.
Reuters could not verify the situation there.
In the 11 months since it invaded, Russia has killed thousands of civilians, forced millions from their homes and reduced entire cities to rubble.
It says its "special military operation" was necessary to stem a security threat arising from Ukraine's ties to the West, which it now portrays as seeking to destroy it. Kyiv and its allies say Ukraine never menaced Russia and the invasion is a war of aggression to subdue a neighbor and seize land.
Ukraine defeated Russia's troops on the outskirts of Kyiv last year and later drove them out of swathes of occupied land.
But Moscow still occupies around a sixth of Ukraine, and has declared this territory part of Russia. Ukraine says it will not stop fighting until it retakes all its territory.