A Ukrainian tank fires at Russian positions in the Lugansk region on January 12

Ramstein Air Base (Germany) (AFP) - President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday urged Western allies to deliver tanks to Ukraine at a key defence conference in Germany, although the Kremlin denied the weapons would change anything on the battlefield.

Addressing the US-hosted donor meeting at the Ramstein Air Base, Zelensky implored Western allies to “speed up” arms deliveries in the face of the Russian onslaught.

Partners needed “not to bargain about different numbers of tanks but to open that principal supply that will stop evil”, the Ukrainian leader said via video-link.

Make the meeting a “Ramstein of tanks”, Zelensky said, calling for future gatherings to “go down in history as a Ramstein of F-16s and long-range missiles”.

“It is in your power to guarantee such artillery,” he told the talks, which gathered representatives from 50 countries to discuss boosting military aid to Kyiv.

War in Ukraine

The meeting’s host, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, urged the allies to “dig even deeper” to support Ukraine with weaponry at a crucial time, noting that Russia is “running out of ammunition and suffering significant battle losses”.

“This is a decisive moment for Ukraine. The Ukrainian people are watching us, the Kremlin is watching us, and history is watching us,” Austin said.

The Kremlin responded by accusing the West of harbouring a “dramatic delusion” that Ukraine can win on the battlefield, adding that the conflict was “developing in an upward spiral.”

- German-made tanks -

Finland on Friday announced a 400-million-euro ($433 million) military aid package, its largest to date, and including heavy artillery as well as munitions.

It comes after allies including the United States already announced substantial new arms shipments on the eve of the Ramstein talks.

The Pentagon on Thursday released a list of $2.5 billion worth of supplies for Ukraine, including Bradley fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, air defence systems, and tens of thousands of rockets and artillery rounds.

Britain announced it would send 600 Brimstone missiles, Denmark said it would donate 19 French-made Caesar howitzers, and Sweden promised its Archer artillery system, a modern mobile howitzer requested by Kyiv for months.

But all eyes are on long-sought German-made Leopard battle tanks, which Berlin has so far declined to provide and which the Kremlin has warned would amount to an “extremely dangerous” escalation if sent by the West.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has insisted that Germany would not go-it-alone on tank deliveries, and that any decision must be “made with close agreement with the United States”.

- Huge crater -

The Donetsk region of Ukraine has seen intense fighting in recent weeks, with hundreds of casualties.

The US arms package did not include the ATA long-range missiles that Ukraine has requested.

The missiles, which can travel up to 300 kilometres (180 miles), could enable Ukraine to strike Russian supply routes and depots far behind the front lines that are not reachable with current HIMARS rocket systems.

But Western partners also fear that Ukraine could use long-range weapons to hit deep inside Russian territory or Crimea – a peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014 – despite Kyiv promising it would not do so.

Zelensky on Friday warned that time was pressing, saying the “war started by Russia does not allow delays”.

Almost a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the most intense fighting in recent months has centred around the eastern Donetsk region.

The Ukrainian presidency on Friday said four civilians had been killed in the region and three wounded the previous day.

A kindergarten building and several private houses were damaged by shelling in the town of Chasiv Yar, it said.

- UN convoy reaches Soledar -

In Kramatorsk, a city in the industrial district under Ukrainian control, AFP journalists saw the aftermath of a Russian strike on a two-story school building.

The attack had carved a huge crater in front of the kindergarten, which had some 250 pupils and 70 staff before the war broke out.

Debris from the strike, which sparked a small fire and smashed windows, was strewn around the playground and lay near colourful murals on a school building.

“It’s hard to see the building like this, thinking about how much money and time it’s going to take to return it to what it was,” the kindergarten’s deputy director Margarita Oleksandrivna told AFP.

Elsewhere, the UN said the first humanitarian convoy had finally arrived in Soledar, a town which has been largely reduced to rubble by intense fighting, about 60 kilometres from Kramatorsk.

“Recent fighting in and around Soledar has caused widespread destruction, leaving people there in dire need of humanitarian assistance,” said Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.

Russia claims to have seized Soledar, but Ukraine insists the fighting, in which both sides have suffered heavy losses, is ongoing.

Otherwise, the Ukrainian security service said it had unveiled a network of Russian spies after a special operation in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Seven people have been detained on suspicion of giving the Russians the coordinates of critical infrastructure facilities, including energy-generating enterprises, it said.