SLOVIANSK (UKRAINE) - Germany and Britain have delivered Western heavy tanks to Ukraine, officials said Monday, providing a key infusion of armored firepower that will aid Kyiv's battle against invading Russian troops.
The tanks -- long an item on Ukraine's military equipment wish list -- were promised to Kyiv earlier this year and have arrived in time for an expected spring offensive by Ukraine's forces.
As Ukraine gains conventional firepower, the Kremlin vowed to follow through on a plan announced by President Vladimir Putin to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus, an initiative which has drawn widespread criticism.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told journalists on Monday that Berlin had provided "very modern" Leopard battle tanks to Kyiv, with the defence ministry later saying 18 were delivered.
"Our tanks have made it into the hands of our Ukrainian friends as promised and on time," German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said in a statement.
They are joined by Challenger tanks from Britain, a spokeswoman for the defence ministry in Kyiv said.
Ukraine's Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov had said earlier that he inspected a "new addition" to the country's forces -- Challenger tanks as well as Germany's Marder infantry fighting vehicles, plus Cougar armoured trucks and Stryker armoured personnel carriers from the United States.
"A year ago, no one would have thought that our partners' support would be so strong," Reznikov said on Facebook.
- Planned nuclear deployment -
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Western criticism of Putin's tactical nuclear weapon announcement "cannot influence Russian plans".
Speaking in a televised interview two days earlier, Putin said Moscow would station the tactical nuclear weapons "without violating our international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation".
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday told the visiting head of the International Atomic Energy Agency that it was not possible to restore safety at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant with Russia still in control, ahead of Rafael Grossi's visit to the site.
"Without the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and adjacent territory, any initiatives to restore nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure," Zelensky told Grossi, according to a statement from the presidency.
Grossi is expected to visit the nuclear plant later this week.
"I met Zelensky today in Zaporizhzhia City and had a rich exchange on the protection of the Zaporizhzhia NPP (nuclear power plant) and its staff," he said on Twitter.
"I reiterated the full support of the IAEA to Ukraine's nuclear facilities," he said.
- Missile strikes -
In eastern Ukraine, Russian missiles punched through buildings in the town of Sloviansk, killing two people in their cars and wounding more than 30, police said.
A blood-stained cap lay at the side of the street, next to a parked car whose front seat was covered with blood and shattered glass.
Police said the missiles were Russian-made S-300s, which are designed for air defence but have been used by Moscow to carry out ground attacks amid reported shortages of other munitions.
In Adviika, a battered frontline town in the eastern Donetsk region, a Ukrainian official said Monday that municipal workers were being withdrawn as Russian forces claim incremental gains nearby.
"It's a shame to admit, but Avdiivka looks more and more like a scene from post-apocalyptic movies," the head of the town's administration Vitalii Barabash said on social media.
"Therefore, a difficult decision was made to evacuate... municipal workers, who at least somehow tried to maintain the cleanliness and vitality of the city."
Russian forces have been working to capture the entire eastern Donetsk region for several months, with the focus of fighting centering on Bakhmut, north of Avdiivka.