Germany and Britain have delivered the first consignment of battle tanks to Ukraine – providing much-needed ground support as Russian forces intensify attacks in the east of the country.
The Leopard and Challenger tanks were promised to Kyiv earlier this year and arrived on Monday in time for an expected spring offensive by Ukraine’s forces.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told journalists on Monday that Berlin 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.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said 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.
Reznikov praised Britain’s Challengers calling the tanks works of “military art”.
As Ukraine gains conventional firepower, Russia vowed to follow through on a plan announced by President Vladimir Putin to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus, an initiative that drew widespread criticism.
In London, Britain’s government said Ukrainian crews – who have been training to use the Challenger 2 – are now ready to deploy to the front line.
“Ukrainian tank crews have completed training on Challenger 2 tanks in the UK and have returned home to continue their fight against Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion,” the ministry of defence said in a statement.
The training began shortly after London announced in January it would send 14 of the tanks to Ukraine. The crews learned how to command, drive and “effectively identify and engage targets”, said the ministry.
“It is truly inspiring to witness the determination of Ukrainian soldiers having completed their training on British Challenger 2 tanks on British soil,” said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
“They return to their homeland better equipped but to no less danger. We will continue to stand by them and do all we can to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
Putin said last week that Moscow would be “forced to react” if Britain follows through on its promise to deliver to Ukraine armour-piercing ammunition fired by the tanks that contain depleted uranium.
In Adviika, a battered front-line town in the eastern Donetsk region, a Ukrainian official said on 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 months with the focus of fighting centring on Bakhmut, north of Avdiivka.
Russian forces were still trying to storm Bakhmut and had shelled the city and surrounding towns, Ukraine’s military said.
Front lines in Ukraine have barely budged for more than four months despite a Russian winter offensive. The Ukrainian military aims to wear down Russian forces before mounting a counteroffensive.
Ukrainian ground forces commander Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said last week the counterattack could come “very soon”, visited troops in the east and said his forces were still repelling Russian attacks on Bakhmut.
Defending the small city in the industrialised Donbas region was a military necessity, Syrskyi said, praising Ukrainian resilience in “extremely difficult conditions”.
New additions to Ukraine’s military include tanks as well as infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers.