Western-made battle tanks promised to Kyiv have arrived in Ukraine, but it is unlikely Ukraine’s military will deploy the upgraded capabilities immediately in a counter-offensive against Russian forces.
On Tuesday, Berlin confirmed that 18 Leopard 2A6 tanks, along with ammunition, spare parts and two armored recovery vehicles, had arrived in Ukraine.
“As promised, our tanks arrived on time in the hands of our Ukrainian friends,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said. “I am sure that they can do something important at the front.”
Ukraine had long called for donations of Western tanks, which are a significant upgrade from many of the Soviet-era tanks currently used by Ukraine’s armed forces.
Deliveries of the Leopard 1A5 will follow in due course, the German Defense Ministry said, with 80 of the older tanks expected to be available by the end of 2023.
Also on Tuesday, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said the Challenger 2 tanks donated by the U.K. had arrived in Ukraine. The previous day, the U.K. government confirmed that Ukrainian tank crews had finished their training on the tank in the U.K., and had returned to Ukraine.
It “was a pleasure to take the first Ukrainian Challenger 2 MBT [main battle tank] for a spin,” Reznikov tweeted, alongside a video of him in the tank. The U.K. was the first country to commit NATO-standard main battle tanks to Kyiv in January.
But the effectiveness of the tanks depends on combined arms operations, or a blend of all other battlefield considerations, experts say. Not only this, it might hinge on the weather in the coming weeks, argued Marina Miron, a post-doctoral researcher at the War Studies Department, King’s College London, U.K.
“The weather is terrible for those kinds of tanks, because they’re too heavy, they get stuck in mud,” she told Newsweek. Known as rasputitsa, Ukraine’s muddy season makes traveling on unpaved roads notoriously difficult.
“It wouldn’t make any sense to use them right now,” she added, saying they would be limited to using major roads.
“The Ukrainians will, and seem to be waiting, until the ground solidifies before launching an offensive, which would include the tanks but [also] all the other items in their military,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Newsweek.
“Coming in March, doesn’t mean they’re going to be used in March,” according to David Dunn, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, U.K.
However, it does give Ukraine’s military the opportunity to deploy them at whichever point they choose, for logistics to be put in place, and account for any additional training or integrating into other operations, Dunn told Newsweek.
“Getting them there as soon as possible is the best course of action, because it’s going to take a while to integrate them into a unit,” Cancian added.
But after this initial period, the new Western tanks will likely be used in a counter-offensive, Cancian said. This is the type of operation tanks are “best at,” he added, in terms of firepower, protection and mobility.
A touted Ukrainian counter-offensive has long been discussed by Western analysts and Ukrainian officials. However, the sensitive military plans for the counter-offensive should not be publicly discussed by those not at the very top of the command chain, deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said on Saturday.
Russian forces are “continuing to fortify and reinforce their positions” in parts of Ukraine out of concern for this counter-offensive, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think tank said on Tuesday. Former Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, has previously said Moscow was “calculating” for this counteroffensive, with the General Staff “preparing its own solutions.”
When the counter-offensive does get underway, Ukraine may choose to hold back the Leopard 2 and Challenger 2s, first trying to “punch through the Russian lines” before making full use of the Western tank capabilities in open areas, Cancian argued.
“It’s about building up that capability” for later in the summer, once the weather improves, the forces are more familiar with the tanks, and Ukraine has taken the time to prepare for this counter-offensive, Dunn added.
For now, there’s a certain psychological element, experts argue. In terms of providing a morale boost, they “couldn’t have arrived early enough,” Dunn said.