“It was a pleasure to take the first Ukrainian Challenger 2 MBT for a spin,” said Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov in a video message to British counterpart Ben Hodges with one of 14 tanks pledged by the UK. “These fantastic machines will soon begin their combat missions.”
A further 18 Leopard 2 tanks from Germany have also been delivered. European nations including Spain, Poland, and Sweden have either sent or pledged the same model.
The US is fast-tracking the dispatch of M1A1 Abrams tanks, having previously committed 31 of its top-of-the-line M1A2s.
Hundreds of armoured infantry fighting vehicles, including the US Bradley and German Mardar, are either in Ukraine or en route.
The arrivals mark the culmination of a lengthy process, as Ukraine first pleaded with partners for modern tanks – “the key to end the war,” said presidential advisor Mikhail Podolyak in January – and then trained its soldiers to use them at camps across Europe, including the UK.
Allies are bullish about Ukraine’s prospects. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested that an offensive could come soon and deliver gains.
“I think we will see an intensification of hostilities in the spring as the conditions for manoeuvring improve,” he said on Tuesday. “Ukraine will have a very good chance of success.”
Mr Austin said the assessment was informed by ongoing Russian losses of armour – Moscow has lost around 2,000 tanks during the invasion by some assessments – in a fitful offensive across the Donbas front of Eastern Ukraine.
Footage has circulated of World War Two-era Russian tanks being pulled out of storage and sent to the front. These could be set to do battle with the best of Western models that boast superior protection, weaponry, and manoeuvrability.
But expectations should be managed, said Mykola Bielieskov of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Kyiv think tank that advises Ukraine’s leadership. He said the counter-offensive might not come until late May or June.
“We need more time to master and receive all that was promised by Nato countries,” he told i. “Don’t look at the offensive as something imminent – it’s more like the second part of the second quarter of this year at the earliest.”
The grinding battle for Bakhmut, with both sides believed to have lost thousands of soldiers over more than seven months of fighting, was feared to have depleted Ukraine’s resources required for a successful counter.
But Ukraine has reserve formations that are working with new Western equipment and biding their time for the moment to strike.
“A window of opportunity is about to open with Russia’s offensive culminating without much progress and big losses, and Russia’s leadership has not called for a new mass mobilisation to prop up the front line,” said Mr Bielieskov.
But he added that Ukraine still needs more equipment to have greater confidence in the success of a counter, with Kyiv still seeking fighter jets and long-range missile capabilities.
Retired US Army Commander Ben Hodges agreed that Western allies should do more.
“The arrival of Western tanks and other armoured capabilities will all enhance Ukraine’s ability to launch an effective, combined-arms attack to penetrate Russian defences this summer,” he said.
But “long range precision strike capability” would give Ukraine “the ability to hit Russian headquarters, ammunition storage sites, and transportation networks,” Commander Hodges added.
This would neutralise Moscow’s advantage in long range firepower and allow for the liberation of territory – potentially including Crimea, he said.
Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has appeared to play down the prospect of an imminent offensive in recent statements, instead warning of the threat of defeat if allies falter.
“The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we will not win,” he said on Wednesday.
But Russian commentators believe such statements could be part of a deception strategy ahead of a major offensive, with speculation about new Ukrainian attacks buzzing across Russian Telegram channels.
Ukrainian authorities have restricted media access in several frontline locations, noted Russian military blogger Rybar in a recent post, warning to expect decoy attacks “to divert the attention of Russian troops from the main strike”.