Ukraine's Defence Minister has taken the country's first British-made battle tank “for a spin” as western armoured vehicles begin to arrive.
Oleksii Reznikov said on Tuesday the UK-made Challenger 2 tanks had reached Ukraine and would “soon begin their combat missions.”
Footage showed him aboard a tank in a red baseball cap as he thanked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for military aid which he described as “marvellous”.
A British tank and lighter German and US-made vehicles were put on display with their corresponding flags in a photo released by Ukraine's armed forces.
Germany meanwhile said its first shipment of Leopard 2 tanks had arrived just two months after it announced it would send its main battle tanks.
The announcement by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday came as Ukrainian soldiers completed their training in the UK on the Challenger 2 tank.
Advanced western 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.
The tanks promised to Ukraine include:
- The 18 Leopard 2A6 tanks offered by Germany, as well as up to 100 older Leopard 1 models to be delivered during 2023 and 2024;
- German-made Leopard 2s from other Nato countries including Sweden, Poland and Portugal;
- A company of 14 British Challenger 2 tanks, with training already completed;
- A battalion of 31 American M1 Abrams tanks, with logistics expected to take months;
- Light AMX-10 RC tanks provided by the French Army.
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.
Germany’s defence ministry said that 18 of what Mr Scholz called the “very modern” Leopard 2 battle tanks had been handed over to Kyiv.
“Our tanks have made it into the hands of our Ukrainian friends as promised and on time,” German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said.
“I'm sure they can make a difference on the ground.”
The German army Twitter account shared images of Ukrainian soldiers training with the Leopard tanks and described the handover as a “special form of solidarity”. “Instructors have used every second to train [Ukrainian] soldiers on the Kampfpanzer Leopard 2,” the army added.
Ukrainian soldiers were trained on the A26, the most advanced of the Leopard models, on military bases in Muenster and Bergen in northern Germany. They have also trained at Spanish bases.
As well as the Challenger 2 and the Leopard 2 tanks, Mr Reznikov said that he had inspected the “new addition” to the country’s forces that included about 40 of Germany's Marder infantry fighting vehicles, plus Cougar armoured lorries and Stryker armoured personnel carriers from the US.
The British Ministry of Defence described the Challenger 2 vehicles as a “step change in capability” for Ukraine's armed forces. The machines would offer them some of the most modern and sophisticated gunnery systems in the world, it said.
Alongside the German vehicles, three Leopard tanks donated by Portugal also reached Ukraine, a security source told Reuters.
Under German law, any country wanting to send the tanks to another country must first get approval from Berlin.
“A year ago, no one would have thought that our partners' support would be so strong,” Mr Reznikov said on Facebook.
Mr Scholz's government initially said it was aiming to assemble, along with allies, two battalions of tanks for Kyiv ― about 60 in total.
But they have since struggled to get the numbers together.
The German and Dutch cabinets held a special joint session in the port city of Rotterdam on Monday at the huge, mirrored depot of the Boijmans Van Beuningen art museum.
Mr Scholz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said they had discussed military support for Ukraine and their “unique” military co-operation, which involves Germany and the Netherlands merging some armed units.
“The European message remains completely clear, even after more than a year: we support Ukraine in all areas and we will do so as long as it is necessary,” Mr Rutte said.
Berlin finally gave the green light at the end of January for Leopards ― among the world's most advanced tanks and used by militaries across Europe ― to be sent to Ukraine.
The US said at the same time it would send advanced American Abrams tanks.