Ukraine sends western tanks into battle as counter-offensive gets under way

Kyiv has committed German-made tanks into battle against Russian positions in south-eastern Ukraine, launching the first heavily armoured assaults of its long-anticipated counter-offensive.

Two army personnel, two western officials in Kyiv and military analysts said the moves were a clear sign that, after months of preparations and training, Ukraine’s summer push to liberate occupied territory had begun in earnest.

“Based on the action yesterday, and the western systems employed, it appears that the Ukrainian offensive is under way,” said Michael Kofman, a military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington-based think-tank.

Kofman said the fighting appeared to be “along the Tokmak axis”, a strategic town in Zaporizhzhia province upstream from the Kakhovka dam, where floodwater has swallowed dozens of settlements and set off a humanitarian and ecological disaster.

Ukrainian forces are hoping to secure a breakthrough in the south and sever the “land bridge” connecting Russia with Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces, cutting off supply lines to the Crimean peninsula currently under Moscow’s control.

“If Ukraine breaks Russia’s land bridge linking Crimea with Russia proper, Moscow’s entire presence in the southern-eastern part of the front may collapse,” said Konrad Muzyka, director of Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based organisation that tracks the war in Ukraine.

Mikhail Barabanov, an expert at the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow defence think-tank, said the flooding could create more favourable conditions for a Ukrainian advance.

“The Russian positions on the lower, ‘Russian’ bank of the Dnipro are flooded, and the flooding won’t last long — in seven to 10 days the water will recede and the Dnipro could become shallower than before the explosion. It’ll help the Ukrainians cross it,” Barabanov added.

Russian troops have spent months fortifying their positions with anti-tank ditches, mazes of trenches, concrete “dragon’s teeth” barricades, steel “hedgehog” obstacles, spools of razor wire and minefields. The defences are visible in satellite images seen by the Financial Times and analysed by researchers tracking the occupying forces’ defensive build-up.

Russian military bloggers yesterday filmed a video of the Ukrainian counter-attack near these fortified positions, publishing it on Telegram on Thursday.

The footage appears to show at least two German-made Leopard 2 tanks in a fierce fight against Moscow’s troops. If verified, it would be the first visual confirmation of the German tanks used on the Ukrainian battlefield. 

The fight took place south-east of the Ukraine-controlled town of Orikhiv. At least two US-produced M113 armoured personnel carriers, or APCs, are also visible in the video.

Ukraine’s defence ministry did not comment on the attack seen in the video.

While notable for the use of western tanks and armour, some analysts believe that the assault may constitute an attempt by Ukrainian forces to test Russian defences, with bigger attacks to come.

“Ukraine has so far committed some important capabilities to the battles in the Zaporizhzhia [province], such as Leopard tanks or DM53A1 tank rounds. But whether this is the main push remains to be seen,” said Rochan’s Muzyka.

Ukrainian military officials repeatedly stated that there would be no grandiose announcement of the start of the counter-offensive, with defence and top military brass urging the public to remain silent about what they might see or hear regarding the operation.

“There will be no announcement about the beginning,” said Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, on Sunday. “Words are very unnecessary. They can only do harm,” he added, quoting a song by the band Depeche Mode.

The Russian drone video appears to show some Ukrainian armour was destroyed in the assault but it’s unclear whether it was any of the western-supplied vehicles.

Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, claimed on Thursday that Moscow’s troops had repulsed the assault in the early hours. He added that the attack included up to 1,500 men and 150 armoured vehicles and was stopped “with heavy losses”, including the loss of 30 tanks.

The FT could not verify those claims and Shoigu has made false claims in the past that have even been derided by other Russian units and propagandists.

Muzyka noted that this was Ukraine’s third counter-offensive since August. Ukrainian troops retook almost all occupied land in the eastern Kharkiv province in September and the southern city of Kherson and surrounding areas in November.

Meanwhile, Russian forces “were only able to mount localised and unsuccessful attacks, while Wagner captured [the towns of] Bakhmut and Soledar” over the same time period, Muzyka said.

As German tanks were rumbling in the south on Wednesday and Thursday, Ukraine’s military stepped up air attacks on Russian forces further east, reportedly striking an industrial facility used by Russia’s army as an operating base in Luhansk province.

A Ukrainian military service member, who asked not to be named, in keeping with military protocol when discussing battlefield developments, said it appeared as though UK-made Storm Shadow missiles delivered last month to Kyiv were used in the attack, “because the target was in the range only they are capable of striking”.

Ukraine’s armed forces did not immediately comment on the apparent strike. UK defence secretary Ben Wallace told CNN last month that Ukraine had “successfully” used the Storm Shadow missiles against Russian targets.

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